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Diverting food from the landfill to hungry people

April 5, 2018

Bennington Banner

State-imposed recycling mandates and efforts by the Vermont Food Bank to coordinate donations from larger retailers have led to a significant increase in goods available to charity food programs. Statistics show that 40 percent of food grown in the U.S. is wasted, but Vermont is leading the way to reduce this.

"That's just kind of a crazy statistic when you think about it," said Anne Bijur, of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. That 40 percent translates into 133 billion pounds, she said. "If we can get that food out of the landfill and into hungry Vermonters' bellies, that's amazing, that's fantastic."

"What we want to do is shift the focus from feeding landfills to feeding Vermonters," she said.

The Hunger Council of Bennington County and the CAPA Food Clinic at Bennington College met on March 28 to discuss Act 148, Vermont's Universal Recycling Law. Passed unanimously by the Legislature in 2012, this law is the most significant change to Vermont's solid waste system in recent history.

Act 148 includes a focus on reducing food waste, with the goal of all Vermont businesses, organizations and households eliminating food from the waste stream by 2020.

"One of the really positive outcomes of the law is that the food bank and food shelves have seen a 40 percent increase, and that's actually even gone up, in food donations since the law went into effect, the ban went into effect," she said. "And that's mostly fresh foods, produce that they really weren't getting before."

Closely related to this, Kelsey Pratt, of the Vermont Food Bank spoke of how she works to connect food bank network members with produce, baked goods and more donated by larger food outlets.

Ilsa Svoboda, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Bennington County, praised the partnership with the food bank in getting store donations.

"I cannot believe the food we get. I cannot believe what we pick up from Price Chopper, Walmart. On any day we have to bring three cars just to fill up. Their whole bakery comes to us," she said. "Sometimes we get two carloads of meat and we're able to turn that meat over or freeze it.

"But our seniors are eating wonderful fresh food on a daily basis," she said. "I mean they're eating seafood. They're eating things they never had before in their whole life. The program's absolutely fabulous."

Picking up, sorting and storing these increased donations takes time and money and raises the concern that the costs of the law are being pushed onto food-related charities. Bijur said she would learn about the donation process with Pratt "and how we can help with grant funding meet some of the needs of local food shelves so that you can better handle and manage the onslaught of donations."

The stages of Act 148

Bijur asked those present to imagine the average Vermonter's trash bag and consider the percentage of different materials in the bag. Showing a chart, she said that more than 50 percent of what's in the average trash bag could be recycled, composted or donated.

"So it shows that we're not really doing a good job in our waste management," she said. "And it's not a new problem; it's been this way for over 20 years."

The genesis of the law came in 2010 with frustration at this issue and an uptick in the market for recyclables. At this time the state recycling plan and policies in place had no teeth and there was no consistency across the state. People were confused about what could be recycled, Bijur said.

One reason to care about his issue is that landfill space is limited. Vermont only has one active landfill, in Coventry. "Almost all the waste in Vermont is transported all the way up to the northern part of the state, almost to Canada," Bijur said. "So landfill space is limited and expensive to build."

Climate change is another reason to care. Organic matter, including food scraps, clean wood and yard debris end up covered and packed down in a landfill where no oxygen can reach. The result is anaerobic decomposition and methane is the product. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, more potent than carbon dioxide, she said.

Finally, discarding so much usable material is just a waste of resources. "It's kind of a very old technology to dig a hole in the ground and bury stuff," Bijur said. "There's a lot of embodied resources in everything going in there."

On a philosophical level, Act 148 was about changing the common mindset. Instead of thinking about waste we just want to get rid of, make a shift and start thinking about resources and valuable materials. This includes talking about the highest and best use of a material. Meeting packets included a chart — an upside-down triangle — of the Vermont Food Recovery Hierarchy. The best and most commom uses are at the top down to the least preferred and less common uses at the bottom at the point of the triangle.

