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How Nashville is Becoming a More Sustainable City

As Nashville’s population swells, local restaurants and institutions are taking on the task of diverting food waste from overflowing landfills and on to more sustainable uses.

Written By:  Erin B. Murray

Photographers:  Jen McDonald

On an unseasonably warm day in late January, two dozen of the city’s top chefs sat inside the barn at Miel, an event space behind the West Side restaurant, discussing a very unsexy side of their businesses: trash. Levon Wallace of the new Gray and Dudley, John Lasater of Hattie B’s, and Deb Paquette of Etch and etc. sat alongside Sylvia Ganier of Green Door Gourmet and Seema Prasad, owner of Miel, among others. The discussion veered from working with local composting companies to the costs of installing an organic refuse conversion alternative, or ORCA, machine.

The James Beard Foundation, a national culinary organization that doles out the “Oscars of the food world” awards and strives to educate chefs on a broad range of food topics, organized the meeting of chefs. This particular “chef boot camp” was put on in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has tapped Nashville as a pilot city for its efforts to instigate more action and conversation around fighting food waste.

cleaning up

When most people think of eating out, they’re looking forward to the experience, to being treated to good service, to enjoying a higher level of food than what they can cook themselves—and not having to clean up. But, behind the beautifully composed plates, rimmed with puree and garnished with a flourish, there is often waste—whether it be vegetable and protein scraps, excess water, or whatever ends up leftover on the plate. And the garbage created by restaurants is going to the same place your home waste is: one of Davidson County’s over-maxed landfills. It’s a dirty little secret in the restaurant industry—and one not many were willing to talk about until recently.

“Right now, food is the number one material that goes in to landfills,” Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist with the NRDC, says. Forty percent of all of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten—from vegetable peels to uneaten leftovers; from blemished vegetables at grocery stores to the waste generated by schools, colleges, and hospitals. On average, we’re wasting 24 pounds of food per person each month.

“Not only are you sending that food to landfills, where it creates methane, which is a powerful global-warming pollutant, but you also are wasting all the energy, water, land, fertilizer, and labor that went in to growing or transporting or storing or otherwise producing that food,” Hoover adds.

The Nashville chefs who gathered in January are actively stepping up to reduce those numbers—and, in the process, they’re taking part in a larger discussion happening right now, as Mayor Megan Barry has set a priority of making Nashville the greenest city in the Southeast. Following the lead of Mayor Karl Dean, who set in place a Green Ribbon Committee during his term, in May 2016, Barry convened a Livable Nashville committee that has worked to gather detailed data within several target areas—climate and energy; green buildings; natural resources; waste reduction and recycling; and mobility—in order to create measurable goals for the city as it moves toward becoming more sustainable.

Environmental lawyer Linda Breggin, who teaches law at Vanderbilt University and works with the Environmental Law Institute, is on the Livable Nashville subcommittee for waste reduction and recycling. She is also working with the NRDC as the project coordinator for the Nashville Food Waste Initiative (NFWI). The big picture of the initiative, she says, “is that we’re trying to develop and implement a holistic strategy when it comes to food-waste reduction.” And, while the program is temporary, the idea is to entrench many, or most, of the programs into various parts of the community in a way that allows them to perpetuate.

“We’re focused on educating people, helping to change their behaviors and reduce their food waste to make a lasting impact,” she says. “This isn’t just a national resource issue, it’s a social justice issue. And that really resonates.”

city-sized change

Several years ago, the NRDC made a commitment to start combatting the issue of food waste on a national level and quickly realized that they needed to work directly with cities, which offer great potential for instigating change.

“Cities are usually the decision makers and the ones who finance waste management systems,” Hoover says, adding that they are also usually dealing with other related issues, like fighting hunger and addressing climate change. By connecting with city governments, as well as community groups, such as nonprofits, for-profits, institutions, and restaurants, they aim to push out a variety of policies and programs on a local level. Being a mid-sized city in the middle of the country, Nashville was an ideal pilot, Hoover says.

“It’s a place that really has a lot of good will, even if it hasn’t necessarily gone a long way down the road of developing solutions,” she adds.

One of the goals for the pilot city program is to create a toolkit that can be used elsewhere. “The cities can look at that toolkit and say, ‘Okay, here are some suggested, high-impact, implementable policies and programs. It’s not a comprehensive list—instead, we are trying to drill down and recommend, say, 10 areas to focus on. We are trying to come up with practical tools,” she says.

“What’s so exciting about doing this pilot project in Nashville is that it really signals to everyone else that if a midsize city in the middle of the country can do this, then you can, too. Everyone can do this,” Breggin adds.

the food saver challenge

One recommendation that Breggin and her committee made to Metro in the Livable Nashville report was to create a Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge, which the city launched at the January chef boot camp and ran through the end of May. Fifty-five restaurants signed up to participate for the 30-day challenge, taking on one or several of the suggested waste-saving actions, such as donating surplus food, composting food scraps, measuring food waste, and offering more flexible portions. Some restaurants were already well on their way to making the efforts—Fin & Pearl, which opened in the Gulch this past winter, has its own ORCA machine. Others, like Hattie B’s, were more focused on understanding how best to reduce paper waste and determining the costs of switching to recyclable and compostable paper materials. The results were discussed at a round table with the mayor at the Nashville Farmers’ Market in mid-June. 

At her restaurants, Etch and etc., chef Deb Paquette took food waste measurements, with her staff collecting food scraps in five-gallon buckets each day. Though Paquette has long been composting in her own home, she is restricted to do the same at her restaurants because of their locations within larger buildings and developments—an issue many downtown restaurants face. But she’s an advocate for reducing wasted water and energy and already works to utilize as much of every ingredient that comes through her doors as possible, including saving vegetable scraps and bones for stocks and soups, or putting excess items into staff meal.

