The skinny on food waste in the Hudson Valley, and why there’s reason for hope.
If you think of the United States as a dinner table set for 10, four of the diners will carelessly dump their untouched plates of food into the trash can at each meal. We Americans waste an alarming 400 pounds of food per person per year, on average. Although you’re probably thinking guiltily about that head of wilted lettuce, mushy pear, and half-eaten container of Chinese takeout moldering away in the back of your fridge, your personal food waste is a drop in the proverbial slop bucket. The vast majority of food waste takes place at a corporate, institutional, and governmental level. We let whole fields of crops rot, reject entire pallets of perfectly good fruits and vegetables because they do not look “perfect,” and routinely toss shelves full of products that are approaching their sell-by date even though they are still quite safe to eat.
At the same time, 41 million Americans are going hungry, according to Feeding America. Here in the Hudson Valley, more than one in 10 people across Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, and Ulster counties are considered “food insecure” — meaning that they do not have easy and regular access to healthy food and may often go hungry. It’s a particularly ironic pairing, considering that we could feed them all easily with just one-third of the bounty we’re throwing away.
But the implications of food waste extend far beyond the problem of hungry humans: All this food we’re not eating is also contributing to climate change and other serious environmental problems. Wasted food from supermarkets, restaurants, warehouses, and homes is the single largest contributor to our landfills. When this food rots, it emits methane gases. Methane is also released in the process of growing this uneaten food, for a combined total that accounts for 2.6% of all greenhouse gases — the equivalent of 37 million cars’ worth of emissions each year. Although methane is less plentiful than carbon dioxide (CO2), it’s far more potent, warming the planet roughly 86 times more than CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And let’s not forget all the wasted resources that go into growing this forgotten fare: 21% of agricultural water usage, 18% of all farming fertilizer, and 19% of all U.S. cropland are used each year to produce food that ends up filling our landfills rather than our stomachs while also speeding climate change. Not to mention the fuel that’s wasted and the emissions that are created in the process of harvesting, packaging, transporting, and refrigerating this food on its journey to the landfill. It’s enough to turn your stomach.
But there is cause for hope. Food waste is a highly solvable problem, and momentum is building as awareness grows. New policies and solutions are being created at both the national and state levels by businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. And the Hudson Valley is a hotbed of food waste reduction efforts, both big and small. Here’s just a taste of what’s happening locally.
Since 2012, Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) has offered commercial composting at its Kingston facility, partnering with local haulers and food-waste generators to reduce food waste going to landfills. As of December 2017, UCRRA’s composting program is now a permitted facility that processes 2,500 tons of commercial food waste each year, turning it into finished compost for gardening and landscaping. To date, the composting facility has diverted roughly 4,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of not burning 4,301,969 pounds of coal, or of planting 101,902 tree seedlings and letting them grow and sequester carbon for 10 years.
Thanks to a grant Ulster County received from New York’s Climate Smart Communities Program in 2016, the county is planning to expand UCRRA’s compost program to include a new building, a bagging machine for the finished compost, a food waste diversion program at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center, and more. This is good news because there’s clearly room for growth — UCRRA estimates that Ulster County was sending 20,000 tons of food waste to the landfill 250 miles away in Waterloo, NY each year. (The fuel burned while hauling food waste is another source of methane and carbon dioxide.)
To improve those numbers, Ulster County’s Climate Smart Commission is encouraging local businesses to reduce food waste as part of its new Green Business Challenge. Businesses can partner with Food Bank of the Hudson Valley and/or participate in the commercial composting program operated by UCRRA or work with another composting operation like Community Compost Company, in New Paltz.
At the end of 2017, Kingston was awarded a Climate Smart Communities grant to develop a program to manage its organic waste. Mayor Steve Noble is exploring the idea of offering curbside composting as a way to reduce the waste stream and save taxpayers’ money — an idea he talked about often during his campaign.
Bread Alone’s bread is used to make beer at Toast Ale and at Brews Once Stale. Photo courtesy of Bread Alone Bakery.
But municipalities and government agencies are not the only ones working on food waste; many local businesses are also thinking outside the box to solve the problem.
