OPINION: Solutions to food waste benefit Manhattan community

Photo credit: Illustration by Kent Willmeth | The Collegian

While enjoying a K-State home football game at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, many people will purchase plenty of diverse food products. The game will end, and there will be large amounts of recyclables and organic waste left in the stadium.

It took Students for Environmental Action many years of volunteering and pushing for recycling to get some of the waste to be recycled. Now, a first round of people will go through the stadium and collect all of the recyclables to be sorted the next day by Recycling Center staff and volunteers.

But what happens to the food and other trash left behind?

The Agronomy Farm compost operation is located just north of the football stadium, so it would make sense to send the food waste less than a mile away to be turned into valuable fertilizer.

Unfortunately, this is not what happens.

Where does our waste go?

Manhattan is a town that is used to landfilling most of its waste. We sent our waste to the landfill just south of town until it filled up and became the Riley County Transfer Station. Now the waste goes to the landfill in Perry, Kansas, which is over 70 miles away, according to Bill Spiegel, program manager of refuse and recycling.

Now, the recycling infrastructure in Manhattan has been steadily improving. Howie’s Recycling and Trash service is a local business that has been recycling materials for over 25 years. The K-State Recycling program was eventually able to take over the old wind erosion research center after the building was damaged by the tornado that came through town in 2008. The recycling center staff work very hard to improve recycling on campus, thereby saving the university money on landfill costs and earning some profit for the recyclables.

According to the K-State Recycling website, we had about a 27 percent recycling rate last year. But how does this compare favorably with other college universities?

Ohio State University’s highest diversion rate at a football game is almost 99 percent through composting all organic waste and recycling all else. Its Ohio Stadium is the largest stadium in the U.S. that diverts 90 percent or more of materials from the landfill through composting and recycling. Nearly all of the organic waste is composted, despite the fact that the compost operation is about 28 miles away.

K-State’s compost operation is less than a mile from our football stadium, but very little of the organic waste produced at the football game will make it there. We are in the habit of mixing the food with the rest of the trash and just shipping it to nearest landfill.

Will Manhattan have the ambition to pursue the zero waste objective Ohio State has been able to achieve, but only after the landfill in Perry fills up and the cost to landfill trash becomes significantly more expensive? Only time will tell, but some of us are working to build a better waste management infrastructure right now.

Food banks have arisen in many communities to help distribute food to the needy and prevent it from going to the landfill. Some grocery stores and restaurants will donate some of the food they have not been able to sell before it goes bad to the local food bank.

Where do our food donations go?

In Manhattan, the Flint Hills Breadbasket is the local Community Food Network that was founded in 1982, according to its website. The Breadbasket receives donations from local businesses in Manhattan to distribute to the hungry and impoverished in the community.

Not all of this food has been able to get to the needy in the community, however. Large shipments of different food items come in very sporadically, making it hard to distribute all of the food before it could go bad. There is also not a high demand for all of the food that is donated to the Breadbasket.

Fresh produce and bread is often in great abundance, so the Breadbasket will put the food outside before it goes bad for anyone in the community to take. The food goes outside at the beginning of the day, but if it has not been picked up by the end of the work day, it has to go somewhere. Much of the food is still good, but it cannot go back inside the building because some of the food will be rotting soon.

It appeared to many that the food would have be thrown in the nearby dumpster in order to prevent critters from spreading the food everywhere, and to make room for the constant flow of food shipped to the Breadbasket.

Many volunteers at the Breadbasket have said they see this as a negative. The food was donated to help feed the hungry, but now it is being sent to the landfill. Here, the nutrients in the food will be trapped along with all of the other trash. The good intentions of all of the people, from the farmers to the truck drivers, are just resulting in a bunch of food being produced, shipped multiple times and then dumped in the landfill.

This is a huge waste of energy and time.

What can we do?

I heard about the food that is sitting outside that is getting thrown away every day on March 6, 2015. I knew that I had to learn more and work towards solutions.

Since then, I have been picking up boxes full of diverse breads, fruits and vegetables nearly every day. Many from SEA are supporting me. What we cannot cook, preserve, or give away to people, we feed to animals or compost and return the nutrients back to our local soil.

I made the managers aware of my intentions to pick up all the remaining food outside at the end of the day before it is thrown in the dumpster. They supported the idea and told me that any of these uses I am trying to get from the food are better than having the food sent to the landfill.

I wanted to find more outlets to get the food to people, though. I have been taking food from the Breadbasket to the free meals put on by churches in our community through the Common Table meals network.

Most students are not aware of these programs trying to alleviate hunger and poverty in our community, however, so I contacted the leaders of Real Food Lunch, a great community program put on by Ecumenical Campus Ministries. Several students cook healthy food for the community every Friday for a suggested donation of only $2 to sustain future meals. Some of these students will work to turn the abundant fruits into delicious jams and breads that feed the community.

I have also met some people who raise pigs, chickens and other animals throughout my time here in Kansas. Whatever food I cannot get to people, we give to these animals. This turns food scraps into local meat and eggs. When the animals go to the bathroom, their feces will be swept into the compost pile so that we can return nutrients to our local soil. When the compost is finished, we put it in community gardens throughout town. Many of these gardens will provide food for the community meals. The nutrients in the food will have been cycled locally to benefit the health of our soil and community.

All of these alternate ways of dealing with the leftover food end up keeping the nutrients in our community. I wonder, what allowed us to get so disconnected from the nutrient cycles in nature that keep us so alive and made it so that it is a common practice to put food into a landfill?

Let us begin to look at our waste infrastructure more critically and find solutions to our waste through recycling, feeding animals and composting. We can all tackle food waste in our homes, businesses, restaurants, and athletic events. We shouldn’t have to wait until the next landfill fills up to do what we know is right.

Matt DeCapo is a graduate student in geography.