Waste not, want not: How Eastern Iowa is tackling the problem of food waste

The City of Iowas City’s compost system at the landfill — Zak Neumann/Little Village

From food sharing to organic composting, systems are being put in place to tackle issues of food waste, and they’re working.

Stocking up on bulk goods at a wholesale warehouse club on a good sale. Over-catering for a party or event. Avoiding the slightly wrinkled pepper, bruised banana or about-to-expire dairy item at the grocery store. Heading off for a vacation and tossing out any food that may spoil.

These are all common factors that lead to food waste. Local innovators and organizations, however, are combating the problem throughout Eastern Iowa.

Food waste includes not just domestic waste, but crops that are not processed and food rejected or discarded at the retail level. There are adverse environmental, economic and social effects to all unconsumed and disposed foods.

Iowans threw away an estimated 556,000 tons of food in 2017—20 percent of the garbage in landfills, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s 2017 Iowa Statewide Waste Characterization Study. More disturbing is that this is actually a 50 percent increase since the 2011 study. Nicki Ross, the executive director of Table to Table, a food rescue organization in Iowa City, said that food waste in Johnson County hovers at 25 percent, slightly higher than the national average.

On the other side of the coin is food insecurity, or the lack of access to a reliable food source. In Iowa, one of out of eight people is food insecure, and one out of six children in Iowa faces hunger issues, according to the Feeding America website.

The nonprofit Table to Table, located in downtown Iowa City, counters both the issues of food waste and food insecurity in Johnson County. Founded in 1996, the organization works with an estimated $320,000 annual budget that is equally funded by grants and donor contributions, and an annual volunteer base of about 240 people.

With these limited resources, Table to Table rescued 2.2 million pounds of wholesome food in Johnson County last year through carefully cultivated partnerships between donors and agencies working with the food insecure, homeless and other vulnerable populations. Donors include area grocery stores, such as Hy-Vee and New Pioneer Food Co-op, the Iowa City Farmers Market and some local restaurants. Recipients include 50 area organizations from daycares to food pantries, feeding over 19,000 people a year or 13 percent of the overall Johnson County population.

“People in Johnson County work well together,” said Ross during a tour of their facilities, pointing to a whiteboard with the web of driver routes mapped out. Approximately 66 percent of their food goes to the Food Bank of the CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank, which may identify other patrons not covered in their official recipient list.

Zak Neumann/Little Village

Emily Meister, food rescue programming manager who joined the Table to Table team in June 2017, explained the organization does not repurpose expired or unsafe foodstuffs; rather, it takes the products retailers proactively discard due to “consumer-based psychology.” Most grocery store shoppers will not, for instance, buy a gallon a milk if it is nearing its expiration date, produce that is not aesthetically appealing, cereal boxes with bent corners or vegetables in dented cans. These products are considered unsellable but are still fresh, tasty and safe for consumption, and this is what Table to Table rescues from entering landfills, reducing Johnson County’s food waste expenditure by 3 percent.

Meister and Ross cited the “Yogurt Boon of 2017” as an example of how Table to Table works quickly and effectively to save perishable food items. In this case, almost 9,000 pounds of overstocked and underselling yogurt whose expiration date was over a month away were relocated from a warehouse and redistributed to Table to Table’s recipient partners in one day. They explained this was a choreographed effort of rerouting volunteer drivers, finding cold storage and moving quickly.

Table to Table checks in frequently with the recipient organizations to further reduce food waste, to see which items are being consumed and which are not and to adjust accordingly. The organization meets the dietary needs of a diverse group of recipients, and focuses on fresh produce, dairy products, baked goods and frozen meats rather than processed food, whenever possible. Due to strategic planning, Table to Table was able to give away 50 turkeys before the 2018 Thanksgiving holiday.

“We couldn’t exist without our volunteer base,” Meister said. At least 20 volunteers are needed per week to drive the routes for gathering and distributing food. Other volunteers work on databases, client relationships, fundraising and other administrative needs. There is currently a waitlist for both recipient and donor organizations, and Ross hopes to expand the program with additional vehicles and even more volunteers.

Table to Table plans to broaden their gleaning project as well, investigating new crops and the feasibility of harvesting food that would wither in the fields. During the last two years, the organization has saved 1,500 pounds of fresh produce resulting from overplanting.

For those wanting to help out, Ross said volunteers are needed for all tasks at Table to Table, and those who cannot make year-long commitments are welcome for substitute shifts. They are always accepting monetary donations to help feed Johnson County residents, too.