Bread Alone Bakery in Lake Katrine is tackling the problem through a company-wide program to compost all of their food waste as well as several innovative initiatives and partnerships. “We have about 20, 50-pound compost bins stationed at all of the different parts of the bakery and a 30-yard container outside that gets filled every few weeks that gets hauled off by Waste Management,” explains Nels Leader, Bread Alone’s vice president. Bread Alone also donates its unsold bread to a large network of soup kitchens in the region, as well as giving leftover bread to farmers for animal feed. “There are a lot of really well-fed pigs here in the Hudson Valley,” notes Leader with a chuckle.
Every fall, Bread Alone uses its unsold bread to produce an excellent dried bread mix people can use to make stuffing for their Thanksgiving meals. The bakery is also partnering with larger businesses. “In 2017, we produced 10,000 pounds of dried bread for a company called Cafe Spice in Newburgh, and they used it to create a stuffing product that was sold at Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast,” says Leader.
The bakery has also established a partnership with two breweries that use stale bread — which provides both wheat and sugars — to make high-quality beer. One of them, the Bronx-based Toast Ale, is a nonprofit that donates all its profits to ending food waste.
“I see the composting program and these other partnerships as an integral part of our broader sustainability efforts because the resources used in the manufacture of wasted food contribute to global warming,” says Leader. “I’m committed to doing it because I know we can make an impact, and I’m also aware that it’s an opportunity to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and be good for business.”
A compost bin at Bread Alone. Photo courtesy of Bread Alone Bakery.
Bread Alone is not the only business in the Hudson Valley to seize this opportunity to do some good while also doing well. Community Compost Company is a Table-to-Farm© collection service that launched in 2014 through the Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator program at Glynwood. They pick up food scraps from 250-plus residential and commercial clients including restaurants, coffee shops, schools, childcare centers, a retirement community, and several office buildings. “We leave a clean container at every pick-up and accept all food — vegetables, fruits, grains, meat, dairy, and fish — as well as food-soiled paper like napkins and paper towels,” says Molly Lindsay, director of operations.
In 2016, they also launched Hudson Soil Company, a companion business to sell the finished compost to landscapers, homeowners, farmers, and garden centers. The company plans to expand its composting services into other areas of the Hudson Valley, starting with Dutchess County.
Lindsay notes that educating customers about food waste is an important part of their model, and that they’re seeing good results: “Customers often report that they’re saving money on their grocery bill, because the process of separating their food waste has made them more conscious of it, and they’re making a more concerted effort to only buy what they will use.”
In Beacon, Zero to Go is an education-based waste management company focused on composting and recycling that also provides zero-waste event services for everything from festivals to weddings to conferences and more. “If we can find a way to make a living, add to the local economy and do something really amazing for the earth, I’d say it’s pretty great,” says Atticus Lanigan, co-owner and general manager. You can find Zero to Go at the Beacon Farmers’ Market, where they educate and accept compost drop-offs for a small fee.
The Farm to Food Pantry volunteers assist with in-field gleaning. Photo by Beth McLendon Albright.
Hudson Valley nonprofits are also abuzz with food waste-reduction efforts paired with projects to alleviate hunger.
The Farm to Food Pantry grew out of a conversation at the Hunger in the Hudson Valley Forum at Mohonk Consultations in 2010, and has been growing steadily ever since. The program is a very productive partnership between Family of Woodstock, Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA), and UlsterCorps. “In 2017, we collected 81,000 pounds of food from 25 farms and distributed it to 34 different food pantries in the area,” says Beth McLendon Albright, co-founder and director of UlsterCorps and program director of Volunteer Services and Food Security at Family of Woodstock.
Thanks to a Hudson Valley Farm Fresh Food grant, Family of Woodstock is creating five new walk-in coolers and storage sites throughout Ulster County, which will enable the food pantries (which receive keys) to come get whatever they need. “It’s an amazing model that’s been transformative for us, dramatically increasing our ability to store more food and keep it fresh,” says McLendon Albright.
Volunteers are an important part of the program, according to McLendon Albright: “We’ll get a call from a local orchard saying, ‘We have 2,000 pounds of apples and we need to get them out of here by tomorrow,’ and we put out the call to our wonderful volunteers who help us quickly turn all that ripe fruit into applesauce, which is bagged and frozen.” Volunteers can also help with in-field gleanings of things like peppers, apples, and blueberries on an ad-hoc basis.
