Nashville tackles food waste

Coffee grounds. Banana peels. Apple cores. Most of us pay scant attention to the food we throw away. But with a whopping 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. going uneaten — and 95 percent of it ending up in landfills — that waste is eating valuable financial and land resources. As Nashville, Tenn., Mayor Megan Barry recently noted, “landfill conversations are very complicated. Anything to divert waste stream is impactful.”

That’s why Barry is taking a different, and proactive, approach. By quantifying the amount of food wasted — and offering alternatives to the trash bin — Nashville, a Bloomberg Associates partner city, turned food waste reduction into the Food Saver Challenge. The Challenge was a three-month, friendly competition between 55 participating restaurants to reduce their food waste. Instead of trashing leftover produce, restaurants were encouraged to reuse what they could, donate food, and compost scraps.

The Food Saver Challenge has shown early success. Food scrap composting in the city rose from 20,000 pounds to 52,000 pounds. Restaurants have donated the equivalent of 20,000 meals worth of food for Nashville’s homeless population. And the Country Music Hall of Fame saw a 60 percent reduction of food waste in less than one year.

Last month, Barry — a participant in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative — told the audience at CityLab that key to the program’s success were champions in the private sector. She calls them private-public partnerships because “the private sector has to help us and lead the way. The public sector can’t solve these complex problems. But what we can do is be the convener. And that’s what we did do with these restaurants.”

Barry sees waste reduction as a way to reduce greenhouse gasses and be a greener city. But as a Blue (read: Democratic) city in a Red (read: Republican) state, they had to be conscious of the state legislature responding to any mandates. A voluntary challenge seemed like a good answer.

“I love challenges and am a big believer in using them to catalyze action,” said Adam Freed, Principal at Bloomberg Associates, who interviewed Barry about the Food Saver Challenge at CityLab. “And what the food waste campaign in Nashville shows is when you set a challenge instead of the regulatory process people often exceed what was expected.”

After the success of their first Challenge, Nashville has just announced an expansion for 2018 into the retail sector. A lot of food waste comes from grocery stores. It can be complicated to divert those food streams, but they are hopeful. And Kroger, one of the city’s leading food retailers, has already signed-on.

“Being partners is key.,” Barry noted. “Have conversations together. Move away from the government mandate. They want to do it with you. They don’t want it done to them and that’s a critical component Go and talk to restauranteurs, grocery stores, because they have phenomenal amounts of food going to landfill every day and if you can divert some of that stream, it saves money and land.”

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

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