Fighting Food Waste
Working Toward Food Reclamation
Story and Photography by Mike Brownlee
Daniella Uslan likes what she sees in the fight to end food waste in Omaha. The North Carolina resident met with a variety of stakeholders in the food system during a stop in the city, part of a journey to find the best strategies to keep produce out of the garbage. “People are passionately trying to tackle this issue. They understand how food waste detrimentally impacts the environment and the opportunity this presents to connect food to folks in need,” Daniella says.
The 27-year-old works at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, where she administers a healthy cooking class for low-income adults in rural communities, facilitates an undergraduate class on sustainable food systems and conducts research on food waste and food access issues. She also works at the North Carolina Division of Public Health, where she works on state-level policies that increase fruit and vegetable access.
Her research at UNC—spurred in part by Jonathon Bloom’s 2010 book, American Wasteland—inspired Daniella to work toward creating a business that connects excess farm produce to low-access communities. She noted options on fulfilling that goal, possibly through community-supported agriculture, a restaurant or a business that focuses on preserving leftover produce through canning or flash-freezing. “I find social entrepreneurship fascinating,” she says. “And I believe there is an essential place for businesses in making a large social impact.
Her trip to Omaha while traversing the country as a passenger with the Millennial Trains Project, a crowd-funded nonprofit endeavor that takes civic-minded 20- and 30-somethings across the country to work on a variety of socially driven projects. The 10-day, seven-stop trip began in San Francisco and ended in Washington, D.C. The ride featured on-board seminars, the opportunity to work with mentors and meetings with residents during stops.
While in Omaha, Daniella organized a meeting with members of the food system at Table Grace Café in downtown Omaha. The “community restaurant,” as founder, Chef and director Matt Weber calls it, provides access to healthy food “to people of all walks of life, no matter their economic situation.” There are no prices on the menu, which consists of meals prepared with food donated by a few grocery stores, farms and pantries. Diners offer free-will donations for their meal, sometimes working in the kitchen in lieu of a cash payment. Any unusable food goes to Big Muddy Farm of Omaha for composting or to local food pantries. The nonprofit wastes nothing. “It’s important that the food in excess at grocery stores and elsewhere, if it’s still usable and edible, is used,” he says. “That’s just good stewardship. That’s what we work to do.”
Matt Cronin with Big Muddy Farm says, “The Table Grace mission aligns with our mission.” The farm, founded last year, is a collective of seven producers that grow fruit and vegetables at six sites throughout the city. Through partnerships with area restaurants and coffee shops, including Table Grace Café, Big Muddy Farm collects pre-consumer food waste for its compost piles. “We have so many problems with food waste in this country,” Matt Cronin says. “We understand it’s sometimes hard for institutions to do it themselves. We want to help close some loops.”
Daniella’s meeting featured Matt Weber and representatives from both Big Muddy Farm and local nonprofit No More Empty Pots. The hour-long discussion touched on a variety of issues in the fight against waste, with a focus on working with grocery stores and changing the mindset about salvaged food.
Kay Stevens, project coordinator with No More Empty Pots, lamented the fact that many Omaha supermarkets don’t donate their excess food, despite a “good Samaritan” law that absolves the businesses of liability in the event of a food-caused illness. That’s where rebranding could help. “To think you’re taking society’s discards and feeding them to the less fortunate, that could look detrimental,” Daniella says. “But it’s about reframing what this food is—this is valuable food. These are important people, this is important food.” This effort, she says, is about a shift in mind frame.
While in Omaha, Daniella picked up the phrase “food reclamation” to describe the effort to eliminate waste, a phrase she took with her to meetings in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. “It’s not waste unless it ends up going to no one,” Kay told the visitor. “We need to keep food out of the trash.” While meeting with stakeholders, Daniella promoted the use of shared kitchens, which she’s seen put to good use in North Carolina. “They serve as a hub where businesses of all sizes can execute their ideas and bring local, healthy food to the public,” she says.
Daniella says the food-waste fighters she met in Omaha are doing inspiring things. At Big Muddy Farm, crops are either sold or donated, with any unusable produce going to the compost heap, which helps grow the next bounty of vegetables and fruit. Community Produce Rescue of Benson is where David Hibler, known as “Dr. D,” and his wife, Judith, pick up salvageable fruit and vegetables from Whole Foods Market to distribute to food pantries, homeless shelters and other locations for low-income clients. From those organizations and others Daniella says she gained insight on the macro and micro levels of the fight. “When addressing an issue of this magnitude, one that requires large-scale policy changes, it is important to remember how change occurs at the community level,” she says, reflecting on her visit. “Omaha has the people and passion to continue to make a large impact in food waste and food security.”
Mike Brownlee covers cops and courts (and a lot more) for the Daily Nonpareil newspaper of Council Bluffs. When he’s not at work he’s usually walking a pug.