Our local food waste problem: what’s being done?

This NY Times story from May was reprinted in yesterday’s Strib: One Country’s Table Scraps, Another Country’s Meal: Food riots are breaking out abroad but Americans toss a lot of their food in the garbage.

waste-food Grocery bills are rising through the roof. Food banks are running short of donations. And food shortages are causing sporadic riots in poor countries through the world.

You’d never know it if you saw what was ending up in your landfill. As it turns out, Americans waste an astounding amount of food — an estimated 27 percent of the food available for consumption, according to a government study — and it happens at the supermarket, in restaurants and cafeterias and in your very own kitchen. It works out to about a pound of food every day for every American.

Grocery stores discard products because of spoilage or minor cosmetic blemishes. Restaurants throw away what they don’t use. And consumers toss out everything from bananas that have turned brown to last week’s Chinese leftovers.

The article was an uncomfortable reminder that we don’t (yet) compost our waste food at home. And it made me wonder:

How easy/expensive is it to compost waste food at home these days?

Do our Northfield-area restaurants and grocery stores just dump their food in the trash bins so that it ends up in the Rice County Landfill? Is there any effort locally to ‘rescue’ it, like the article describes?

In many major cities, including New York, food rescue organizations do nearly all the work for cafeterias and restaurants that are willing to participate. The food generally needs to be covered and in some cases placed in a freezer. Food rescue groups pick it up. One of them, City Harvest, collects excess food each day from about 170 establishments in New York.

St. Olaf has a food composter, but what about the rest of the town?


  1. Tracy Davis said:

    Oh, this brings back memories! In 1981 I lived on a commune in Oregon, and dumpster-diving behind the local grocery stores was a time-honored way of feeding all the ex-hippies on the place.

    My daughter’s been nagging me to make a nice little compost pile and said she’d give me worms for my birthday, but we haven’t done anything yet either. Maybe Bruce Anderson can give us some pointers, or refer us to existing DIY info…?

    August 8, 2008
  2. Patrick Enders said:

    Can people really be ex-hippies if they are living in a commune and dumpster diving?

    August 8, 2008
  3. This stuff bugs me a lot, even throwing away a damp tissue bothers me, so recently, I began to really want to do more than I have done all along, because I was still throwing away a few pieces of old bread that went stale in the back of the frig every week or two.

    I have pumped up my awareness of food…a few solutions came to mind

    1. I followed what a family I knew did for years…every Friday, go thru the frig, put the leftovers on the table and make a meal with them.

    2. Don’t buy more stuff than you KNOW you will use just because it’s on sale or just because it’s so yummy.

    3. Learn to freeze more things and date them. I used to freeze food, but then I’d wonder how long it’s been frozen and throw it away. Dumb.

    4. Find a neighbor to share things like watermelon, the blueberries from Just Food that came in 5 lb parcels.

    5. I wrote a note to CUB asking them to package produce in smaller bags
    for one or two people. We are all not families of 4 or more.

    6. I just boiled 6 chicken pieces. We ate two for lunch, two will be used for chicken salad sandwiches tomorrow. The other two, I froze, after giving the dog his due. The boiled chicken broth is cooling in a jar to freeze for soup later, one jar was made up for the dog’s treat, and I gave the dog a bowl fresh. Some was used in our lunch today, chicken and dumplins. Nothing wasted whatsoever.

    The thing that scares me about composts is the bringing in of pests. I grew up in a neighborhood that was swarming with rats, even though it was a ver clean neighborhood. An old building was destroyed and it had housed the little darlings for years. They do carry disease. And there is a great potential for rats in Northfield. I have seen them up on HWY 3,two years ago.

    August 8, 2008
  4. Lahna Tran said:

    I am a teacher at Bridgewater and we are looking into starting a “Green Team” this school year. One of our dream projects is to start composting at lunchtime. It is amazing how much is thrown on a daily basis at just one elementary school. The biggest roadblocks that we’ve hit in our research are finding a hauler that accepts compost in our county and the cost of paying someone to haul it away. We’d have to rely on grants to pay for these costs (anyone have any ideas? I’m looking!) We’d like to use the compost toward beautifying school grounds around the district as well as offer compost to the community garden at Greenvale Park and possibly other Northfield residents. We also believe that there is an excellent educational opportunity in this idea and want to make it a school-wide service learning project.

    St. Olaf’s composter is an industral sized composter and can eat EVERYTHING up – there’s no need to sort the food (even napkins can be thrown in there). It also contains everything nicely so the compost is not exposed to pests. St. Olaf uses the compost for their landscaping projects. I think it’s a great direction to look toward, but hard to get started up for orginizations like public schools.

