Initiative seeks solutions to turn food waste into jobs and revenue

Every year the country spends $218 billion growing, processing and transporting more than 60 million tons of food that’s never eaten, according to ReFED, a collaboration of business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States. On average, every person wastes 400 pounds of food a year, while one in every seven people living in the U.S. is at risk of hunger. More than 21 percent of Philadelphians are food insecure, according to the city’s 2016 Shared Prosperity plan, which is 41 percent higher than the national average.

That’s a lot of resources and opportunities going to the landfill, but there are ways to be smarter about surplus food. National and local stakeholders gathered last week at Drexel University to discuss a ReFED roadmap to reduce food waste by 20 percent and explore local solutions for food that’s not eaten.

According to Thomas O’Donnell, sustainability coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an academic from Cabrini College, Philadelphia needs 35,380,404 pounds of food a year to close the “Meal Gap” for people who are not eligible to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. O’Donnell calculated Philadelphia’s Meal Gap using a methodology designed by Feeding America, a hunger relief organization, to determine the annualized food budget shortfall of food insecure people. According to its 2015 report, Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes several areas of Philadelphia, had the 8th highest rate for overall food insecurity in 2013. Ironically, O’Donnell calculated that the amount of surplus food wasted locally was four times more than the need in 2014.

“We can screw up three times and still be able to feed people who need it. We just need to get it, process it properly, and distribute it,” O’Donnell told the crowd at Drexel.

Philadelphia is ahead of the game. The Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Group has a zero waste subcommittee to develop policies and practices that help the city achieve 90 percent waste diversion through waste minimization, increased surplus food donation, and composting. Philabundance rescues food and feeds approximately 90,000 people per week. Food Connect is a local app that connects people who have food, with those who need food and people who volunteer to pick up and deliver surplus food. Drexel University has a Culinary Arts and Science program and a food lab that does research on food waste and works with clients to produce solutions. By experimenting with food discarded from Brown’s ShopRite grocery stores, for example, researchers developed recipes and products for bananas and transformed them into ice-cream and a smoothie base, a business model that could employ a couple of people. University City Food Recycling Project partners residents, businesses, and institutions to reduce food waste and the Food Recovery Network, a national nonprofit run by college students, has recovered 5,000 pounds of food waste since 2014 from Drexel, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Sciences, and St. Joseph’s University.  Even the prison system has a program that diverts almost 700 tons a year of food waste.

The Food Recovery Network is run by college students. It has recovered 5,000 pounds of food in Philadelphia in two years. | courtesy of Food Recovery Network
(courtesy of Food Recovery Network)

“I think there’s a lot of great leadership from the food recovery organizations in this area, there’s a lot of food innovation and there’s a really strong supportive enabling environment of foundations who see the value in this issue, which I think is really important,” Eva Louise Goulbourne, from ReFED, told PlanPhilly.

Despite these efforts, a study by Alternative Resources, Inc. that was shared with PlanPhilly estimates that Philadelphia wasted more than 240,000 tons of food in 2014. The Alternative Resources study estimates that the majority of commercial food waste is commercial, from restaurants, grocery stores, or nursing and residential care facilities. Households are another significant source.

“Taking away the 20 percent ReFED reduction goal, there’s still 26,000 pounds of food wasted every day in Philadelphia,” O’Donnell told PlanPhilly. “In reality, it is a huge, tremendous resource that we are missing.”

Last week’s Food Waste Solutions event organized by the Food Funders, an affinity group within Philanthropy Network, Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, and Philabundance included more ways to help solve that problem. Among the solutions presented were small-scale anaerobic digestion systems to create biogas, hosting a Feeding the 5000 event in Philly to de-normalize food waste and creating products and projects that profit of food waste management.

“I don’t like the ‘w’ word [waste], I don’t use it,” said Thomas McQuillan director of food service, sales, and sustainability from Baldor Specialty Foods, a food distribution company in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.  “I like to think about food in its entirely and how to use it all.”

McQuillan realized he could sell the leftovers from freshly cut vegetables and fruits his company produces, which he called sparcs (scraps spelled backwards), to pig farms or companies that make broth, and he experimented with Drexel to transform these sparcs into a dry nutrient-rich vegetable blend to cook with. The road to zero waste has allowed the company to reduce waste-related expenses and generate $300,000 in new revenue.

Glenn Bergman, executive director Philabundance, said the organization is taking a new direction towards creating food it distributes. The organization wants to move to a larger facility, add new jobs, and start turning the food it rescues into a new product that adds value: soups, fruit purees for smoothie base, ice cream or sauces, tomato sauces from farm surplus, relish, and cheese from dated milk.

“Philabundance is known as a food bank, we are also known as an entity that does food rescue and direct food distributions,” Bergman said. “But we also want to be known in the future for reducing wasted food, energy conservation, water conservation, and landfill reduction actions.”

Commonwealth Kitchen, a food business incubator in Boston where 70 percent of the 40 companies who use it are owned by minorities and women, also does value-added processing of fresh produce.

“Two farms in Massachusetts came to us a year ago with 20,000 pounds of tomatoes and said ‘We’re going to throw them out, can you do something for us?’ We said, sure! What you want? So we did marinara sauce for them. We sold it to them, they sell it at their farmstand or to CSAs”, said Jen Faigel, executive director and co-founder of Commonwealth Kitchen. “And we realized there was a need and a gap in the market.”

So they started making master recipes and promoting value-added products for farmers, gleaners or buying from farmers and selling to retail. Since last year, they’ve employed 10 people.

“We didn’t think of that,” Paul Cherashore, a community gardener, told PlanPhilly after the event. “All the gleaning that we’ve been thinking about was rescuing stuff that’s usable and sending it to soup kitchens.”

“But maybe we can rescue some sad stuff and give it to somebody who can process it,” added Jennifer Gold, from Liberty Lands, a community garden in Northern Liberties.

Gold and Cherashore were hoping to find a solution for the Garden Hub, a group trying to take the excess food grown in community gardens and provide it to people who need it.

“I think Philadelphia should take a front and aggressive collaboration and put the city on another level,” Vania Freire, co-chair of Philanthropy Network, told PlanPhilly. “We should join efforts and get the city to zero waste. We need to bring a million dollars, but there’s a group of organizations that’s in place and ready to work together.”

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