July 8, 2008

Leftovers Are Being Put To Better And More Varied Uses Today

By Rutter, Jon

[email protected] Out at the Dig It! community garden in southeast Lancaster recently, a gaggle of city kids poked at a wriggling, pungent mass in a homemade wooden bin: compost.

The young gardeners soon will be spreading the rich black goo over the fenced-in plot.

Decomposed with the help of earthworms, the stuff is a terrific boon to vegetable plantings, said Dig It! farm manager Ben Weiss.

And, because leftovers from markets, restaurants and city residents feed the operation, it serves a second beneficial purpose - recycling perishables that would otherwise get tossed out.

Food waste is gaining widespread visibility in the wake of crop shortages, Third World food riots and double-digit rate surges for domestic staples such as milk and eggs.

San Francisco, which rewards residents for keeping food out of the garbage, generates tons of compost daily.

There is no similar program in Lancaster County, which is renowned for the quantity and quality of its edibles.

However, several independent initiatives are chipping away at waste.

Rachel's Caf & Creperie on North Queen Street is one of a handful of restaurants that returns unwanted food to the soil.

We thought it would be a good idea to convert unused portions into compost for the garden out back, said restaurant worker Rachel Droege.

Columbia Borough is enriching its farm off Route 441 by composting waste from school cafeterias.

Leftovers from supermarkets, such as Giant Food Stores, and from Lancaster's Central Market, have long made their way to food banks and soup kitchens.

In Lancaster County at least, said James Warner, executive director of the Solid Waste Management Authority, a considerable amount of discarded food gets burned in the incinerator in Conoy Township.

It does have a BTU value, Warner said.

There could be money, too, in those goopy egg shells and tomatoes gone soft.

Once the soil in the garden is up to speed, said Dig It! farmer Schirlyn Kamara, we'll start selling the compost.

People in developed nations still have lots of plate cleaning to do.

The federal government estimates that Americans - 66 percent of adults are overweight or obese - annually pitch out 30 million tons of food, or about a quarter of what they produce.

This staggering bulk consists in large part of fresh produce, milk, grain products and sweeteners and it makes up 11 or 12 percent of the waste stream.

Ninety-eight percent of the refuse piles up in landfills, where it decomposes and creates clouds of the potent greenhouse gas, methane.

The Clinton administration, which declared a National Week of Food Recovery in 1997, was the last to target food waste.

Now, concern over how to ditch yesterday's pizza ethically is no longer confined to policy wonks, or to what wastedfood.com blogger Jonathan Bloom, speaking recently to a New York Times reporter, called frugal mommy blogs.

The timing is right, said Fritz Schroeder, director of the LIVE Green advocacy organization in Lancaster.

Schroeder said in an e-mail that LIVE Green is studying a program that would encourage people to use compost tumblers in their backyards.

Mike Devaney, Lancaster's manager of solid waste and recycling, said he's focused for the moment on getting residents to properly dispose of their regular household trash.

However, he added, food waste recycling is definitely on the city's future agenda.

Residents could either place the material in a curbside recycling bin or compost it themselves, he said.

Meat scraps would not be recycled, he added, but seeds, stems, cores and peels from fruit and vegetables would go right into the bin.

I love the idea of vermiculture, added Devaney, referring to the practice of using earthworms to ratchet up decomposition.

He said he would like to somehow sell the idea to Lancaster residents.

Manager Jessica King said Eastern Market joined the composting loop last year.

Each week, she noted, standholders generate three buckets of waste, such as damaged or unsold produce, residue from floral displays and coffee grounds.

The material goes to Dig It!, which is a project of Kamara's Threshold Foundation.

We're trying to look at [becoming] a zero-waste market this year, added King, who said that would entail serving prepared foods on compostable trays, with utensils made out of corn.

There are many other ways to save perfectly good food from the Dumpster, of course.

A few restaurant chains, including T.G.I. Friday's, have introduced reduced-portion options.

Local Giant Food Stores markets give day-old bread to the Water Street Rescue Mission, said spokeswoman Tracy Pawelski, and the Carlisle-based chain donated $1.8 million to hunger relief last year.

But industry profit margins are slim, she added, and the franchise ceaselessly looks for ways to cut waste and boost efficiency.

One strategy is for stores to receive two deliveries of perishables per day, scaled to immediate demand.

We are constantly looking for ways to minimize shrink, Pawelski said, referring to merchandise that doesn't go out the front door.

Pawelski said Giant is looking at composting relationships but has yet to finalize any.

In Lancaster County, frugality and food giveaways to the needy are practically reflexes.

Michael Ervin, the Central Market manager, said Saturday's extra bakery goods, for example, regularly show up on Sunday's free church breakfast menu.

There's a very strong network of donations stitching together standholders and storekeepers with charities such as Milagro House, Ervin said.

I would say we do an excellent job of that in Lancaster County. ... That isn't to say there isn't some waste.

In fact, Ben Weiss said, excess food from the county's numerous restaurants alone would overwhelm Dig It!

Vegetable scraps break down incredibly quickly, he said, but the garden can only absorb waste from 10 to 20 businesses.

Each week we can handle 400 pounds of food waste.

The capacity might soon grow. Weiss said Dig It! is planning to expand its worm composting venture into a separate business.

Vermiculture worms go for $40 a pound and reproduce rapidly, Weiss said; he expects to begin selling red wrigglers from the garden within several weeks.

Meanwhile, he's been exploring possible composting collaborations with city eateries. On a recent Thursday, he visited 20.

Most of the restaurants we went to today," he said, were extremely receptive.

(Copyright 2008 Lancaster Newspapers. All rights reserved.)

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