How can we feed the hungry, reduce GHGs, reduce VMT and generate energy at the same time?

In June, I began a Fellowship with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco to work on the Food Recovery Challenge. Our aim is to divert food waste from landfills by encouraging alternatives such as donation, composting and anaerobic digestion. Although this isn’t urban planning in the traditional sense, the implications of wasted food are huge in terms of land use, water and energy.

Why does wasting our food matter?

1.     Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)

14% of GHG emissions in the U.S. are associated with the lifecycle of food, but it doesn’t stop there. When food rots in landfills it emits methane, which is 20x more powerful than CO2.

2.     Water

25% of the freshwater used in the U.S. goes into growing the food that we waste every year; so essentially, a quarter of our freshwater is effectively going straight to the dumpster.

3.     Energy

Food scraps can make an excellent source of energy with anaerobic digestion. Check out the East Bay Municipal Utility District for an example of using food waste to power a wastewater treatment plant.

4.     Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)

As more municipalities refuse to grant new landfill permits, garbage haulers must truck waste further and further away from the source. For the city of Seattle, food scraps are driven less than 60 miles to composting sites in Maple Valley or Everett whereas trash may travel more than 250 miles to Arlington, OR.

5.     Social Inequity

One of the most tangible and sensitive issues around food waste is the fact that producers, retailers and consumers continue to throw away edible food while 14% of people in the U.S. are food insecure.

Aerating compost to turn food scraps into usable soil amendment
Photo Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

My work has focused on researching the current landscape for food recovery in our region (Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona and California). On any given day I may be calling a pig farmer near Ontario, CA to ask if he’d be interested in hauling food scraps from a nearby grocer or speaking to food banks in Reno, NV to find out their minimum requirements for donation pick-up. The end goal is to develop interactive GIS maps that will display food recovery options for a given location.

A sustainable city needs its citizens, industries and organizations to be good stewards of its material resources. For the past several weeks I’ve been speaking with grocers and universities to discuss the Food Recovery Challenge and encourage them to participate. ‘Save money and save the environment at the same time’ has proved to be more of a difficult pitch than I had thought. With many institutions, the difficulty lies in finding the right person willing to champion a change in business as usual. In Southern California, the LA Dodgers, Warner Brothers and the San Diego Padres have already signed up for the Food Recovery Challenge but we need more participants (like USC!) to demonstrate that diverting food from landfills makes sense from an equitable, economic and environmental standpoint.

To elevate awareness of food waste across the U.S., I helped to develop our national social media strategy. This required getting consensus from all 10 regional teams plus EPA Headquarters approval—with every fact double checked and reviewed for overall consistent messaging. Thanks to recent media attention from NPR and CNN, the issue of food waste is a growing dinner table topic of discussion. This should dovetail nicely with our launch on Twitter and Facebook which directs people to key resources on the EPA website.

For me personally, I hope that within a few years tossing a bruised apple in the garbage will feel as odd and uncomfortable as throwing a Styrofoam cup straight into the ocean does today (for most of us at least). Making food recovery commonplace will go far in tackling many of the same issues we, as urban planners, are trying to confront through the built environment.

To learn more check out our site.

Or feel free to email me directly, especially if you want to join me in getting USC signed up for the Food Recovery Challenge:

– Sarah Dominguez, 2nd Year MPL, Concentration: Sustainable Land Use


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