Wasting No Time on Food Waste Reduction
Thanks to a generous grant from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, a team of six Diana Davis Spencer Scholars are off to a fast start in their collaborative effort to reduce food waste.
Concerns about food waste are rising in the U.S., where 40 percent of the food we produce goes to waste. This is especially troubling in Maine, because nearly one-sixth of the population, including 60,000 children, also suffer from food insecurity – the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
As participants in the Diana Davis Spencer Partnership for a Sustainable Maine, the Scholars have launched an innovative mix of research projects to improve the shelf life of packaged food, divert more food waste from landfills, enhance food redistribution efforts, and more. They are mentored by a team of faculty drawn from many different fields, including anthropology, environmental engineering, social psychology, food science, economics, and nursing.
“When I came into the Scholars interdisciplinary group, I thought that the food waste problem in Maine would be an easy problem to fix, but I could not have been more wrong,” says Scholar Andrew Flynn. “I’ve since seen that there are huge policy and economic barriers to food waste solutions, and this has reshaped my entire thought process.”
Just three months into their work, the students headed off campus to the Maine Resource Recovery Association (MRRA) Annual Meeting in Rockport, Maine. The meeting, which examines challenges and opportunities related to recycling and resource recovery, was crucial for the Scholars because they got to meet important stakeholders—from town waste managers and selectmen, to regulators from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, to a wide range of people working in business and industry (waste-to-energy facilities, composting companies, etc.).
“When I came into the Scholars interdisciplinary group, I thought that the food waste problem in Maine would be an easy problem to fix, but I could not have been more wrong…” —Andrew Flynn
There were several panels on food waste and organics management that the Scholars attended. Notes faculty mentor Cindy Isenhour, “As a research team, our goal is to be responsive to stakeholder needs, so this was extremely important for the Scholars to be there to make those connections and to hear directly from our partners about their needs.”
At the meeting, students talked with people who work with waste daily and began to understand the complex challenges associated with the many food items routinely thrown out and the fact that budgets and transportation issues are two critical barriers to achieving Maine’s recycling goals.
“The MRRA meeting was one of the most impactful experiences I have had in regards to changing my thinking,” notes Scholar Shayla Kleisinger. “It was focused on policy and legislation around waste management and got me thinking about the steps I would have to take in the future to make the food packaging I am developing actually marketable to companies, which I had never considered. This opened my eyes to so many things that have to be considered when wanting to make an observable, realistic change in the world.”
“The Community Waste Toolkit is a great resource for any town and gives local officials the knowledge they need to implement successful programs.” —Lee Leiner, Director of Public Works for the City of Bath
The meeting also saw the launch of the Community Waste Toolkit, one of the team’s first accomplishments (umaine.edu/mitchellcenter/community-waste-toolkit/). This web platform showcases best practices for waste reduction in Maine. It is based on interviews and outreach with stakeholders from across the state and provides a place for communities to share effective strategies for waste reduction with a broad audience.
Lee Leiner, Director of Public Works for the City of Bath notes, “The Community Waste Toolkit is a great resource for any town and gives local officials the knowledge they need to implement successful programs. Anyone managing solid waste, recycling, or materials management functions at the local level will find inspiration and education in the kit.”