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A version of this article was originally published in 2017.
by Susan Hellauer
With every pitchfork-jab into the big black bin, I felt more confident that my food-scrap compost was helping to save the planet from food-clogged landfills. Guess what? Not so much. Composting is better than the trash bin, but when it comes to slashing food waste, it pays to start at the top.
That would be the top of the EPA’s “food recovery hierarchy,” which ranks methods of diverting food from the waste stream. And this is not just some sustainability side show: Our nation’s largest single waste source—up to 20% of the total, according to the EPA—is unused, uneaten, discarded, rejected and forgotten food.
Composting sits just above landfilling at the bottom of the EPA’s inverted triangle. In the two wide slots at the top (above Industrial Uses and Feed Animals) are the most effective approaches: Source Reduction and Feed Hungry People. A few years ago, after years of hard work and planning, Rockland County’s Solid Waste Management Authority (or RCSWMA, and now known as Rockland Green) announced that it received a New York State food waste reduction grant—the first of its kind awarded in the state—focused on these two top-ranked techniques. The grant is part of the Municipal Waste Reduction and Recycling State Assistance Program. Besides saving taxpayers money by keeping food waste out of landfills, funds from the grant help local organizations rescue more food. Their programs can then direct more unused food to the surprising 1 in 7 of your neighbors who don’t know where their next nutritious meal is coming from.
Food recovery 1.0: Source reduction
Open the bottom drawer of your refrigerator and consider those three rotting cucumbers. You only needed one, but they were being sold at four for the price of two. Such a bargain!
There are three good ways to implement source reduction at home:
- Buy only one cucumber, ignoring financial enticements, and eat it all this week; if the last little bit goes bad, just compost it.
- Buy four bargain cucumbers and give three away to someone who needs them now.
- Don’t buy cucumbers (Earth Matters editor’s choice).
Large-scale source reduction isn’t much different. Supermarket chains, like New England’s Hannafords, are starting to use computer-assisted delivery planning to minimize wilted, wasted produce. Some supermarkets donate unsold food—or, like Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, turn it into energy by speeding up decomposition (anaerobic digestion). It isn’t just wasteful on some moral level to throw food into the trash. It costs money to pack it, haul it away and dump it into a landfill. For large food purveyors, source reduction and diversion isn’t just green; it can save green, big time.
But despite good planning, there will always be perfectly edible, healthy fresh foods—meat, fish, dairy, fruits and vegetables—that go begging from supermarkets, restaurants, cafeterias, farms, and even home gardens. Where’s the best place to put it all? Let’s check that food waste hierarchy again.
Food recovery 2.0: Feed hungry people
“In New York State right now we have very little capacity for organics composting,” former RCSWMA Executive Director Anna Roppolo told Earth Matters. “We have to start looking at other rungs on the ladder before investing in multi-million dollar biodigesters.”
Roppolo noted that our county does have a solid network of 40+ feeding programs and pantries that are already working to recover and distribute healthy fresh food to Rockland residents in need. She and her staff took a close look at how they could be part of this landmark food-waste diversion grant.
“If cases of apples and peppers are rescued on Monday, but a food bank isn’t open until Friday, the new trucks and refrigerators from this grant can keep that food fresh until it’s needed, and much more food can be rescued,” said Roppolo. “It took lots of work to calculate our needs, but those two years of effort were worth it. We’ll keep a significant amount of food out of the waste stream, and save the county the cost of hauling it upstate and dumping it into a landfill.”
Fresh food, healthy people
To plan and apply for their grant, Roppolo and her staff spent time learning how the county’s food pantry and feeding programs operate. And they got to know the dedicated people who assist the county’s food insecure residents, from homeless individuals to hardworking families who can’t quite make ends meet. Earth Matters had a chance to speak with Rob Maher, the Executive Director of one of these organizations, Congers-based TOUCH (Together Our Unity Can Heal), which already has a six-year history of fresh food rescue,
The long-running nonprofit was founded in 1989 to support people living with HIV infection, and has since expanded its services to people with other chronic illnesses, especially those who also face food insecurity. “If a client is not receiving fresh, healthy food today, they may have more diet-related problems, like diabetes and heart disease, and the community will end up paying for increased medical care in the long run,” said Maher.
TOUCH kicked off its “Get Fresh” initiative in 2010, working with the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York to find and rescue produce and other fresh foods from supermarkets and restaurants. Today, the program collects and distributes about 40,000 pounds of these perishable foods every month—a number that Maher expects to increase significantly with equipment from the RCSWMA grant. More food rescue and better cold storage will also help supply Rockland’s other participating food pantries, many of which are part of the all-volunteer cooperative network Rockland Community Against Hunger.
Feed people, not landfills
So, how can the rest of us help feed hungry people? According to the TOUCH Executive Director, there are several ways.
“When donating to non-perishable food drives [like RCAH’s “Scare Away Hunger” Drive at local supermarkets on October 21-22], bring healthy foods that you would (or should) eat. Think high protein, low salt, low sugar, like canned chicken or tuna or low-sugar boxed cereal.” Forget about expired pantry castoffs, ramen noodles, and prepared meals like stew or canned pasta.
Maher said that the most effective and direct way to help the hungry in your neighborhood is with a donation of money. “Local pantries and regional food banks can stretch your dollar till it screams. Pasta that costs you $1.50 in the store costs a food pantry just 16 cents at a regional food bank.”
Volunteer pantries and feeding programs can always use another big heart and pair of hands. Find programs near you on the RCAH website.
Want to feed hungry people and divert food waste? “If you have a connection at a restaurant or market, get their ear and let them know that someone can come and pick up their edible, unwanted food,” said Anna Roppolo. For a national chain store, TOUCH’s Maher says that an email or letter to corporate headquarters as short as a few lines can be effective. “We need to help large stores understand that food recovery is an important part of their role as good community citizens. Hearing it from their customers can make that change happen.”
- The Rockland Community Against Hunger (RCAH) network website includes a list of the county’s food pantries and feeding programs, along with a calendar of their service dates and times on their website www.RocklandHunger.org
- Regional food banks, like the Regional Food Bank of Northeast New York, and its branch organization, the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley, supply local food pantries, and will turn your modest donation into much more healthy food than you could buy on your own.
- Congers-based TOUCH (Together Our Unity Can Heal) serves Orange, Rockland, Sullivan and Ulster Counties. To find out more about its services, call 845 268 8023, or email email@example.com
- No disrespect to composting: it’s still an important way to divert vegetable food scraps, egg shells, cardboard, pet hair, dryer lint, shredded paper, autumn leaves (no need to pile them up at the curb), and more. RCSWMA (Rockland Green) has funded at-cost composting bins. Find them, and expert composting help, at the Cornell Cooperative Extension/Rockland County.
- EPA: Sustainable Management of Food
- “Visiting The ‘Zero Waste Bar’ Where Kitchen Scraps Turn Into Cocktails” – UPROXX (10/5/17)
- “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up To 40 Percent Of Its Food From Farm To Fork To Landfill” – Report from the National Resources Defense Council (August 2017)
- “Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste” – The Atlantic (7/15/16)
- Nyack Sketch Log: “Soup Lines to Soup Angels” by Bill Batson – Nyack News and Views (11/29/11)
Read Earth Matters every Saturday on Nyack News And Views, or sign up for the Earth Matters mailing list.
Earth Matters is a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling, and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Julie Wendholt, Financial Advisor & Vice President of Pell Wealth Partners, a private wealth advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, LLC.