The Natural Resources Defense Council has chosen Nashville as a model city for a year-long concentration on reducing food waste.
The city was picked precisely because it wasn’t Portland or San Francisco, well-known hotbeds of environmentally-friendly policies.
"The problem is, when you go to a city in the Midwest, for example, and you say, 'you need to try this,' they say, 'hey, we're not Portland,'" says Linda Breggin, coordinator for the Nashville Food Waste Initiative. "The beauty of picking Nashville is if Nashville can do it, cities across the country can do it."
Mayor Megan Barry has issued a Food Saver Challenge to restaurants to kick-start the initiative, and chefs are being asked to reduce, reuse and recycle food scraps and leftovers.
At Miel Restaurant in West Nashville, chef Andrew Coins says he juiced leftover carrot scraps and smoked broken up pieces of scallop to create an amuse bouche, a small bite of food the chef sends out to whet the appetite of the diners.
“It almost becomes a game, like how little do we have to compost?” says Coins. “How much can we use in the restaurant itself?”
In the United States, 40 percent of food is wasted, and most wasted food ends up in a landfill, according to the NRDC. But that’s the last place food should go, says Sharon Smith, special projects manager at Metro Public Works.
Landfills are designed merely to bury trash. Air and water is piped out, which ends up slowing degradation. An apple core thrown in the landfill can remain there for years, Smith says, while an apple core in a compost pile breaks down within weeks.
Rather than tossing all of this food, there is a sequence of alternatives: preventing food waste in the first place, donating leftovers and composting the food waste that can’t be helped.
Cutting down on waste in a restaurant kitchen means purchasing food more carefully, paying attention to portion sizes on dishes that diners typically don’t finish, and finding new uses for cutting board scraps.
The food waste that can’t be helped may be suitable for donation. Local agencies that feed the hungry are usually ready recipients, though they do have to figure out a way to pick it up in a timely manner. The Nashville Rescue Mission serves 2,000 free meals every day and has two trucks that haul away leftovers from fast food outlets and even fine dining establishments like Fleming’s Steakhouse.
Restaurants can also order pick-up from an app called Zero Percent that delivers to other agencies. The app tracks donations, which can add up to tax savings.
Plate waste and other scraps that aren’t suitable for donation should be composted, Breggin says. If on-site composting is not an option, a commercial-scale compost company can be hired to pick up food scraps and deliver them to a processor.
Miel owner Seema Prasad says she has been composting in the restaurant for years, and last year prevented more than 6,000 pounds of food from being thrown out. She has been helping other restaurant owners and chefs learn how to optimize their kitchens, too.
It’s not just fruit and vegetable scraps. Dairy products, meat, fish, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, pasta, breads, cereals and baked goods can be turned into soil, says Matthew “Beadle” Beadlecomb, operations manager at Compost Nashville.
While some restaurant managers worry about the added expense of pick-up, Breggin says if they price it out, they may find the cost is offset by savings when their haul of regular trash is reduced.
The federal government set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030 — a goal Nashville may soon adopt. But to accomplish that, it will take more than restaurant participation. The NRDC figures the average family wastes $1500 a year on food they don’t eat. All told, 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. ends up in the trash.
“That’s equivalent to going in the grocery store, buying five bags of groceries, walking out and dropping two of them in the parking lot,” Darby Hoover of the NRDC says. “That’s how much food we’re wasting. So if you’re wasting that, you’re wasting energy, you’re wasting water, you’re wasting land, and fertilizer. You’re also wasting money.”
The NRDC chose Nashville as a proving ground. The conservation group hopes to achieve meaningful reductions that could convince other cities to give it a try.