Spoil Alert

As a nation, we throw 40 percent of our food -- most of it perfectly edible -- into the trash. One offbeat anti-waste crusader is making it her personal mission to put a dent in the colossal pile.

By Elizabeth Royte

Holly Elmore zips through the Atlanta traffic in her 1994 red convertible, sipping from an oversize to-go cup, shifting gears, and checking her phone for dir ections seemingly all at once. We are headed to meet Robby Astrove, a young arborist who volunteers for a group called Concrete Jungle, prowling the city for trees laden with unwanted fruit and then delivering the scavenged bounty to local food pantries and soup kitchens. Astrove is among the legions of foot soldiers who slog alongside Elmore in the war on food waste she began to wage some five years back.

"I founded Elemental Impact to teach and promote sustainable operating practices in the food-service and corporate industries," the 53-year-old former caterer says of the environmental nonprofit she established in 2010, two years after creating this city's Zero Waste Zones, which commits local restaurants and businesses to donating leftovers, composting scraps, and converting used cooking oil to biofuel.

"The Zero Waste Zones concept was a matter of economic, not environmental, vitality," Elmore says, glancing in the rearview mirror and then darting into the adjacent lane. "You see, the state owns the Georgia World Congress Center. It's one of the largest sports, entertainment, and convention centers in the nation. And we'd just lost a convention to Orlando, which was perceived as a greener city. That's a lot of revenue the state could lose."

And just like that, Elmore took it as her personal mission to green Atlanta's food-service industry.

Her timing was impeccable, for never in the nation's history have we wasted so much food. In 1980, food waste made up 9.5 percent (by weight) of municipal landfills. By 2010, that percentage had leaped to 20.5. According to a report released this August by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Americans waste roughly 40 percent of all our edible food. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pegs the total amount at 33 million tons a year.

That's a shocking amount, and it can be difficult to wrap our heads around exactly where and how this loss occurs. Some food never makes it off the farm, of course. Some is lost during production (cucumbers culled because their curves don't conform to standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example), and some spoils during transportation. But more than 60 percent of the food lost in the United States occurs at the retail and consumer level -- at supermarkets, in catering halls, on buffet lines, in restaurants and cafes, and in the backs of our refrigerators. On average, households waste 14 percent of total food purchases, according to research conducted at the University of Arizona.

Confused by expiration dates, "sell before" dates, and "best before" dates, most people err on the side of caution. We toss food because it looks a little bruised, because we've bought too much of it, because we've forgotten it's hiding behind the tamari bottle, and because it's gone bad. Food is abundant, it's ceaselessly marketed to us, and most of it is insanely cheap, considering what goes into growing or producing it. (Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than do residents of any other country.) We've always known that wasting food is wrong. But now, as researchers better quantify how much we waste and where, we're learning that it matters more than we ever thought.

First, there's the cost of wasted food. A family of four spends $1,600 a year on food that ends up, in edible form, in the kitchen trash can. And putting that food in landfills costs municipalities $1 billion annually. Even more surprising -- and ultimately more harmful -- is the environmental impact of food not consumed. According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to agriculture, and that doesn't even account for the emissions associated with processing and transporting food. It gets worse: In a landfill, food waste decomposes and generates methane, a greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Seeking to cut those emissions, save landfill space, and produce valuable compost, large cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon, have established curbside food-scrap collection programs. And more than 200 communities nationwide -- including Duluth, Minnesota; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and Northampton, Massachusetts -- have established drop-off points for residential food waste. Any college that touts its green credentials has a compost pile; the EPA organizes webinars on handling food waste; and haulers and business and government leaders are flocking to food-waste-reduction conferences. And in Atlanta, intrepid individuals, most of them connected by Holly Elmore -- the Kevin Bacon of wasted food -- are doing something even more valuable than making fertilizer: They're getting food to people who will actually eat it.