FeedHV gleaners are helping our Hudson Valley neighbors in need. Photo by Jamie Levato.
FeedHV is a network to rescue, harvest, process, and distribute local food. It evolved out of community dialogues with farmers, volunteers, nonprofit agencies, food donors, and key stakeholders.
“During high harvest season, farmers don’t have time to sit there and figure out who can pick the food up or coordinate with people. What everybody needed was the logistics to actually get the food from A to B. So we made the decision to invest in the software to connect them more efficiently,” says Carrie Jones Ross, food security development manager for FeedHV’s Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corp. Earlier this year, the organization rolled out ChowMatch, a web-based and mobile application that employs simple matching technology to connect excess food to feeding programs throughout seven counties, assisted by volunteers who pick up, deliver, glean, and process the food. “ChowMatch is making a big difference — it helps a lot!” says Jones Ross.
Volunteers can jump in whenever an opportunity to help aligns with an opening in their schedule — there is no recurring commitment.
Audrey Berman started Long Table Harvest in 2015 after spending three years working on farms in Columbia and Dutchess counties. Berman was struck by the sheer abundance of food in the fields. “Surplus is actually built into the business model of every farm as an insurance policy,” Berman relates.”You have to plant 15–20 percent extra to make sure you can meet the market demand or fulfill your CSA’s shares.”
Starting a nonprofit devoted to food equity seemed a natural fit for Berman and her co-founder, Laura Engelman, who was doing farm and garden education with families in Hudson and Harlemville at the time.
This new organization is scaling up quickly, thanks in part to the connections Berman has made with area farmers as a former organizer for the National Young Farmers’ Coalition in Hudson. In 2017, Long Table Harvest collected 44,000 pounds of food from 40 local farms and distributed it to 30 food pantries, afterschool programs, and other agencies. “We just got a cargo van — it’s huge and incredible and has radically increased our capacity,” says Berman.
Above: Food Bank of the Hudson Valley volunteers. Below: Produce awaits distribution at the Food Bank. Photos by Carol Griffin.
Food Bank of the Hudson Valley in Cornwall-on-Hudson takes food donated primarily by the food industry including grocery stores, retailers, distributors, wholesalers, farms, and more – a mix of mislabeled, excess, imperfect, and damaged products, as well as those with looming “sell by” or expiration dates — and distributes it to roughly 375 nonprofit member agencies in Orange, Ulster, Dutchess, Sullivan, Putnam, and Rockland counties. “I’ve seen a lot of growth — it’s a definite trend,” says Carol Griffin, food industry relations coordinator at Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. “Over the past year, I have met more and more industry folks, farms, and retailers who are happy to donate to us.”
Volunteers are always needed. “That’s how I got started here at the food bank. I was a volunteer in the warehouse sorting through food, and liked it so much that I applied and was offered a job,” says Griffin.
Surplus farm food gathered by Long Harvest Farm. Photo by Audrey Berman.
What You Can Do
Just because the majority of food waste takes place on an industrial scale doesn’t mean that YOU can’t be a big part of the solution. In addition to volunteering or donating to the organizations above, there are plenty of simple, satisfying ways you can help reduce food waste in your home and community.
One way is to try to buy only what you’ll actually use and make a true effort to use up the food you buy.
Another is to get creative! Check out Accord-based author Julia Turshen’s forthcoming cookbook Now & Again for great ideas on how to give your leftovers new life.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth — it’s a definite trend. Over the past eight years, we’ve met more and more industry folks, farms, and retailers who are happy to donate to us.”
—Carol Griffin, Food Bank of the Hudson Valley
If you have a yard, consider starting your own compost heap or bin. If that’s not an option, consider alternative ways to compost your food scraps, like the services offered by Community Compost Company and Zero To Go. You can also take it to the next level: Urge your municipality to invest in a composting program. A quick Google search for “benefits of municipal composting” should turn up all the stats you need to make your request compelling to local officials.
Last but not least, share this article to help raise awareness about food waste and encourage others to join you in making a difference. Here’s to less wasted food, fewer hungry people, and a healthier planet!