Composting project in Denver, at the Food Matters Cities Summit. Photo courtesy of Shelly Danko+Day.

Food waste is, quite literally, a big mess.

“It’s messy, it’s stinky and it also creates greenhouse gases, and it costs a lot to transport it,” says the City of Pittsburgh’s Urban Agriculture and Food Policy Planner Shelly Danko+Day.

But hopefully soon, Pittsburgh will have less of it.

Pittsburgh is one of 10 cities chosen to participate in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Food Matters Regional Initiative, which was presented to City Council for formal approval on Sept. 1.

According to the NRDC, 40% of all food in America is wasted, which is $218 billion worth of food, and 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions comes from food waste.

“If we could redirect just one-third of the food that we now toss (out) to people in need, it could feed 50 million people their entire diet,” says Yvette Cabrera, deputy director for food waste of the NRDC.

Part of the initiative includes collecting compost at city farmers’ markets, which has already begun, and a “waste audit” will be performed at city recreation centers and senior centers, to see what kinds of food are going into the trash. Prior to COVID-19, people were eating on-site, so the trash will be different now, but it will be a starting point.

“We’re not going to have a normal waste audit,” says Danko+Day, “but it’ll give us an idea of the ways we can change what we throw away.” They’ll also attempt composting pilot projects at a rec center and a senior center. “A big part of our efforts will be education,” says Danko+Day, “getting people familiar with the term, familiar with the concept of composting and reducing their waste in that way — saving the food, rescuing the food and composting what might be left.”

The NRDC estimates that 89,000 tons of food waste are generated in Pittsburgh alone, every year.

“So if we can get that food waste out of our main trash flow in the city, that could reduce our costs of collecting trash overall and save the city money,” says Danko+Day. “Plus, we could use that food to create compost, which would add nutrients to the soil that would allow us to grow even more food. So it’s this whole cycle and there’s a lot of different parts of the cycle that are broken that we can work on fixing to make it more efficient and beneficial for our residents.”

The NRDC’s pilot programs in Nashville, Denver and Baltimore provided an opportunity to test various approaches to preventing food from going to waste, rescuing surplus food and recycling food scraps. Those included mayoral restaurant challenges, training health inspectors to advocate for food waste strategies and providing “Save the Food” education materials to consumers.

Danko+Day saw these efforts firsthand in November at the Food Matters Cities Summit in Denver.

“Now we get to benefit from what [those cities] learned,” she says.

Pittsburgh was chosen, says Danko+Day, “because we’re awesome.”

“We had a really good application,” she says. “We have a lot of people working on food waste initiatives, like 412 Food Rescue that’s doing their food rescue and redistribution. Then we have Sustainable Pittsburgh which has been encouraging restaurants to compost. The city has had a Zero Waste roadmap for a couple years, and we’re trying to move some initiatives forward on that. That’s really huge, I think — that the city of Pittsburgh has determined that this is an important thing.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...