Mealy tomatoes, lettuce that had turned brown, plums that had molded, shredded cheese that had acquired the same mold, and a half an avocado that had become brown and bitter after being forgotten in the back of the fridge.
Food waste is an everybody problem says Paulette Dunn, executive director of Loaves and Fishes, a food rescue organization that operates in Greenville County. Loaves and Fishes works with grocery stores, banquet facilities and restaurants to save food that is still good but for one reason or another is no longer sellable, and then distributes that food to hunger relief agencies.
Last year, Loaves and Fishes rescued and delivered 1.9 million pounds of food in 2015.
“I think we’re all negligible in that,” Dunn says. “We tend to over buy because we feel like, ‘Oh, I gotta grab this,’ but then it stays on the counter too long and then it goes in the trash.”
Recognizing the problem
As topics of pollution, food insecurity and waste grow, the issue of food waste is gaining momentum. It’s not that it’s a new problem, but that today, it is a massive one.
Food loss and waste in the United States accounts for approximately 31 percent (133 billion pounds) of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
As much as 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is never eaten, according to a 2012 paper by the National Research Defense Council. Couple that with statistics showing that in 2014, more than 48 million people in the U.S. were food insecure.
The problem has grown so large that the Environmental Protection Agency set forth new goals for tackling the issue. In September 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USDA announced the nation’s first food waste reduction goal calling to cut food waste in half by 2030.
“What EPA and counties all over country are trying to do is to bring together food banks and food waste collectors, farmers, everybody together to look at this holistically,” says Marcia Papin, solid waste manager for Greenville County. “It is going to take all of us working together to streamline the systems to make that happen.”
Greenville County is currently working towards establishing a composting facility for commercial and industrial food waste and would turn it into a usable product for the agricultural sector.
“We need to talk about it,” Papin says of finding collaborative solutions to food waste. “Because as a society, we’re throwing away half the food we make, and that’s inefficient.”
The solutions are varied. Changing consumer behavior would likely make the biggest dent, but in the interim, food outlets like restaurants, hospitals, schools and grocery stores are tackling the issue, in the hopes of mitigating the problem on an individual scale, of increasing profit margins, and of raising consumer awareness, too.
“I think we as chefs have a responsibility to steer people in the right direction in the way they eat,” says Greg McPhee, executive chef at Restaurant 17, a farm-to-table focused restaurant in Travelers Rest. “It’s false to sit there and say it’s feasible to eat a 12-ounce ribeye and green beans in December and not contribute to food waste.”
Finding a solution
On a recent Monday around lunchtime, The Farmer’s Table restaurant in Spartanburg is buzzing with activity. In the kitchen, servers move in a rhythm, carrying out plates piled high with the day’s specials, and bringing in dirty ones with remnants of the diner’s meal.
Part of that rhythm is separating the food scraps, or waste from the diners’ plates and the trash. The former, bits of lettuce, half-eaten burgers, a few fries, are tossed in a blue bin and set aside.
By 1 p.m., Gary Nihart, Chief Operating Officer with Atlas Organics, a food waste collection and processing company, arrives to take the bin (there are four today) of food waste. Nihart will deliver it to a facility where the waste will be processed, composted and turned into a usable product.
“There’s all these recycling goals and food waste is the second largest part of the solid waste stream in the United States,” said Nihart, who helped develop the company’s processing division. “So how can you have a conversation about any kind of recycling goal and not put food waste into it?”
The focus on wasted food, the environmental and social effects as well as the financial effects, also have given rise to a new crop of businesses like Atlas Organics. The company collects food waste from schools, hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants, composts it and turns it into a usable organic soil material.
The Spartanburg-based company collected 750,000 pounds of food waste matter in the first quarter of 2016.
“It would probably be more advantageous financially to just throw it all way,” said Farmer’s Table owner, Joel Sansbury. “But, as a principle, it is being part of this new age that is not going to treat our planet like inexhaustible resource.”
After finishing the daily route, Nihart takes the waste to Atlas’ Spartanburg facility for processing, before transporting it to Re-Soil, a composting facility in ElginColumbia.
Anthony Centola, Re-Soil’s owner/operator, says that in addition to the Atlas deliveries, he is receiving waste material from area Publix grocery stores, BlueCross and BlueShield dining facilities, Harvest Hope Food Bank, and a few area schools. He hopes to receive test loads from Fort Jackson in June or July.
After delivery to Re-Soil’s indoor bays, the food waste undergoes a 15-day composting process using temperature moderation and forced air to break down matter and create compost that contains 24% organic material and, at 7.7%, is practically pH neutral.
The resulting compost is then packaged and sold for agricultural use to individuals, landscapers and garden centers.
Atlas is currently working on a public-private partnership with Greenville County that would create a compost processing facility right here in the Upstate. The facility would combine yard waste processing along with food waste processing to create a higher quality compost material.
“What the EPA and counties all over country are trying to do is to bring together food banks and food waste collectors, farmers, everybody together to look at this holistically,” Papin says of reducing food waste. “It is going to take all of us working together to streamline the systems to make that happen.”
A sense of responsibility
Locally, chefs and restaurant owners are finding meaningful solutions, both out of social responsibility and financial stability. But there still seems to be more of a smaller, individual approach versus a larger, more comprehensive one.
At Everyday Organic, in Greenville, owners Taylor and Breighanna Newnham work hard to control inventory. Working with all organic products means they don’t have the ability to work with most large-scale food distributors, and thus must instead order smaller amounts of products from several outlets. This means the restaurant receives deliveries multiple times a week.