At the top of the hierarchy is source reduction — activities designed to reduce the volume, mass, or toxicity of products throughout their life cycle. It includes the design and manufacture, use, and disposal of products with minimum toxic content, minimum volume of material, and/or a longer useful life.

After source reduction, in descending order of priority come food for people, food for animals, composting and anaerobic digestion, and fuel recovery.

"We want to just decrease the overall waste generated, to reduce waste in general, to reduce the size of that trash bag," Bijur said. "But then we also want to increase recycling and diversion of organics, increase composting across the state."

There are four parts to the law, she said.

To set an example, "one of the first parts of the law dictated paired bins in all public spaces. So it should be as easy to recycle something as it is to throw something in the trash," she said. "So any building that's public owned or any land like state parks, have to have recycling bins if they have a trash bin."

The second part of the law was to make recycling and composting more consistent and more convenient. The mandated recyclables in Vermont consist of the "statewide six" — cardboard, paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and steel. The applicable plastic is marked with either 1 or 2 — generally plastic containers or bottles.

"In terms of convenience, trash haulers and all transfer stations must also accept recyclables, food scraps as well, if they're going to accept trash," she said.

The "carrot" or incentive part of the law instituted "pay as you throw" pricing. "You pay for the amount of trash that you generate — that could be by volume, that could be by weight and that's up to your hauler," she said. Like paying for gas from the pump, you pay for as much as you use. "Hopefully that's an incentive for people to reduce their trash."

The "stick" part of the law is the landfill ban. The ban prohibiting recyclables went into effect in 2015. The first food scrap ban went into effect in 2014, for large food scrap generators, such as universities and hospitals. The next ban came in 2015, for generators of one ton of food scraps per week. In 2016, the landfill ban went into effect for those producing half a ton of food scraps per week. In 2017, the ban went into effect for generators of one-third of a ton of food scraps per week.

Bijur said the DEC has been doing outreach in Bennington. "The Blue Benn Diner: they now need to be composting and they are. Chili's: they need to be doing it now and they are," she said. "So it's some of the smaller mom and pop like convenience stores, that kind of level."

In 2020, everyone will need to divert food scraps from the trash.

Vermont is the first state to legislate priority management of food. Vermont doesn't stand alone in this effort to switch to stable materials management, however. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and California have landfill bans. Cities such as New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Portland, Ore. also have food waste bans. In 2013, the federal EPA and the USDA pledged to reduce national food waste by 50 percent by 2030, Bijur said.

The state wants to get the word out about the landfill ban. Bijur said she and a colleague were going to a couple of places after the meeting "and just kind of give them a gentle reminder that this ban is here and it's not going away, and that they need to do their part and it can be good for their bottom line, too."

Pratt said the Vermont Food Bank helps connect its member partners with larger grocery stories such as Price Chopper, Hannaford, Shaw's, Walmart, Trader Joe's, Healthy Living, Aldi and Cumberland Farms. The donations are of food the stores rotate off their shelves, though still quite edible and in good shape.

"I work with them to create a relationship, a schedule and they put food aside for donations that the food shelf comes and picks up," she said. "This program actually piloted in Chicago in the late '90s, and so it's been going on for a pretty long time across the nation."

The Vermont Food Bank adopted the program about four years ago. The program developed through Feeding America and the larger grocery store chains getting together on a corporate level. They worked together to develop guidelines set forth through the food bank. These include requirements for participating food shelves and periodic monitoring of them by the food bank.

As Act 148 has increased incentives for donating food, Pratt said she had gotten more calls from some of the smaller retail grocers, even the ones that don't have the corporate relationship such as Hannaford and other stores do.

"I think it's important to know that within your community there are plenty of places that have a surplus of food; there's plenty of places that throw things out." Pratt said she can serve as a resource in making connections in such situations.

In 2017, the Vermont Food Bank and its partner agencies "captured almost 13 million pounds of food," Pratt said.