“It’s not just about the waste—it’s about managing your food costs. You try to use every part that you can because it’s just smart business,” she adds. “Restaurants are in a unique position of being able to help spread the message,” she adds.  

So, too, are our cultural institutions, such as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which sees as many as a million visitors each year and feeds a substantial number of them between its onsite restaurants and events. The potential for food waste could be staggering—which is exactly why associate director of operations Karl Ebert chose to take part in the Food Saver Challenge. “Food should never end up in the garbage, for any reason,” he says.

Ebert was already on track to solve some of the museum’s food-waste issues: He sought out a partnership with the Nashville Rescue Mission this past winter in order to donate excess prepared food from the museum’s events to the mission. By early May, the museum had donated more than 450 trays of food, feeding as many as 9,000 people through that relationship.

Soon, Ebert was exploring the idea of composting and getting buy-in from the more than 200 employees who work behind the scenes in the museum—the idea was to ensure that any food waste coming out of the kitchens was being diverted away from landfills.

“We started composting in February and have composted around 1,200 pounds every week. And this is just what the staff can accomplish,” he says. “We’re looking forward to extending this to the front of the house, to the million visitors we see every year and getting them on board, too.”

Although the challenge itself was only a 30-day commitment, Ebert says the systems they set in place will become permanent—including the addition of a small rooftop garden that was installed this spring. Yes, he admits, this is going above and beyond the suggested challenge parameters. “I’m a pretty competitive person,” he quips. “There might not be real prizes involved, but I still aim for us to put our best foot forward and to show that we should be taken seriously when it comes to food-waste reduction,” he adds.

While the Food Saver Challenge and NRDC’s decision to make Nashville a pilot city for food-waste reduction have amped up the conversation, several players in this city’s food scene have been quietly trying to move things in this direction for years. Back at Miel, which opened nine years ago, owner Seema Prasad says she started looking in to composting nearly five years ago. After calling the city’s public works department, she learned that the city wasn’t set up to install a system that included a large-scale composting facility. So, Prasad decided to do something about it. “I just realized this isn’t going to get done until someone takes a step forward and makes it happen,” she says.

She founded the nonprofit Resource Capture, Inc. (ReCap), as an umbrella organization that aims to get a dry anaerobic digester built in Davidson County in order to provide a place where large amounts of food waste can be diverted away from landfills. The dry digester is a closed-loop system where waste is placed in a sealed vessel and “cooks” until it is transformed into nutrient-rich compost that can then be sold to local farms and soil supply companies. Inside the digester, any methane that is produced is captured and used to run a generator, while any excess water is contained so that it doesn’t seep into nearby waterways.

These types of digesters are rare in the United States, with only a handful of states claiming them. This would be the first in the Southeast—a point Prasad is proud to push forward—and would be manufactured by Dover Industries in Chattanooga. Prasad has researched the process extensively, traveling to 11 countries to talk to operators around the world, and even attending a 40-hour compost operator certification with the U.S. Composting Council. She has letters of commitment from more than two dozen local organizations, including corporations and universities, so that the modular facility will be running at max capacity a few years after opening, with room to add more as demand grows. She also has the funding to get the digester built and running.

It’s been five years since she first embarked on the idea, which has definitely evolved, she explains. From determining what type of digester to build to understanding the full scope of the system, it’s been tweaked and perfected. Now, she says, she’s ready. All she needs is a location for the facility; she’s looked at several parcels of land around the county and is still on the hunt.

“I’m not going to embark on a project and do something I know isn’t going to be great. We’re at a point where we don’t need to compromise—we need to do it right,” she adds.

fixing the food system

Jeremy Barlow, chef and owner of Sloco and The Meet Room in 12 South, is fully behind Prasad’s project and sees it as a huge opportunity for Nashville. Barlow, who is known for having grandiose ideas about fixing issues within the food system, authored the book, Chefs Can Save the World, which was published six years ago. Having raised red flags again and again on topics like food waste, he says he’s happy to see some of what he’s been advocating finally coming to fruition—because, in his mind, this isn’t just a food-waste issue, but a societal one.

“If we can fix some of these issues—starting with diverting our food waste and creating systems like Seema’s—we can fix our potential landfill issues, our waste issues, and the costs associated with it,” he says.

He would like to see the dry anaerobic digester become part of a larger project: He envisions setting Prasad’s facility on a piece of property that is surrounded by farmland but also accessible to a food desert, or a part of the community that has a large number of people facing food insecurity. The farm could provide both food and a way to teach those who live nearby how to grow food, thereby instilling life skills.

“We can fix our hunger issues and food-insecurity issues. We can fix job issues. We can get kids in impoverished schools access to more food and better meal selections. Maybe this fixes our healthcare issues,” he says. “It’s dominoes, and they’re all connected,” he continues, adding carefully, “But we have to start somewhere.”

The starting line, it seems, has already been crossed as more chefs and restaurants adopt small and large waste diversion solutions, such as adding a compost bin to the restroom for paper waste or separating their food scraps to be composted. For Ebert, who has the resources of a larger organization and staff behind him, donating uneaten food can make a big difference. Prasad and Paquette, both small-business operators, agree that it can also be as simple as cutting back on portion sizes to keep guests from leaving extra food on their plate.

 “It’s going to take a little while,” Paquette warns. “But I don’t want people to get discouraged. We just need to educate, educate, educate.” 

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