The smaller quantities means Everyday Organic rarely has food sitting around for more than a day or two before it is used.
Any waste that is generated is composted and used in the Newnhams’ home garden.
“Really, it comes down to the ingredients,” says Taylor Newnham. “The quality is what brings people back, and is our niche, but if we throw them away it costs us a lot to waste the products.”
At Restaurant 17, valuing ingredients is both financial and a symptom of working almost exclusively with local producers. Executive chef, Greg McPhee and his team even spend time working on some of the farms themselves, so they know the level of effort that goes into bringing those strawberries or that kale or that pork to the plate.
“If its 35, 90 and even 100 days of labor and water and time and cost of transporting to the restaurant, it’s mind-blowing,” McPhee says. “Every time you think about every time something is thrown into a trashcan there is so much that has gone into it up to that point.”
McPhee has developed a more “whole product” approach to cooking. That means instead of ordering 30 prime ribs, ordering a whole animal. And instead of just using the bottoms of carrots, finding ways to also utilize the tops.
“If you’re talking about waste, go to the farm where the cattle or where chickens are raised. You can’t just buy prime rib, or just buy chicken wings,” McPhee says. “What happens to the rest of the chicken?”
Those carrot tops, by the way, McPhee uses them to make a delicious salsa verde.
Similarly, local trout from High Valley Farms is used for a whole trout dish, a filet preparation and in a now legendary smoked trout spread.
“I like to look at the restaurant like a manufacturing facility,” McPhee says. “We’re taking a product and changing it and repackaging it and selling it.”
But some of waste comes down to consumer perception. Today, with so many choices of where to eat, or where to shop, restaurants and stores face a lot of competition, Dunn says.
“We ask our grocery stores why do you produce so much bread?” Dunn says. “The rationale we’ve been told is they over produce because it’s inexpensive and there is so much competition. If we, as consumers walk in a store and want a marble rye and they don’t have it that day we’ll go next door and get it.”
That’s why many grocery stores are now working hard to tackle food waste. Many local stores work with Loaves & Fishes, donating baked goods and produce as well, that is still edible but can no longer be sold because it is bruised or is nearing its expiration date.
Lowes Food, which is opening a store in Greer and Simpsonville, is working on a unique solution to that specific issue of “ugly produce.” The Winston-Salem-based grocer is launching a wide scale “Ugly Produce” program. As part of the campaign, the store will offer bins of such produce, items like bananas with a few brown spots or misshapen apples or bruised peaches, at a reduced cost.
“We know that even if a zucchini has some unusual bumps or a cucumber is shaped more like an apple, they are still delicious,” says Chris Van Parys, vice president of merchandising for Lowes.
Lowes launched the program in 25 of its stores this past April, and plans to roll it out to all South Carolina stores soon.
“We are always looking for ways to ensure good food finds a good home,” Van Parys says.
But consumers must take responsibility too. Because really and truly, as many changes as restaurants, grocery stores, schools and other mass food producers can make, much of changing the real problem boils down to changing consumer behavior and perception.
Practical Tips to Cut Food Waste
- Plan ahead. Scan your freezer, refrigerator, and pantry before you head to the store. Try to plan meals around the items that you already have.
- Buy less. Be careful not to buy more perishable foods than you can consume.
- Mix up your shopping cart. Buy some foods that should be eaten right away, such as berries and fresh spinach. Then choose other hardier varieties like apples, carrots, or frozen fruits and vegetables for later in the week.
- Strive to utilize the “first in, first out” method. Use foods that are close to their expiration dates before opening fresh packages.
- Remember the 2 hour rule. Don’t keep cooked foods, such as leftover dinner, out at room temperature for more than two hours where bacteria multiply quickly. Transfer them to the refrigerator or freezer promptly. This way the leftovers can be saved safely for another meal rather than wasted.
- Pack leftover dinner for lunch the next day. This can also save time and money.
- Pay attention to freshness dates on foods such as “expired,” “use by,” and “sell by.” Foods that are stored properly may still be safe to consume after the “sell by” dates.
- Consider batch cooking. Make several soups or casseroles at once and freeze them to eat throughout the month. This can help you to reduce waste because you can use up entire packages of items, such as onions, carrots, celery, and peppers.
- Incorporate leftover ingredients into soups, stir-fries, salads, casseoles, homemade stock, or smoothies. Ingredient amounts are often flexible for these types of dishes.
- Have a “refrigerator clean out” night one or two days per week. Try to use up all leftover foods before purchasing more.
- Dine in. When your refrigerator is stocked, try to use those foods promptly. Restaurant meals can be a treat when the cupboard is bare.
- Consider composting. Many kitchen scraps can be recycled in a home compost system to make a nutrient rich fertilizer for your garden.
Source: Kelly Frazier, MA, Lecturer Health Sciences, Furman University
Anthony Centola sells compost at 1692 Brazell Road, Elgin, (803) 281-0353 or (917) 468-3311, $10/1.5 cubic foot bag; $70/yard (27 cu.ft.), delivery is extra.
resoilcompost.com or on Facebook
What to compost
Re-Soil has a list of items that the company will accept for composting. You can use the list as a guideline and try your hand at composting on a smaller scale at home.
- Produce (fruits and vegetables), cooked or raw
- Cooked meats, fish or poultry
- Compostable paper and cardboard
- Agricultural gypsum
- Clean lumber and timber (unpainted and non-waterproofed)
- Wood chips, saw dust, shredded wood
- Raw meats, poultry or fish
- Biological waste
- Sewage sludge
- FOGs (Fats, Oils or Grease) in larger than trace amounts resultant from cooking.