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Innovative Efforts Address Millions Of Pounds Of Food Waste In Arizona
From table scraps to whole crates of produce, food waste is a growing problem. And with plenty of hungry mouths to feed both nationally and in the Valley, innovative efforts are working to get food into bellies and kept out of landfills.
A new partnership between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture aims to reduce food waste across the country by 50 percent by 2030. With the USDA reducing waste in farm production, the EPA is working with retailers and consumers.
Amanda Hong with the EPA said there’s a hierarchy to help with decision making for reducing waste.
“The most preferred solution is to prevent food waste," said Hong. "Reduce at the source. Anything that can’t be avoided but is still wholesome and safe should go to feed hungry people. The next best option is to feed animals and then process anything left over to create additional value from these organic resources which we really see them as resources and not as waste.”
Hong said what should be the last resort for these resources is often the first.
“And only if we can’t recover any of that wasted food should we turn to the last resort which is incineration or landfill," she said." And unfortunately, 95 percent of the food wasted in the U.S. is currently going to the landfill.”
Hong said most food businesses don’t plan for food waste and throw still-good food in the trash. However, she said businesses can save money with measurement technology upfront and connecting with food waste recovery organizations, reducing volume and weight of trash loads.
“The greatest barrier to donating good and wholesome food is that there’s this fear of liability,” said Hong.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Act, which protects food donors from liability if something happens from their donation. Hong said it is now up to technology and organizations providing infrastructure and logistics to connect donors with the hungry.
“We’re seeing a lot of apps right now to help connect surplus food with those in need," said Hong. "Food serving businesses and events can save a significant amount of money by hiring a professional food recovery service to come rescue all of their excess food.”
At 6:30 a.m., Waste Not Field Coordinator David Keiser meets with a driver outside a grocery store.
“We pick up between seven and 10 thousand pounds a day with the five trucks,” said Keiser.
Having already picked up crates of dairy, juices and grain, this pickup is heavy with produce. It's all still perfectly good — just not up to store standards.
“We take the perishables," Keiser said. "Like with the food banks, everything needs to be boxed in a certain way and they don’t take the perishables. We don’t have a warehouse. What we pick up by 12, 1 o’clock today will be off the truck no later than 2 o’clock.”
And what they get can be wildly different any given day. Keiser said Waste Not delivers to about 20 agencies daily, but it may not always be a well-rounded meal.
“We get a fair amount of bread and pastries," said Keiser. "It’s hit or miss. We could go two or three weeks without dairy and then all of a sudden get 10 or 15 milk crates of dairy or meat. One of our stores called last week and said, ‘Hey, we got a bunch of meat that we need picked up’ and it was significant — 600 pounds of meat.”
By the end of October, Waste Not had rescued over 2 million pounds of food. Still, Keiser said it’s hard to keep up with hunger.
“You know there was a demand and then you get out and you actually see it, that in the wealthiest country in the world, that’s there's a demand for this much food,” Keiser said.
That food often comes to the waste transfer station in south Phoenix.
“We did a waste characterization study last year and what we found was about 50 percent of the garbage is actually compostable, said Chuck Hamstra is with the city of Phoenix Public Works Department. "About 15 percent of that is food scraps.”
Hamstra oversees the city’s pilot composting program and is standing over a fresh load of inedible food.
"Right now, we have limited capacity," said Hamstra. "So we’re trying to slowly ramp up. We want to make sure we maintain the quality of our product, but we’re getting about three tons everyday that it’s brought in.”
Once food enters the trash, edible or not, Hamstra said it isn’t economically feasible to recover it for composting. For now, they are dependent on food waste loads delivered separately, which need to be processed quickly.
“The quality and quantity of the material depends on how fast we can turn it around," Hamstra said. "So we’re testing our compost to make sure it has a good carbon-nitrogen ratio because we want to have sufficient nutrients in it, so the longer that it’s composting, the better quality it is."
Several large piles are in a line after this fresh load is mixed with dirt, starting with a light brown mulch-like texture and then gradually becoming a dark and soil like. Hamstra is working with city parks to distribute the compost to test the product.
"We create the compost, it’s used on the gardens, the urban farms, the parks to grow things," said Hamstra. "Those things are used. And then they come back, keeping everything locally as much as possible.”
So be it money, food, or compost, reducing food waste can lead to a lot of savings for the Valley. Achieving 50 percent in 15 years may be tough, but it’s an investment goal the Valley is buying into.