At the household level, there are ways to diminish food waste using smartphones. Saasha Celestial-One is cofounder of OLIO, the world’s only neighbor-to-neighbor food sharing app. Currently a dual U.S.-British citizen residing in London, Celestial-One returns to Iowa several times a year to visit family. She said American households lose more than $2,000 a year in unwanted and unconsumed foods.

Like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, OLIO users post a food item and someone else claims it. It’s the modern equivalent of asking a neighbor for a cup of sugar. As smartphones are ubiquitous and our cities become more congested, OLIO allows people to share their food without stigma.

“It doesn’t feel like a handout,” Celestial-One said. “This benefits the hidden hungry.”

Those posting the food items, too, are happy to share if they ordered too much, are emptying the fridge before traveling or because they bought the wrong items for picky eaters. From their research on the app, 84 percent of users state they are happy to pick up food from or share food with their neighbors.

Launched in 2015, the app, which won the 2018 United Nations Momentum for Change Award, is used in 49 countries, with 80 percent of its users living in the UK, and a strong presence in California. Celestial-One said they plan to integrate OLIO further into the U.S. market by 2020.

“Now is the time to use the app in Iowa,” she said. “You can post, share and connect neighbors now.”

Table to Table coordinates food donations to alleviate food insecurity in the area — Annabel Staff/Little Village

Celestial-One’s parents founded Frontier Co-op Herbs in Norway, Iowa. She said she combined her parents’ “hippie mentality” of recycling and reusing and their love of food with her own investment banker background in London to raise over $8 million for her vision. She hopes to get more than 1 billion users and 25,000 volunteers during this expansion phase.

“OLIO is not only distributing to those in need,” Celestial-One said. “The scale of food waste dwarfs food poverty. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after China and the U.S.).”

In addition to food sharing, there are simple but effective ways to combat this unnecessary and costly pollution by converting methane or avoiding methane production during the decomposition process.

The Solid Waste Agency of Cedar Rapids and Linn County took in 30,298 tons of organics at its composting location during the 2018 fiscal year: 1,124 tons were food waste, or 3.71 percent of the compost tonnage, which does not include table scraps placed with yard waste. The waste comes from commercial generators, such as Hy-Vee, colleges and other larger corporations and institutions.

Joe Horaney, communications director of the Solid Waste Agency, explained that the composting process, which produces tested, nitrogen-rich soil for sale to landscapers and free to Linn County, also produces methane gases which are captured and converted to electricity through a power substation. This converted methane powers 1,100 homes in Cedar Rapids daily. What is usually considered detrimental is converted into cleaner energy.

“Residents can make a difference, too,” Horaney explained. “Home composting is easy and affordable.” He suggests interested residents buy a yard composting kit at any home improvement store.

In addition to home composting, Iowa City has expanded its curbside food waste and yard waste removal supported by a minor $2 per month fee added to the utility bill, on a rolling basis to residents.

Residents may request either a 25- or 95-gallon food and yard waste cart. Jane Wilch, Iowa City’s recycling coordinator, said the city has received “a really wonderful and unanticipated response” to the new carts so far.

As Iowa City reallocates funding for more curbside containers, Wilch notes that residents can still use any plastic container that meets the aforementioned size limit. Unlike home composting, which is more restrictive in what materials are biodegradable, Wilch said recyclers may add wine corks, paper napkins and plates (without plastic coating), pizza boxes and any solid foods to their yard and food waste bins.

“What we are offering is compost diversion,” Wilch said. “Twenty-five percent, or 34,000 tons of landfill space in Iowa City is food waste.” Through a year-long anaerobic composting process in which rows of compostable materials are activated by microbes and bugs, turned monthly and generate heat, the food waste breaks down into tested compost for sale to local landscapers, including backyard farmers.

The very best ways to reduce food waste, however, is through education and changing consumer habits. Emily Meister emphasized the importance of Table to Table’s junior high outreach programming.

“We may tell students how one carton of milk takes 110 gallons of water to produce. That’s over one and a half bathtubs!” she said.

“Upstream energy” goes into every meal we consume, Wilch explained, including electricity, water, human power, transportation, processing and more. If consumers are more aware of the environmental and energy expenditures in food production, it is easier to take the simple steps to avoid food waste in the first place.

“Buying food and not eating it is a waste of money,” Wilch said. “We must eat the food we buy.”

She suggests party planners become strategic with their meals. Guests should only put on their plates what they will eat, as they can always return for seconds. She reminds guests and hosts to eat those leftovers, and then compost the food as well as paper waste. And while buying in bulk may seem practical, purchasing only what you need for the next few days will ensure you’re not tossing out super-sized containers of perishables.

These simple steps to change our shopping and eating habits may save some space in Iowa’s landfills.

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