    August 8, 2008
  5. Mary Rossing said:

    I remember a few years back there was a local pig farmer that was collecting the leftover food stuffs from one of the schools and using it to feed his herd. I don’t know if this stopped for any particular reason, but it certainly is a good use for scraps.

    Home composting is no trouble at all.
    I’ve always just had a casual pile that I throw vegetable and fruit scraps on and then cover it with a few shovels of dirt. The worms find their own way there in no time! If your neighborhood is a little more finicky about dirt piles, you can use a plastic composter, which is essentially a covered box with and opening towards the bottom. You put the scraps and dirt in the top and then take the gorgeous dirt out of the bottom opening. In Minneapolis the city was selling these to homeowners at a very minimal cost. Now that we’ve gone to single sort recycling maybe this can be our next push. As to rats, this is only a problem if you add meat scraps to the pile–never a good idea.

    August 8, 2008
  6. Betsey Buckheit said:

    Another option is to create a municipal composting program. When we spent the year in Cambridge, UK 2 years ago, the Cambridge City Council had set a goal of reducing the amount of trash put in landfills by 1/3 by composting food waste. They met their goal and here’s how it worked:

    Each household had 2 “wheelie bins” 1 black (trash) and 1 green (“compost-ables”) as well as 2 recycling boxes (blue for plastic, black for newspaper, glass & tins). Each week, 1 wheelie bin and one box were set out with the other two the following week. Not too different from our new every other week schedule for the new blue single sort recycling wheelie bins.

    August 8, 2008
  7. Gabriel Rholl said:

    The co-op is a local leader at food waste recycling: it always makes the greatest effort it can to ensure that the products that expire are used in the most useful and safe manner possible. For example, all unsold dairy products are donated to the food shelf, and the produce is given to local farmers for compost or to use as animal feed.

    August 8, 2008
  8. Sarah Hale said:

    Lahna, ARTech started a composting school lunch food waste last spring, thanks to some industrious and motivated middle school students. The students researched and built a three-sided compost bin and used the compost for the school garden. Contact the school if you’d like to check it out!

    August 8, 2008
  9. While the students are working out compost ideas, maybe some would be interested in learning about business by designing and running a school lunch room.

    August 8, 2008
  10. John George said:

    Back in the late ’70’s, we were part of a Christian Community in the Twin Cities. We had connections with Byerly’s and Lunds and a couple Fairway Food stores to pick up their produce and bakery goods that were not up to their satisfaction. We distributed them to a bunch of local churches with food shelves for distribution to lower income families. This was a full time job for some of the staff people. It was very much appreciated by the food shelves and the families that received the food. I’m sure that in the last 30 or so years, the health requirements for this type of distribution have tightened up to where is is probably impractical. This, IMHO, is a result of all the liability issues around now. It is unfortunate that there is not someone who could take this on and do it legally. I have even thought about that as a retirement project. I just have not researched the current laws governing this type of thing. You legal wonks out there, what would a person be up against to try something like this?

    August 8, 2008
  11. Jane Moline said:

    John: As far as I know, (and I have had some experience), the grocery stores continue to participate in food shelve contribution of “day old” produce. I know of groups in Faribault who go to the twin cities to pick up certain stores’ produce. I think your liability problem is an urban legend.

    August 8, 2008
  12. Bri Seeley said:

    This is a new program that the City of Olympia, Wa has just started. We received a small container that is kept in the kitchen and a larger container that is picked up curbside.

    “The city of Olympia Waste ReSources will launch its new curbside organics collection program July 7. It is one of the major waste- reduction and recycling strategies outlined in the Toward Zero Waste Plan adopted by the City Council in 2007. The program will enhance the existing yard-waste collection to include all food waste — meat, bones, dairy products, prepared foods, fruits and vegetables — as well as food-soiled paper, including paper plates, napkins, pizza boxes and ice-cream containers.

    Food-waste collection for composting has become the next big frontier in efforts to turn waste into a resource and preserve our future. A countywide waste study in 2004 showed that more than 27 percent of Olympia’s residential waste sent to the landfill is compostable. The city’s goal is to capture at least 50 percent of this material, or about 1,000 tons per year, by 2013.

    Composting food scraps and food-soiled paper saves more than just landfill space. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, organic waste in landfills creates methane gas, a greenhouse gas 21 times stronger thancarbon dioxide. The EPA Waste Reduction Model (WARM) and the U.S. Climate Technology Cooperation Gateway environmental calculators showed that composting 1,000 tons of mixed organics instead of putting them in a landfill saves equivalent carbon dioxide emissions created by using 50,000 gallons of gasoline.

