Food scraps in a green compost bin
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In Nashville and New York, officials are leveraging relationships with companies and nonprofits to get smarter about food usage and disposal.

American cities have a trash problem: there’s too much of it, and not enough places to put it. Even Nashville, which stores its waste in nearby Rutherford County, is going to have a reckoning when that landfill reaches capacity—which is expected to happen in the next few years.

In many cities, much of the discarded refuse is scrapped food. As CityLab reported last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently took stock of the landscape of food waste in Nashville, Denver, and New York. Spoiler alert: There was a lot of it.

The total amount of food squandered in Nashville each week works out to be 3.4 pounds per capita. In New York, it’s 3.2 pounds. Within the industrial, commercial, and institutional sectors, restaurants were the biggest contributors to wasted food. In Nashville, 34 percent of the total food waste came from the restaurant world; in New York, scraps from these kitchens comprised 20 percent of the city’s trashed food.

A sliver of potential good news: With new public-private models, both metros are doubling down on incentives to nudge restaurants to reduce the volume of food lost along the way.

The city of Nashville has partnered with restaurants and the NRDC to come up with its solution. After Nashville mayor Megan Barry convened a task force, the group devised the Nashville Food Saver Challenge, which focused on changing behavior through a spirit of competition between restaurants.

The Food Saver Challenge called on restaurants to reuse what they could, donate leftover food, and send their scraps to be composted. The 55 participating businesses chose five sustainability measures to commit to over a three-month period. Now, beyond restaurants, the city is asking food retailers, like grocery stores, to come on board.

“We had originally gone in thinking we’ll require everyone to weigh their food waste, and the feedback we got was no one’s going to do that! If you want people to participate, it has to be more flexible,” says Linda Breggin, the Nashville Food Waste Initiative’s project coordinator.

Mayor Barry said the legislature, too, would have balked at anything they perceived as government overreach. “As a blue city in a red state, we are aware of what legislators would do if we tried to mandate something,” Barry said during an interview at the recent CityLab summit in Paris. That meant convincing local businesses that rethinking the way they dealt with food waste was in their best interest. “The private sector is always excited when you can talk about saving money,” said Barry. So she pointed out that repurposing food—like using scraps to make broth—could help restaurants feed their margins and cut back on how much they had to spend on trash collection.  

Barry emphasizes that what Nashville has is a “private-public partnership”—not the other way around. Public-private partnerships are the traditional way of describing collaborations between governments and the private sector in the performance of city functions. “The private sector has to help us lead the way; the public sector can’t solve all these complex problems,” Barry said. “But what we can do is be the convener, and that’s what we did with these restaurants.”

Among the greatest successes of the program Barry is already pointing to: The Country Music Hall of Fame, which has three busy kitchens, reduced its trash by 24 percent and has increased its recycling, food donations, and composting, according to Karl Ebert, the museum’s assistant director of operations.

“No chef likes to throw food away or waste food,” says Ebert. But, he adds, “while it’s nice to want that, to actually do something about it is that next step. And I think that’s where the challenge really helped not only us, but other restaurants, to start doing something to make a big difference in the city.” The organization began educating all of its employees about “what goes where,” distinguishing between food that could be reused, composted, or donated.

Broadly speaking, “cities are well-motivated and well-positioned to look at food waste,” says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the NRDC. Tackling food waste, she adds, can help reduce how much food cities ship off to landfills, and can help fight hunger. (A 2016 report from the USDA noted that roughly 13.4 percent of Tennesseans are food insecure.) Keeping food from festering in heaps can also offset cities’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Most of the restaurants that chose to participate in the Food Saver Challenge were local businesses, not larger chains, says Sharon Smith, the Assistant Director of Metro Nashville Public Works. But now, as Nashville prepares to bring retailers on board for the next challenge in 2018, it has a giant in its corner. Kroger, which was the world’s third-largest supermarket chain as of 2016, has signed up. The city is hoping to see more retailers do the same.

Meanwhile, New York is targeting the little guys. In July, the Department of Sanitation’s nonprofit arm, the Foundation for New York’s strongest, hosted the Food Waste Fair, which brought together more than 1,000 attendees across business sectors and partner organizations to reduce waste.

This week, using money raised from that event, they’re launching a $50,000 microgrant initiative. Individual awards of $2,000 will be doled out to small businesses, which the fund is defining as outfits with 25 or fewer employees or less than $1 million in annual revenue. Businesses might range from bodegas to diners, says Elizabeth Balkan, the fund’s executive director. She’s hoping that some will look around, conscript some neighboring establishments, and join up together. (Cadres are eligible for up to $5,000 in funding.)

Banding together could help small businesses have a greater impact. Maybe it’s not feasible for a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to get the odd surplus gallon of milk over to a food pantry—but if that restaurant combines efforts with the bakery, café, and butcher shop down the block, they might find a way to streamline procedures and design a solution such as an aggregated regular pickup.

Even in small organizations that aren’t so bound by the bureaucracy that can stymie more sprawling outfits, Balkan says, budgets or workflows can make it tricky to get incremental change off the ground. These microgrant funds can be used flexibly, so that the recipients can zero in on a project that meets their specific needs. Applicants will have until January 8 to apply for the awards, for which they’ll need to outline a plan, budget, timeline, and procedure for tracking and evaluating results. “We want to see that food waste is a major part of their footprint, and that we can have a scalable impact,” Balkan says.

Partner organizations including Kickstarter are posting some matching funds or donating technical acumen, equipment, or supplies, such as compostable bags and bins to separate organic waste from the rest of the pile.

Modest partnerships can get momentum going—even when they’re “grassroots and low key” like the ones Nashville has designed, says Ebert. “Nashville’s one of those cities where it’s a close-knit community. Small movements have a huge impact here.”

Funding from Mastercard was provided to support our project "City Capital."

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