Recent conference at Rhode Island College addresses how to stop wasting food resources
By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — Yikes! I thought.
“Forty percent of the food we grow gets tossed,” Christine Beling of the Boston office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the 70 people who had gathered to talk about food waste.
And double yikes!
“100,300 tons of food waste were disposed of at the Rhode Island Central Landfill in 2015,” she continued. “That’s 5,000 truckloads.”
Must be all those restaurants with their humungous portions, I thought.
It turns out the 61 percent of this waste comes from residential sources.
“That’s you and me,” Beling said, scanning the audience.
Given these realities, it’s no wonder that so many people showed up for the “Path to 50% Food Waste Reduction in Rhode Island” workshop at Rhode Island College in early October.
I’d bet that these statistics weren’t news to many of those who met for the half-day “food recovery workshop,” including representatives from organizations ranging from food pantries to bike-based compost-collection services, to groups who connect people with surplus food with people who might need that food.
The 14 presenters may have been preaching to the choir about the EPA/USDA’s commitment to reduce food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030, which is echoed in Rhode Island’s food strategy and in the Rhode Island Department of Health’s collaboration with the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island to End Hunger.
But the workshop’s goal wasn’t so much to change minds as to provide those already involved in the effort with two things: information about who’s doing what and what’s working; and the opportunity to connect with each other to improve their own efforts.
Plenty of good news
The collaboration between Keep Blackstone Valley Beautiful (KBVB) and the Woonsocket public schools is a real win. Realizing that food waste made up 30 percent of the school’s trash, the school department agreed to set its food scrap aside so that My Blue Heaven Farm in Pasoag could collect it to serve to its livestock. Low-key marketing that included a picture of a pig on the trash bin with the caption “GREAT food for pigs” got elementary-school students to put their leftovers in the bin.
The program will move up through the grades, Woonsocket official Mike Debroisse explained, so it will have become part of the school culture by the time these students reach high school.
KBVB’s Donna Kaehler said North Smithfield and Cumberland public schools are also involved in the program.
Banquet chef Todd May of Twin River Casino described a process by which he had significantly reduced waste.
“The problem,” he said, “is that if you have a banquet for 5,000 people and only 4,000 show up, you’ve still got to have cooked for 5,000, and you have all that food left. We were throwing away a lot of food.”
By getting involved in a Rhode to End Hunger program, which connects people with food to spare with people who provide free food, he noted that his department has developed a process by which surplus food is immediately panned, chilled, and stored, and a message that food is available goes out to those who have registered with the service.
“We posted that we had a donation ready on Monday, and literally 30 seconds after it was posted, McAuley House responded that they were on their way to pick the food up,” May said.
The vehicle for this connection comes through the Rhode to End Hunger’s
Matching Excess and Need for Stability (MEANS) database. Rules about the temperatures foods need to be kept at and other safety matters, combined with federal and state Good Samaritan laws protecting the provider, make the program work. A total of 85 food charities are currently registered with this food-recovery program.
“With 13 percent of Rhode Island households being food insecure,” Department of Health director of food safety Ernest Julian explained, “this helps both improve the lives of such people and reduce the billions of pounds of food the U.S. wastes every year.”
Food waste is being diminished, however, not only through programs connecting those producing food with consumers, human or otherwise, but also through the increasing reach of composting organizations, which keep food from becoming waste not by feeding others, but by turning food scrap into natural fertilizer. A few large-scale operations in Rhode Island such as Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, The Compost Plant, and the long-delayed digester in Johnston are working to transform food scrap into nutrient-rich soil and energy.
Then there’s the Center for EcoTechnology (CET), which has been working on “wasted food solutions” in Massachusetts and Connecticut for 20 years, and is now moving into Rhode Island. CET program manager Cory Mansell said the organization provides technical assistance, connecting waste generators with “solution-providers” to “catalyze the food-waste marketplace.”
Cooking in the kitchen
RIC chef Dean Eaiola noted that the Phood waste-monitoring system has had a huge impact on how much of each dish his staff will cook. With college students wanting a variety of gustatory choices, matching their preferences with the amount of food provided had become, he said, increasingly complicated.
“Students just want what they want,” he said, “so we decided to use Phood to track specific items. So you put the uneaten mashed potatoes on the scale, push ‘mashed potatoes,’ and the data is entered so you know what’s left over and can chart it and make decisions about how much to cook next time.
“We found that we had a lot of overproduction of scrambled eggs on Monday morning, but not on the others. So we cut back on Mondays.”
Johnson & Wales University head chef Ken Watts said initiating a program to reduce, divert, and recover/re-use/repurpose food scrap has cut waste and lowered food costs.
After this introduction, he shared a (delicious) “recovery soup” that he had made for the Oct. 4 conference-goers from leftovers he had saved over the past few days that had “small bits of this and that from all 11 of our operations.”
When the formal presentations had finished, participants broke into small groups to discuss next steps.
The group that focused on increasing participation in food-waste efforts suggested increasing the scope of MEANS, improving ways to transport surplus food and scrap from producers to consumers, and increasing the number of volunteers involved.
The schools group suggested sharing success stories, making school-cafeteria food more kid friendly, and educating students about where food comes from.
The grassroots group suggested raising public consciousness about the issue through churches, community centers and the like, including getting kids to convince their parents to pay attention to household food use, as well as reaching out to people not yet in the loop.
The infrastructure group suggested making information available about existing programs, supporting haulers, paying attention to other logistical issues, and finding ways to help people and institutions change their behavior.
“It can’t be that hard to make this work,” one participant commented. “Just think about what happened with the Last Straw movement.”
Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international educational consultant who lives in Providence.