    Customers might find they can reduce their garbage service when they compost all of their organic waste. Once papers, bottles and cans, and composted food waste and food-soiled paper are recycled, there isn’t much left for the garbage cart.

    Curbside organics collection gives residents who don’t have time or space to compost at home the option to help the environment. The collected material is composted into a soil-like product at Silver Springs Organics, a local composting facility. Another benefit of compost is its application to yards and gardens. Compost is a natural fertilizer that builds healthy soil, retains moisture, reduces water use and requires fewer, if any, chemicals.”

    For more information, go to http://www.ci.olympia.wa.us/ cityutilities/garbage

    August 9, 2008
  13. Bri’s descripton sounds like something I could live as long as it eliminates the
    drawing of pests. Having lived in rural areas, I know how easy it is for critters to discover food and ways to access it. These issues must be addressed if county wide recycling is to work well. The issuing companies might want to consider lockable bins as well in areas where racoons live and steal or shall we say, borrow, our cast off edibles.

    The first best thing is to not buy what you won’t use. Other programs can be developed for the hungry human and zoo populations, so please don’t use that as an excuse.

    August 9, 2008
  14. Sarah Hale said:

    Bright, your ideas about a learning about business by redesigning a school lunch program? Done! One of ARTech’s graduates focused on redesigning our school lunch program last year for her senior project. Unsatisfied with what she had, Alliya Lovestrand worked to build a kitchen at the school and develop a healthier, more appetizing menu. Thanks to Alliya’s amazing work the school now has Maria Estrada (formerly of Maria’s resturaunt) cooking the daily lunches. (And sometimes, when we’re lucky, she makes fajitas with homemade tortillas!) Alliya got quite a lesson in business, grant writing, economics, government regulations, and nutrition.

    The school is still working on raising enough money to build a kitchen.

    August 9, 2008
  15. john george said:

    Jane- I haven’t heard anything one way or the other as far as passing on”day old” food items. I’m assuming that as long as a person is not re-selling the food, it is legal to do. Sometimes, though, my assumptions are not correct. I just like to have all my bases covered before I jump off into something. If I decide to pursue this in a few years, I think I would probably start with some established distribution network, such as the local food shelf or community action. No sense in trying to reinvent the wheel.

    August 9, 2008
  16. Amber Iwanski said:

    Lahna, I agree with you. It is amazing how much food the elementary schools throw away. I told the cooks at Sibley that I noticed that the Kind. & 1st graders throw away most of the food because the serving sizes are ENORMOUS! What six year old can wolf down 2 huge, fat filled cheese sticks, a veggie and fruit serving plus a muffin and milk? Plus, they have to rush what they do eat. They are required to take food they do not want/like because it meets the dietary rules of what has to be on a child’s tray. Vast amounts of untouched food are thrown away and it is a shame.

    August 10, 2008
  17. Mera said:

    I’ve read through the comments, I live in a semi-rural area (Waterford) and have never had a problem with raccoons. Then again, there are a lot of big dogs in my neighborhood. We’ve been composting in our yard for 13 years with no problems whatsoever. Dakota county makes available for about $20 a plastic black bin so that if you have yard waste too it can all go in there together.

    Our next ‘adventure in recycling’ will be to start vermicomposting. We are making the box tomorrow to keep under the sink or in the basement, and I have a friend with worms to share with me to get me started. The thing that bothered me about outdoor composting in the winter was that it all just “sat there” frozen until spring. (I don’t put any real effort into my composting, pretty much just dump it in there.) My kids are REALLY anxious to get the worms and see how much food gets turned into ‘soil’.

    I actually can’t think of any food items being thrown away at my house in the past couple of years, because anything that can’t go into the compost is given to the dog 🙂 just don’t tell the vet that I said that.

    The hard part for me is that a lot of food that is marketed towards kids has a lot of packaging, and I’ve been trying to explain to the younger two that packaging is forever – and do you want to know that your 10 minute snack’s wrapper is going to sit in a landfill for the rest of your life??

    Of course my 14 yr old is more concerned about the petroleum that goes into packaging, and into petrochemical-based farming. He wants to turn the whole yard into a ‘victory garden’, including chickens. I have told him that while I am interested in growing a lot of stuff, we don’t have very much soil depth in our yard (some places less than 6 inches) and it’s okay to buy a few bushels of tomatoes to make salsa and marinara sauce for canning – so can someone hook me up with a dealer??? Gotta feed that kid’s addiction…

    August 11, 2008