Food Waste to Plate: A Transcontinental Train Ride to Learn From the Real Food Pioneers

Americans throw out an astounding 40 percent of food each year, a value of $165 billion. The food, left in landfills, emits methane gas and contributes to global warming. Not only does food waste squander resources and money, food is missing the mouths of those who need it most.
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Americans throw out an astounding 40 percent of food each year, a value of $165 billion. The food, left rotting in landfills, emits methane gas and contributes to global warming. Not only does food waste squander resources and money, food is missing the mouths of those who need it most. One in six Americans lack reliable sources of food and 23.5 million people live in food deserts, or areas that lack fresh fruit and vegetable options because of a dearth of retail outlets and farmer's markets. Under the guidance of Drs. Alice Ammerman and Molly De Marco at the University of North Carolina, Chapel-Hill, I was tasked with finding ways to prevent food waste and promote food access. It was decided to look at these two problems and connect them through the lens of social entrepreneurship: was there a space for business to recover food that would otherwise be wasted and create a product that is healthy, accessible and affordable? I wanted to learn more about social enterprises, food recovery organizations and novel approaches to addressing hunger. I decided to explore the idea of creating a value-added product from food destined to be wasted by finding ways to extend it's life, maintain it's nutritional integrity and price it affordably. With this idea and supportive mentors I set out to learn what was happening on this issue around the country.

This August, I joined The Millennial Trains Project, a crowdfunded, transcontinental train journey. I, along with 23 other millennials, took a train ride with whistle stops in seven U.S. cities; San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. These cities actively promote local foods, provide healthy food access, support farmers and advocate for community development. Some of the organizations in this cities address food waste, others recognize it as the next frontier.

I started off my journey in San Francisco, home to the nation's leading expert in food waste research, Dana Gunders of The National Resources Defense Council. Dana and I discussed the findings from her seminal report, specifically discussing food that rots on the agricultural level, as up to 50 percent of planted fields are not harvested. Farmers can only sell immaculate produce in order to pass quality standards and meet the demand of picky consumers. Blemished or misshapen produce does not make the grade. Dana noted that creating a business that lightly processes below-grade A farm produce, chopping it so blemishes or deformities are not noticeable and flash freezing would meet my goal of selling a nutritious product that reduces food waste. Building off of my original concept and adding in Dana's details, I sought out to learn more.

After a day on the train my fellow passengers and I deboarded in the early morning to explore Salt Lake City. With only 6 hours on the ground I spoke with an anti-hunger activist at the Utah Farmer's Market. Gina Cornia from Utahns Against Hunger saw my venture as an opportunity to capacitate low-income families with purchasing power. As Gina stood at the farmer's market booth trading in peoples' food stamps for market vouchers, she described a food system for low-income families that relied strictly on donations, such as food pantries or food banks, as flawed. Creating more healthy options at affordable prices would give those with nutrition assistance, such as food stamps, the opportunity to purchase quality food instead of cheap and ubiquitous junk food.

Our next stop was Denver, and there I quickly hopped a ride to the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood with Adam Brock from Growhaus, a non-profit indoor farm, marketplace and education center. Adam and I discussed merging a for-profit business with non-profit programs as he sells lettuce greens to local restaurants to support the education programs and pay-as-you-can produce market. I then connected with Lisa Wong from WongWayVeg, a food truck that serves local and healthy versions of Vietnamese street food, and together we visited MMLocal, a local food business that preserves surplus farm produce at it's peak of freshness. MMLocal works with farmers to buy excess seasonal produce and pairs it with delicious recipes, offering an array of tasty, local and seasonal value-added products that can be enjoyed all year long. My conversations in Denver exposed me to various business solutions to promote healthy food and add value to farm surplus.

After Colorado we made our way to Omaha, a city emblematic of the midwest: large grain silos and wind turbines passed my train car window welcoming me to America's agricultural heartland. My first meeting was at a pay-as-you-can restaurant named Table Grace Cafe where I convened partners including owner Matt Weber and urban farmers from Big Muddy Farm and anti-hunger activists from No More Empty Pots. Table Grace Cafe offers meals on a sliding scale made with food from Whole Foods that would have otherwise been tossed out. Together we discussed the opportunities around improving the food system, including community supported agriculture and social mission driven restaurants. Soon nutrition researcher Courtney Pinard from The University of Nebraska met up to join me on my to visit to Dr. David J. Hibler's Community Produce Rescue. Dr. D, as he prefers to be called, picks up unsellable produce from groceries and distributes it to community agencies serving those in need. Dr. D began picking up good quality grocery food that was destined for the dumpster over 20 years ago in order to feed his 8 kids. Now, as a retiree, Dr. D has proven his system can feed the wider Omaha community. Dr. D agreed there was a room for a business solution in addressing the pervasive food waste problem.

The bustling grandeur of Chicago was our next stop, where I had the honor of meeting Julie Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods. Lifeway Foods produces probiotic Kefir yogurt. Julie noted the rewarding benefits of offering a healthy product to consumers as earning profit and promoting health does not have to be mutually exclusive. I then jumped on the bus to venture to The Plant on Chicago's South Side. The Plant is a renovated warehouse housing various food projects under its roof. Small food-based businesses use The Plant's certified kitchen to smoke meat, bake bread and brew beer. An aquaponics farm grows an impressive selection of greens. All the food waste produced by these various projects is processed in an on-site anaerobic digester which converts the food into bio-gas and energy to power the warehouse. This site visit deeply increased my understanding of the closed-loop food system. Leaving Chicago I understood what it meant to be a large scale health food producer, as well as felt greatly inspired by the pioneers of The Plant, who are redefining what it means to be a sustainable food and energy system.

Though I never spoke directly to farmers on my trip, in Pittsburgh I met with Neil Stauffer from Penn's Corner Farm Alliance. As farmers are strapped for time and resources organizations like Penn's Corner steps in to provide marketing and distribution services. Penn's Corner is also a farmer co-op meaning farmers share ownership of the company. After 6 quick hours in Pittsburgh I was on the train to DC where I visited my friend Emily Roberts and Nadia Mercer at The Washington Youth Garden. I couldn't have planned a better last stop, as I reflected on the last 10 days while pulling up leeks in a serene garden tucked away from the city bustle. That evening I joined the Millennial Train passengers for the culminating event at National Geographic headquarters. In front of train sponsors from Nat Geo and the U.N. Foundation I spoke about the urgent need to address food waste and how my conversation with folks around the country incited my commitment and passion to impact the local food system in North Carolina.

Traveling across the country opened my eyes to a different learning approach: experiencing and talking to those on the ground making real world change. As I took a concept from the financial district of San Francisco to a restored warehouse in South Side Chicago I learned from the true pioneers making our food system more viable for people and the planet. Often times we feel frustrated in our inability to make an impact and are locked in to endlessly dreaming. This trip drummed up my own courage to transition from thinking to action, and I encourage dreamers everywhere to make this intimidating yet necessary and powerful next step. Back home in North Carolina, I continue to learn and capture from those inspiring doers in my blog, while making progress to implement my farm waste to plate project.

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