Grateful Hearts and SVMC

Grateful Hearts is a nine-year-old non-profit that converts surplus produce gleaned from local farms into ready-to-eat meals. At the meeting, co-founder Dale Coppin spoke of the recent partnership the Grateful Hearts program has developed with the food service department of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

"We've hit big-time with the partnership with the hospital to the tune of 30,000 individual servings per year," he said. "It's unbelievable."

Said Tiffany Tobin, director of hospitality services at SVMC, "We didn't have the product. He didn't have labor or the equipment so we put it all together to make it work."

Macy Disney, a VISTA volunteer with the Bennington County Regional Commission, spoke about composting, food for animals and anaerobic digestion. Informational resources about composting and related topics are available on the website of the Bennington County Solid Waste Alliance, a program the regional commission supports.

The mission of the BCSWA is to reduce the amount of waste disposed of in landfills, incinerators, or similar means by reducing the amount of waste generated, conserving resources, and promoting recycling and reuse.

Disney said there are not many big farms in the county that utilize waste food for animals. She encouraged those interested to build relationships and call neighbors to see if they need such food waste for their animals.

Anaerobic digestion is a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. One of the end products is biogas, which is combusted to generate electricity and heat, or can be processed into renewable natural gas and transportation fuels. This is an expensive process, however, and most trash haulers in Bennington County do not yet have such digesters, she said.



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September 23, 2016
Meat Grinding Record Keeping Requirement
September 22, 2016
Halloween Spending to Reach $8.4 Billion, Highest in Survey History
September 21, 2016
Farrell Distributing along with Leunig’s Bistro & 12 local restaurants to raise money for the UVMMC Breast Care Center
September 19, 2016
Dick Barnes Recognized for Long-term Service to Vermont
August 29, 2016
Survey Finds Seven in 10 Small Retailers ‘Overwhelmed’ By Government Regulations, Mandates
August 23, 2016
Cabot partnership to help Food, Farms & Forests Fund
August 11, 2016
Vermont will not enforce GE Food Labeling Law
August 2, 2016
Woodstock Farmers’ Market Gold Barn Honoree
July 26, 2016
National Retail Federation Upgrades 2016 Economic Forecast
July 21, 2016
Back-to-School and College Spending to Reach $75.8 Billion
July 1, 2016
NRF Welcomes Appeals Court Ruling Against Disputed Credit Card Swipe Fee Settlement
June 30, 2016
Vermont’s earned sick leave law
June 16, 2016
2016 Scholarship Recipients Named
June 15, 2016
City Market considers next phase of expansion
May 26, 2016
Congressman Welch Honored as NRF Legislator of the Year
May 25, 2016
NRF Recognizes Legislators of the Year
May 16, 2016
#ShopNaked at the Woodstock Farmers Market
May 13, 2016
Walmart suing Visa over chip card
May 11, 2016
From Seeds To Sweets, Small Businesses Are A Winning Formula In Lamoille County
May 11, 2016
City Market Job Opening - Director of Operations
May 5, 2016
Sherman and Trombley of Stowe Mercantile are VRGA Persons of the Year
April 27, 2016
Americans to Spoil Mom this Mother's Day
April 11, 2016
The House passes a resolution honoring Bethany Berger
April 4, 2016
A Hannaford Supermarkets program surpasses 2 significant milestones
March 30, 2016
A Vanilla shortage?
March 18, 2016
Vermont Pickle on Local 22 & Local 44
March 10, 2016
Best Bagger 2016
March 7, 2016
Onion River Co-op partners with Mansfield Cooperative to save Underhill Country Store
March 7, 2016
14 Vermont businesses receive $14,000 to attend national trade shows
March 1, 2016
Bethany Berger takes home 2nd place!
February 26, 2016
Only ONE booth left!
December 4, 2015
It's Scholarship Time!
October 6, 2015
Gubernatorial Candidates to Judge Vermont Bagging Championship
July 22, 2015
Three Vermont Businesses named America’s Retail Champions
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Vermont Retail & Grocers Association
963 Paine Turnpike North
Berlin, VT 05602

Telephone: 802-839-1928
Fax: 802-839-1927
Email: info@vtrga.org