That bundle of lettuce from the tailgate market was bright green and tempting when you lovingly transferred it from the canvas shopping bag to the refrigerator crisper drawer a few days ago. But now, forgotten and squashed unceremoniously into a corner beneath a hefty cabbage, it’s not looking quite so fetching.
In Asheville, many folks might feed these limp greens to their backyard chickens or deposit them in their compost bin. Others might dump the once nutritious produce directly into the garbage where it would ultimately languish in the local landfill, transforming into methane. Either way, that food isn’t being eaten, and in North Carolina, where more than 16 percent of residents are food-insecure, recovery or reuse of potentially wasted edibles is a pressing concern.
The issue grabbed the national spotlight in 2015 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a goal to reduce food loss and waste in the U.S. by 50 percent by the year 2030. And on Oct. 20, Western North Carolina made official inroads toward addressing the problem when the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council collaborated with the city of Asheville’s Office of Sustainability and other local organizations and businesses to host the inaugural Regional Food Waste Summit at Warren Wilson College.
Inspired by a similar event held in Wake County in February, organizers hoped the summit would inspire cross-sector conversations about decreasing food waste in WNC. “The city has been investigating composting and has partnered with the county on a feasibility study, a number of nonprofits are engaged in various places along the food waste stream doing incredible work on the grassroots level, and small businesses exist and continue to emerge,” says event organizer and ABFPC coordinator Kiera Bulan.
“As people across many sectors continue to be creative in addressing these issues, it’s critical to bring thoughtful collaboration to the forefront,” she continues. “Collaborative planning allows us all to broaden the scope of impact and to tackle the big picture of food waste reduction and reuse.”
So what is the big picture? To give participants an idea, Matt James of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and Chris Hunt, senior adviser for the data-driven, solution-focused ReFED Rethinking Food Waste initiative, who joined via satellite from California, presented statistics and discussed efforts related to food waste at the state and national levels, respectively. Panel discussions with Amy Meier and Bobbie Phillips of MANNA FoodBank, Jan Foster of Waste Reduction Partners, Flori Pate of Food Connection, Dawn Chavez of Asheville GreenWorks, Kristy Smith of the Buncombe County Landfill, Danny Keaton of Danny’s Dumpsters and Amber Weaver of the city’s Office of Sustainability provided an overview of what’s happening locally.
What emerged was a picture of a problem that’s broad, difficult to tackle and very expensive. Up to 40 percent of the United States’ food supply goes to the landfill, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, resulting in a loss of $161 billion worth of product in 2010. This translates to about $1,500 per year worth of groceries that the average U.S. family simply throws away, not to mention what gets trashed on farms, at supermarkets and in other areas.
James shared data from the 2012 N.C. Food Waste Generation Study showing that Buncombe County alone generates 27,809 tons of food waste per year — or about 4-5 pounds of food per week for each county resident. Of the 63 million tons of food that were thrown away in the U.S. in 2015, 2 percent was at the manufacturing level, 16 percent was on farms, almost 40 percent came from consumer-facing businesses (grocery stores, restaurants, etc.), and about 43 percent was squandered by individuals.
“The average family wastes 25 percent of the food they buy every year,” said Hunt. “It’s just like going to the grocery store and buying four bags of groceries and just dropping one of them in the parking lot and driving away.” Some of this waste is due to overshopping and spoilage of items that aren’t immediately consumed. But Hunt pointed out that about 20 percent of consumer food waste results from a misunderstanding of “best by” and “sell by” dates on packaging, which are actually somewhat arbitrary. “They’re not safety labels; these are just the manufacturer’s best guess about quality,” he explained.
Cash in the trash
One point that Hunt drilled home is that wasting food is not just, well, wasteful — it’s also costly. But finding solutions to the problem can present lucrative business opportunities in the areas of prevention, recovery and recycling. “The food-waste innovators sector is growing quickly,” he said. “If we reduce food waste by 20 percent in 10 years, we can generate $100 billion in economic value with an investment of just $18 billion.”
During the panel discussions, WNC organizations and businesses that are working in the trenches with food waste — both literally and figuratively — talked about their efforts and the challenges they face. Weaver spoke of Asheville’s goal to reduce waste by 50 percent by 2035, including current discussions about initiatives like curbside compost pickup and vermicomposting. Smith mentioned Buncombe County’s ongoing efforts to produce energy from the methane gas produced by the 1 million pounds of garbage it receives daily.
Other entities noted hurdles, including public perception about recovered food and composting and finding funding to support growth. A lack of knowledge among caterers and restaurant owners about national and state policies that protect businesses that donate unused food is a point that was lamented by food-reclamation nonprofit Food Connection. But a need for education and a general lack of awareness was a common thread.
“The biggest struggle in the industry is to just get the word out, make sure it’s accurate and get the questions answered,” said Smith.
Later, a tour of Warren Wilson’s composting facilities and breakout sessions that focused on Enterprise and Economic Development, Edible Food Waste Recovery and Food Waste and Recovery Policy, explored local efforts more deeply. The day wrapped up with an interactive discussion and idea-sharing session.
There appears to already be a significant interest in WNC in confronting the food waste dilemma. Organizer Kelly Schwartz of Food Connection says the steering committee’s goal was to draw about 75 attendees. In the end, nearly 120 people registered for the event, and more than 90 showed up, including representatives from 15 local nonprofits, four colleges and universities, restaurants, grocers, breweries, government entities, businesses and interested citizens from Buncombe and several surrounding counties.
“I was pleased with the variety of attendants and the simple act of taking the time to think about our own roles in the food waste stream, and meeting other folks involved in similar or complementary work was a great way to kick off this relationship and collaboration-building,” says Bulan. “I know I met several people I would not have otherwise met and heard sparks of creative ideas flying across discussion tables.”
A follow-up meeting is planned for Tuesday, Jan. 9, at Hopey & Co.’s downtown store. In the meantime, Bulan says those who are interested in learning more about food waste and local food-security issues can join the ABFPC’s meeting of the whole on Tuesday, Nov. 14 (see sidebar for details).