Jodi Leamon, Sustainability Coordinator, Allen County Department of Environmental Management, wrote this article as part of the Sustainability & Environment Series. Sign-up to write for this series.
Food Waste occurs at every step along the supply chain from the farm to the home. It can be in the form of produce remaining in the fields after the main commercial harvest, food rejected by groceries for cosmetic reasons, arbitrary expiration dates creating a pathway to the dumpster, families and food service businesses planning poorly for the timely use of purchased items, or inedible scraps being disposed of improperly.
There is a better use for this food and all the resources that go into its production. Wasted food is not only something we have been told is wrong since we were kids, it’s a major contributor to climate change. Food buried in landfills decomposes anaerobically to produce methane.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after China and the US. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash, constituting 22 percent of municipal solid waste.
On the other side of the coin is the better and higher use for food: feeding people who need it and feeding the soil. In my state of Indiana, one in seven residents was food insecure before the pandemic; one would have to assume that number is currently higher and will remain so for some time. Nutrient-poor soil and water source contamination due to chemical fertilizer runoff are problems we face in agricultural areas.
Keeping food out of the landfill is just the beginning of what local government agencies can do. Through education on better purchasing, planning, preparation, and disposal methods for our residents and businesses, we can do our part to address these global issues.
The majority of food waste takes place in the home. The average family of four spends around $1600.00 on food that is not eaten. Our department has initiated outreach efforts focused on showing people how to better utilize food. Planning, preparation, storage, and using cues other than expiration dates all play a big part. We have assisted in planning events to minimize the items going into the trash (and will again when events resume). One project that we are looking forward to is a series of food scrap cooking demonstrations utilizing commonly disposed yet edible parts of produce.
Composting is something our department has begun to support in the ways that we are able through creative partnerships in the last few years. Though we don’t have equipment or land to haul or process food scraps ourselves, we have been conducting compost demonstrations for people to take this on at home where it can make a big difference. We don’t have permitting authority for commercial composting projects, but we can advise on best practices and connect businesses with resources for composting large amounts of material with those who are permitted. By working with the other relevant departments in our city and county, we were able to come up with a joint agreement on acceptable practices for small businesses to compost on-site.
If a food service business finds itself in the position of having excess food, there are solutions to get it to people who are food insecure. There is a federal Good Samaritan Law, the Bill Emmerson Act, which protects donors acting in good faith against liability from any legal repercussions. By gathering together with the major catering and restaurant industry leaders in our community and charity organizations, our department has established a food donation network that continues to grow. Once the perceived risk of liability is dispelled, it is a matter of connecting resources. Transportation problems have been solved by a team of volunteer drivers trained in food handling safety, and an app is used to make the schedule available to claim a “food rescue”.
Individuals can learn to adopt different habits at home and municipalities have the power to affect change on a larger scale. The truth of the matter is that food waste is not its own country, just a part of the waste generated by this one. As the emerging leaders of our own cities and towns, we can step up and do our part to wage war on it.
I would be happy to share resources that have helped shape our food waste program to reduce food waste, feed hungry people, and fight climate change.
Jodi Leamon is the Sustainability Coordinator for the Allen County Department of Environmental Management in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree in Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Connect with Jodi on Linkedin.