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Vt. Compost Law Seen Helping Poor

Sunday, August 09, 2015
Could Vermont’s new recycling law help feed the poor?

All signs point to yes, according to charitable organizations that work to channel large amounts of food from producers and retailers into the homes of those in need.

“For 2016, we are predicting that our food will increase by 60 percent over 2015, in large part due to Act 48,” Vermont’s universal recycling law, according to Alex Bornstein, the chief operations officer of the Vermont Foodbank.

Bornstein projected that the food bank will see an additional 1.5 million pounds of food donated by Vermont’s largest retailers in 2016, bringing the annual total up to 4 million pounds.

Under the law, compostable materials, including food, are being phased out of the waste stream in an effort to conserve landfill space and help the environment by reducing the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere. On July 1, some grocery retailers, large restaurants and other companies that produce more than a ton of compostable waste a week faced a new requirement to take that material to a composting facility, as long as one exists within 20 miles. A state list includes only one such facility in the Upper Valley, a small operation in Corinth called Cookeville Compost.

Since that deadline passed, Bornstein said, the food bank has seen an immediate surge in donations — 24 percent more food was donated from retailers last month than in July 2014.

Successfully diverting organic materials from the waste stream is one of the biggest challenges the new law poses.

According to a 2013 Waste Composition Study paid for by the state, 28 percent of residential waste, and 18 percent of industrial, commercial and institutional waste, is made up of organic materials, even after recycling and composting diversions were factored in.

Because of this, the state-commissioned Vermont Materials Management Plan charges the Agency of Natural Resources with spreading awareness about food rescue options.

Bryn Oakleaf, an environmental analyst with the Agency of Natural Resources, said staffers tasked with overseeing the implementation of the law are busy educating the larger companies along the food chain about how to best manage organic waste according to a hierarchy of best use.

“Not wasting it at all is best,” Oakleaf said. “Secondary is feeding food to people that need it and that can use it.”

Food unfit for human consumption is directed for use as animal feed, composting and energy production through the use of anaerobic digesters.

“There’s a significant portion of food that gets to our retailers and distributors that doesn’t end up getting purchased by their sell-by dates,” she said. “We’re seeing more and more of those items going to donation.”

Over the next few years, Act 148 imposes increasingly severe restrictions on food waste, culminating with a complete landfill ban in 2020.

Oakleaf said distinguishing the impact of the law from factors affecting donated food can be tricky, but she anticipates the law will also help by building up a better infrastructure of charitable organizations that can handle perishable food, and a greater awareness of their services.

And gleaning organizations such as Lebanon’s Willing Hands are scrambling to create an infrastructure that can safely and quickly get food from producers to clients, according to Gabe Zoerheide, executive director.

Managing a food rescue operation is a question of logistics, Zoerheide said.

The organization owns a refrigeration truck that is on the road 360 days of the year, visiting farms, local co-ops and Upper Valley Produce two or three times a day and dropping off vegetables, dairy products, meat and other food items to 54 locations, such as food pantries and senior centers, each week.

The schedule can be manic, and the law could make it more so, Zoerheide said.

“Do we need to add a second truck? Do we need to add more distribution routes? How do we store it? These are questions the board is asking,” Zoerheide said.

Bornstein said the Vermont Foodbank, which works with 225 partner groups statewide, is seeing similar questions on a broader scale. New relationships are being forged between food producers and food pantries, and the food rescue chain is getting more sophisticated in handling product, from ensuring food safety to branching into new types of food. The Vermont Foodbank recently became certified to handle seafood, Bornstein said.

Some retailers are already well-positioned under the law.

Hannaford operates 17 grocery stores in the state of Vermont. Eric Blom, a company spokesman, said five or six stores were already composting a decade ago. Today, almost without exception, the stores have well-established relationships with partners like the Vermont Foodbank.

“Last year, we donated more than 14 million pounds of food to food banks,” Blom said. “We’re pretty proud of our efforts.”

Finding reliable partners is part of the challenge, Blom said.

“In just three of our stores, there is a small amount of food waste that does go into the compactor because we’re having trouble getting reliable pickups,” he said. “Other than that, there’s nothing.”

The large majority of the consumable food makes its way into the food rescue chain, while most of the material that can’t be eaten by people winds up supplying pig farmers.

Across the entire chain of 187 stores, 80 percent of Hannaford’s waste is diverted from the landfills, and composting increased by 130 percent last year, according to Blom.

Getting on board with recycling has paid environmental and social dividends, Blom said, but it’s also helped with profits.

“Landfills cost money,” Blom said. “Last year, our sustainability practices saved our company $15 million.”

Other groups are benefiting from a new enthusiasm among retailers to stay ahead of the law by ramping up their food donations.

At the Upper Valley Haven, Executive Director Sara Kobylenski said that, after the July 1 deadline in the law, the group’s director of community services, Jennifer Fontaine, received a call from a Price Chopper in Windsor.

“It’s a new commercial resource and we’re looking forward to seeing how the relationship develops,” Kobylenski said. “We’re excited to see what this will mean for them and for us.”

Kobylenski said the ultimate beneficiaries of the boost in local food rescue efforts are the people served by food banks and pantries.

“We have been providing food to more than 1,300 households per month and we only give them enough food for one week for a family of their size.”

The demand for that food is great, she said, and could grow even more quickly than donations under the law.

“In the month of July, there were 72 new households who had never come to us before for help,” she said, “With more food, we’ll be able to be assured of always having food here to serve people who come through the door.”

Kobylenski said the Haven’s workers have an unusual vantage point from which they can see a supply and a demand that don’t always match up.

“There’s nothing more awful than seeing food waste in the community, either at grocery stores or restaurants or anywhere else, and seeing people be hungry,” she said.

“When we have partners who bring food to us, whether it’s prepared food left at the end of the night, or stock being rotated out of the vegetable coolers or meat cases, we are so grateful to see them being willing to help others.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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