Elmore and i whisk through verdant urban enclaves and eventually arrive in the city's Sweet Auburn district, where we find Astrove. The bearded 33-year-old trolls the city with a mental map of 1,000 trees that fruit in public parks, along roadsides, on golf courses, and in private yards. With a blue Ikea sack to hold his bounty, he moves from pear tree to apple tree, shaking and plucking, shaking and plucking. To cushion the fall of peaches and plums, he puts a plastic tarp on the sidewalk. When the sacks are full, he sorts and washes the pickings in a kiddie pool, then delivers them to food pantries and soup kitchens, where the fruit is consumed whole, cut into salads, or canned as preserves. An excess of apples -- last fall, he and his fellow volunteers collected 30 Ikeas of them in one day -- will be pressed into cider. Since 2009, Concrete Jungle has rescued more than 10,000 pounds of fruit -- or 30,000-plus servings that otherwise would have gone to waste.

Not far from Astrove and his fruiting trees, Myron Smith, who retired from the packaging business in 2004, lurks along the edges of the Dunwoody farmers' market, the palest and gentlest vulture you've ever seen. Smith has his eye on bunches of collards and zucchini that might not sell by the market's closing, in 15 minutes. Before he began collecting such food, and donating it to shelters and food pantries through a local nonprofit called Second Helpings, farmers backhauled their products to make compost or simply tossed it into a trash bin. But food recovery has a hierarchy: The highest and best use for ex cess is feeding hungry people, followed by feeding animals, making compost, and digesting it in an enclosed vessel and capturing the resulting methane to produce energy.

"We had been collecting a lot of br ead from bakeries for shelters, and we wanted to get food that was more nutritious," Smith says. "Then Holly starting introducing me to people who had excess food. Soon, we were collecting fresh produce from seven farmers' markets around town."

Now, in part because of Elmore's connections, Second Helpings also collects produce from a wholesale distributor, ready-to-eat meals from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, and soups and salads from caterers, corporate cafeterias, and convention centers -- a total of 45,000 pounds of food a month.

Smith escorts Elmore and me around the market, introducing us to sellers. At the Heirloom Gardens stall, we meet farmer Paula Guilbeau. "I visited the pantry that takes some of our food," Guilbeau says. "And when I saw the women and children in line, that changed my whole thought process. I realized that could be me." Guilbeau's eyes fill with tears. "And I know they're not getting enough vegetables -- it's canned food. I know I'm just one person helping, but I do believe in the power of one."

I glance at the farm's leftovers -- one bunch of parsley and two of kale -- and ask Smith if there's any quantity too small for Second Helpings to deliver. "For someone who's hungry, nothing's too small," he says.

Across the nation, farmers, wholesalers, supermarkets, and restaurants are enacting their own versions of food rescue, but on a gargantuan scale. Protected from liability by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 and motivated by ever-higher landfill disposal fees and the tax benefits of donation, supermarket chains are giving more food to shelters and pantries. Restaurants are passing along heated, prepared foods, and delis and gas stations are donating day-old turkey wraps and egg salad sandwiches. Looking to cut expenses -- food waste costs commercial and retail food-service operations $30 to $40 billion a year -- some restaurants are trying to change consumer behavior. In Australia, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia, there are reports of eating establishments that actually lev y modest fines on diners who leave food on their plates.

Steve Simon's upscale Ecco restaurant, in midtown Atlanta, rarely has leftovers to donate, but it does have plenty of inedible scraps that, thanks to Elmore, the staff now sets aside for composting. "Holly came to me and asked me to do this," Simon says, shrugging as he sips a glass of white wine at Ecco's bar. "Then she made me read a report about the greenhouse-gas impact of landfills. I'm a numbers guy, so that resonated with me."

