Forsaken Food: The Issue of Food Waste and NYU’s New Compost Initiative

I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our natural resources; but I do not recognize that the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. – Teddy Roosevelt

A collection of nitrogenous food scraps that can be turned into compost

In the U.S., the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that we waste 40 percent of our food from farm to fork. It happens at every level of our food system, from production, to post-harvest, to processing, to retail and at the home or in food service. Within this issue there is a wretched paradox that exists: 40 percent of our food is wasted, while one in six Americans are food insecure and go hungry every day. Besides such irony and backwardness in feeding the human population, food waste simultaneously harms the environment, with landfills acting as a huge source of methane, a greenhouse gas. If food waste were to be considered a country for reasons of comparison, it would end up the third top emitter of global carbon footprint after the U.S. as number one and China following. The issue of food waste quite simply proves the inefficiency of our current food system. There is so much that can be done and so much that is being done presently to alleviate these destructive effects, perhaps the most beneficial of them all being compost.

Composting in New York City can be a tricky business. In a metropolis so densely packed, consumers recycling their food scraps brings about concerns such as odor and attraction to pests. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a pilot composting program in the city last year that had high success rates, and has been expanding ever since. Households can reduce their food waste and help the environment, as well as help to develop urban farms and thus aid in local agriculture within New York City. The NYC Compost Project also offers educational components, where volunteer Master Composters teach the community on the methods and advantages to composting.

At NYU’s Urban Farm Lab, the students are learning the benefits and proper techniques of composting. We had a Master Composter come to class and show us how to properly turn compost, as well as what and what not to add. In class we have been discussing that the ideal compost ratio is 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen, meaning a good balance of both nitrogenous food scraps (“the greens”) and carbon-rich materials such as leaves (“the browns”). This is necessary for decomposing microorganisms to be happily fed in breaking down all of these materials into compost. With proper temperature, aeration and water added, the process of decomposition can be expedited, and then the compost can be returned to the soil, adding rich and replenishing nutrients back to the earth. Happy soil means happy plants!

Within the Food Studies program at NYU, the classes held in the kitchen are taking an initiative to help develop a relationship with the urban farm in collecting their food scraps and reducing their food waste (we produce a lot of it). Students presently in classes in the kitchen this fall semester are the first to start a system of taking our collected food scraps and wheeling them down to the urban farm to add to our 3-bin compost system. Students are also welcome to bring their own compost from home, meaning the amount of our compost is due to significantly grow this semester! We get to reduce the amount of harmful, municipal waste in our school’s kitchen and our own homes as well as aid in the growth and benefits of our urban farm. A win-win for our kitchen and the farm and in turn, our planet. Food waste, through the process of anaerobic digestion, can also be used to create a renewable resource that leaves a very small carbon footprint and is truly sustainable energy. Food waste being turned into compost can take old food to create new food, a different form of renewable energy, all of which diverts the waste from our landfills and can provide things like electricity or eggplants for our citizens. This is quite a notion, which, over time, could become a reality in urban areas, all from residents to commercial food producers collecting their food scraps.

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