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Addressing the problem of food waste 

Out of the landfill: Oyster shells at the Orange County Recycling Center.

File photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Out of the landfill: Oyster shells at the Orange County Recycling Center.

There are 925 million hungry people in the world, including one of six Americans. Yet the largest contributor to landfills is food.

Durham author Jonathan Bloom, who wrote American Wasteland, estimates that approximately $100 billion to $160 billion is spent each year on producing food that is ultimately wasted. At home we buy groceries, eat a bit, forget about the kale liquifying in the crisper and then throw it in the garbage. Or we go to a restaurant, which tosses the leftovers. That salisbury steak on your kids' lunch tray? It is probably destined for the dumpster. About $1 billion worth of school meals are wasted annually, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The implications of this waste are startling. Recovering just 15 percent of wasted food could feed 25 million people. That would cut the number of Americans who go hungry each year in half. Wasted food also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions that are changing our climate. Decomposing food waste in landfills releases the same potent greenhouse gas that fracking does—methane.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge to tackle the issue of food waste from farmers to manufacturers to restaurants. "With the help of partners across the country, we can ensure that our nation's food goes out to families and those in need—not the landfill," said EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe in a press release.

Many Triangle organizations already work with grocery stores and local residents to collect and distribute excess food. Heavenly Groceries at St. Joseph CME Church in Chapel Hill started in 2002 when Rev. Troy Harrison and his wife made the rounds of grocers collecting bread. Now the food bank serves more than 3,000 people per month. Their suppliers—three Food Lions and a Trader Joe's—donate fruits, vegetables, meat and more, all of which otherwise would have been thrown out.

Other stores compost their food waste. Eric Dortas, who works at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, explains that composting facility Brooks Contractor picks up the market's food waste, which is processed into compost. However, Dortas says he would still rather the food be donated. For example, 30 french baguettes recently had to be thrown out because they hadn't been sold. "We have tried to give leftover food to charitable organizations, but there are many restrictions on their side as to what they can accept," he says.

The U.S. Food Waste Challenge tries to address these types of restrictions. As part of the program, the USDA will work with the supermarket industry to "increase donations from imported produce that does not meet quality standards and streamline procedures for donating wholesome misbranded meat and poultry products." The food would still be safe to eat, according to the USDA.

During 2011–2012, more than 43,000 tons of municipal solid waste—which includes food—was buried in the Orange County Landfill. "People go to the grocery store and fill up their cart with hundreds of dollars worth of food and then so much of it goes to waste," Dortas says. "I think it's in the nature of the American consumer. People have fully stocked fridges and in many cases, it's because they just like how it looks."

Orange County Solid Waste Planner Blair Pollock points out that backyard composting needs to be more widespread. If people were to do so, waste going into local dump sites would be reduced, as would greenhouse gas emissions. And it actually costs less than landfilling.

So the next time you think of tossing a whole brick of cheese into the trash because of its moldy corner, think about what you're really throwing away.

Corrections: Weaver Street Market (not Brooks Contractor) pays for the food waste collection service, and that food waste is turned into compost (not fertilizer).

This article appeared in print with the headline "Lunch and the landfill."

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