What Elmore didn't know is that Simon had grown up near a landfill in Michigan, and he understood exactly what makes dumps smell so bad: rotting food. And here he was, sending 50,000 pounds of food a month, from five restaurants and a catering company, to a landfill in someone else's backyard. Convincing his staff to get on board wasn't a hard sell, Simon says. "The industry is fairly liberal. They said, 'Oh, you want to do something good for the community and the earth? Just tell me what to do.'" Now Ecco, which feeds 2,000 customers a week, sends to the landfill no more than does a family of four.

Elmore checks her phone -- it's time to move on. Careening across town, she points out landmarks ar chitectural, culinary, and arboreal, then brings her convertible to a halt outside the luxury catering company Affairs to Remember.

Like any caterer, Affairs routinely produces 5 percent more meals than it serves. "Restaurants can cancel an entree if they run out of something," Patrick Cuccaro, the company's general manager, explains. "They can also repurpose leftovers, which we can't do because our menus are set weeks in advance. We overproduce because the last thing you want at a banquet is to run out of food."

Affairs to Remember joined Zero Waste Zones for environmental reasons, Cuccaro says, but membership has turned out to be a selling point. "It resonates, especially with Fortune 500 companies that are keen on improving sustainability and with nonprofits in the environmental sector."

Like others who've dared to stick their heads into their waste bins, Affairs' executive chef Ahmad Nourzad found that measuring scraps was a gateway to even greater conservation. "I realized we were leaving way too many leaves on bunches of herbs," he says. "And the asparagus stalks were mostly edible." It was costing him money to haul this stuff away. Nourzad insisted his staff pluck every herb leaf. "Then we started to repurpose those asparagus stalks into sauces and salads," he says. "First, they were going to the trash, then we composted them, and now we're eating them."

Elmore loves this kind of story, a tale of unintended but happy consequences for the environment and a company's bottom line. She nods at Nourzad and grins, in a "told you so" way, at Cuccaro.

With her flouncy skirts and jaunty caps in matching sorbet colors, Elmore makes a curious emissary between the food-service and environmental communities; a former corporate accountant, she's had no formal culinary or scientific training. "I create things," she explains in her typically bubbly manner. "It never occurs to me to do any research. I'm a Scorpio." Indeed, Elmore started her catering company with no food-service experience (it lasted 15 years) and invented Zero Waste Zones without having visited a recycling facility or compost operation. "I learned not to be logical but to follow my inner guideline," she says. "I flow."

Elmore may be idiosyncratic -- and her energy level slightly exhausting -- but there's no denying that she makes connections between disparate factions (local government, trade associations, nonprofits, private enterprise) or that she's helped to keep many millions of pounds of food out of landfills. Not only have her efforts led to the creation of compost (which nourishes soil, conserves water, and replaces conventional fertilizers); they've also fed untold numbers of hungry people. "Holly is a unique person," Smith, of Second Helpings, says. "She deserves tremendous credit for all that she has done and is doing to create a better world."

Nationwide, the amount of food being diverted from landfills is slowly creeping up, and that's good. But according to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, "Reducing the amount of food waste we create is even more valuable -- for ethical, environmental, and economic reasons -- than reducing the amount we landfill or incinerate." Imagine the resources we'd conserve if we grew only what we consumed. "We use about as much water as there is in Lake Erie every year to produce food that's never eaten," Dana Gunders, a scientist with the NRDC, says. In the August report, she noted that agricultural production accounts for more than half of all land use in this countr y, while 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget goes to bringing food to our tables.

Individual consumers -- the last link in the long chain between farm and fork -- can help skew this equation. We can teach ourselves how to preserve food, become better shoppers and cooks, and order "better" in a restaurant. For Elmore, who says she eats out seven nights a week to avoid food loss at home, this means finishing everything on her plate or asking, unashamedly, for a doggie bag. Of course, not everyone is able to dine out seven nights a week, or would want to. But as our grocery and garbage-hauling bills rise, and as we come to understand the negative impacts of growing and landfilling food, we're all converging on the same simple lesson. We must learn to buy only the food we'll actually eat, and eat the food we've already bought.

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