By Mariah Quintanilla
July 26, 2016
Jon Scheffel, or Farmer Jon as he is known on the street, hauls buckets of leftover food scraps on a trailer attached to his road bike every day. This may seem strange, but Scheffel is actually tackling the food waste problem in Chicago. Scheffel calls his business, Healthy Soil Compost, “a compost pick-up service,” which gives anybody in the city the opportunity to “start composting or diverting food waste from hitting a landfill,” he said.
According to Nature’s Little Recyclers, a Chicago-based organic recycling plant and red worm breeder, the Chicago Metropolitan area contributes more than 8 million tons of waste annually. Over half of this waste can be composted to produce nutrient-rich soil, which in turn will be used to grow food in urban gardens throughout the city.
Composting breaks down rotten food waste into nutrient-rich soil using fungi or worms in an oxygen-rich environment. “We think it’s a better model for handling waste than trucking it out to a landfill,” said Scheffel.
In 2014, the National Resource Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental organization, stated that around 40 percent of all food grown in the United States is destined for landfills each year. That waste is equivalent to about $165 billion in uneaten food, according to the council.
Benjamin Kant, the founder and CEO of Metropolitan Farms, a sustainable urban agriculture farm in near Austin, produces food that does not perish as quickly as store bought produce that has been transported across the country. “You can buy some of my basil and it will last for a week and a half to two weeks. You get it from the super market, you got a couple days,” he said.
Researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research predicted a conservative 258 percent increase in the greenhouse gas emission rate from rotting food by 2050. This 2016 study looked at the climate burden of the global food surplus. Their results suggest that reducing waste will not only provide food for the hungry and reduce the amount of land converted to agricultural fields; it also may help slow the rate of global warming.
Half of the battle to reduce food waste in America, however, may simply be changing the perception about food that has gone bad. Scheffel often encourages people to donate their waste, but to many privileged Americans, waste may translate to food that has just a speckle of mold or a small bruise.
“I’m really the last step, and I try to tell people not to give me really good bread that they just don’t want any more or a bunch of bananas,” said Scheffel. “I might get called for a whole palate of blueberries that only some of them are going moldy.”
Many Chicago organizations have stepped forward to transport leftover food from donors to charities across Chicago. Zero Percent is an online platform for food donation and delivery in Chicago that was recently awarded “Best Social Impact Startup” by Built in Chicago, a hub for tech startups. The startup provides an easily accessible means for anyone to donate meals that would usually be thrown away, delivering the food to places like Common Pantry on the North Side, New Life Center in Lawndale, and I Grow Chicago’s Peace House in Englewood. These are only three of the 354 additional non-profit organizations they serve that provide meals to low-income or homeless people in Chicago.
Rajesh Karmani, founder and CEO of Zero Percent, suggested that there is little excuse for the amount of food Chicagoans waste. During an interview with Alexandra Black-Paulick for The Positive Impact Podcast he said, “This shouldn’t be the way, especially in this age of technology and efficiency and consciousness about social good.”
“There should be no good food thrown away,” he said.
Other Chicago organizations like Green City Market, a marketplace for sustainably grown food with locations throughout the city, and the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition, a community of food waste agencies, organizations, businesses, schools, institutions, and service providers that promote food scrap composting, have joined the effort to reduce food waste.
Scheffel emphasized education and engagement in promoting awareness around the topic of food waste in Chicago. “The whole reason I choose to be bicycle powered is for the interaction. I get to say, ‘Did you know food waste can be recycled?’ A lot of people say no,” he said.