Waste Is a Problem for Food Banks Too—This Nonprofit Is Trying to Fix It

A high-end compost system will help the San Diego aid group stop sending scraps to the landfill.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

It’s the mission of food banks to provide a nutritional safety net to the 48 million food-insecure people in the U.S., so it might be surprising to learn that food banks—just like university dining halls and other high-volume food service providers—struggle with food waste.

Take the San Diego Food Bank. It receives more than 23 million pounds of food annually, but about 500,000 pounds of that is damaged or expired product that can’t be distributed, costing it about $25,000 a year in landfill fees—which isn’t exactly chump change for a nonprofit. Then there are the environmental costs. Landfilled food waste produces methane and leachate, which contribute to climate change and pollute water systems, respectively.

“That’s a struggle for food banks, and it’s real,” said San Diego Food Bank vice president of finance and administration Casey Castillo. “We know there’s a better way.”

That way is a zero landfilled food waste goal, which the food bank hopes to achieve with the help of an aerobic, in-vessel rotary drum composting system that will arrive in November. The high-tech composter can process 2,000 pounds of food waste per day. A bulking agent, such as shredded cardboard, hay, or kiln-dried wood shavings, is added to the food scraps, and in five days, the result is a nutrient-dense compost that will be distributed to local farms and community gardens. The composter cost $200,000, and the food bank anticipates it will pay for itself in five to seven years.

The composting system is the latest stage in the food bank’s multi-pronged sustainability plan, which already includes a 350 kW solar array, LED lighting retrofits, and a high-efficiency HVAC system, all of which have resulted in a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption in its warehouse over the last three years.

“We were spending $120,000 on electricity costs. We wiped that out. We want to show that you can have results with a sustainability plan,” Castillo said. “We want it to be tangible, so we’re going to have compost to show for it.”

A holiday food drive organized by the San Diego Food Bank. (Photo: Facebook)

The move puts the food bank in early compliance with California’s AB 1826, which requires businesses such as restaurants, supermarkets, and food processors to separate food scraps for organics recycling by April 2016. Mandatory recycling of organic waste is the next step toward achieving California’s recycling and greenhouse gas emission goals, Lance Klug, public information officer for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, told Waste360.

“Requiring organic waste programs at the jurisdictional level will also help in terms of infrastructure development, further aiding California in meeting its statewide goal of 75 percent recycling, composting, and source reduction of waste by 2020,” he said.

In the northern part of the state, San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market has set a high bar. Through its Waste Wise Initiative, established in 2008, more than 90 percent of its waste is composted or recycled. But locally, the San Diego Food Bank is ahead of the curve.

“As far as we can hear in the community and out and about with nonprofits and from the city of San Diego, we understand that we are leading here, and we are ahead of the game,” Castillo said. The nonprofit is ahead on the national level as well, and Castillo thinks this could be the beginning of more food banks following suit. As others hear about the new composter, he said, many have reached out to learn more.

“I think in the next year or two you’re going to see a lot of food banks heading in this direction, especially if they see some success in what we’re doing. They want to be good stewards of the environment, but they also want to save money and be good stewards of donor funds,” he said.