The idea sounds simple enough: Give grocery stores the ability to donate their food waste to local farmers and school pantries rather than dump it into a landfill.
But, as Brenda Patton and her team at Blue Zones Project Fort Worth began working on that solution in 2018, they discovered numerous challenges facing grocers. Employees would need time during their shifts to identify and set aside nearly expired produce. Companies would have to pick up the check for transporting the compostable materials to new locations.
“We realized that there’s reasons why grocery stores don’t do this, and one of the main reasons is logistics and time constraints,” Patton, the group’s policy director, said. “There’s also the reliability on their end. People may say, ‘I want to go pick it up,’ but then it quickly dies out and the stores are left with the produce, and they have to put it in the dumpster anyway.”
Blue Zones Project Fort Worth, an initiative funded by Texas Health Resources‘ nonprofit arm to improve community health, has worked on food policy initiatives since the organization was established in 2014, Patton said.
Once leaders learned more about the barriers preventing grocers from donating fresh produce, it became obvious that the organization should step in, she said.
“All of this beautiful and wholesome produce was ending up in the landfill instead of in the hands of our community,” Patton said. “We wanted to bring both of those pieces together. It began in 2020 with one store and one farmer.”
After launching in 2020, the Culled Produce Recovery Project is expanding its partnership with G.E. Foodland, Inc. the owner of Elrod’s Cost Plus and Foodland Markets, to divert more food waste from landfills and give organic materials to businesses that need it: urban farms and food pantries in Fort Worth.
Starting late last year, Dallas-based Compost Carpool began transporting thousands of pounds of produce from Foodland stores in Forest Hills and the Northside. Two other farms work directly with the Foodland Market in east Fort Worth to obtain compostable material.
The result? Over a 12-week period in late 2021, more than 31,000 pounds of produce were delivered to farms and school food pantries instead of landfills, according to Blue Zones Project Fort Worth.
Some of the recipient farms include Opal’s Farm and Mind Your Garden Urban Farm. Steven and Ursula Nuñez, the husband-and-wife team behind Mind Your Garden, told the Report last year that they used unsold and undesirable produce from grocery stores to sustain their farm in southeast Fort Worth without having to purchase soil.
“Food is what brings all of us together,” Steven Nuñez told the Report in August. “We can be a facilitator for the community to come in and have healthy food options and the education and social community building aspect.”
The program and other initiatives like it will extend the life of Fort Worth’s southeast landfill, said Joao Pimentel, a senior planner for the city’s code compliance department. Around 30 percent of Fort Worth’s garbage comes from commercial or residential food waste, according to the city’s solid waste department.
“With less than 20 years of airspace left at the city’s landfill, it is crucial that we all reduce our waste generation and divert materials away from the landfill that can be either re-used, recycled, mulched, or composted,” Pimentel said. “Blue Zones Project is and has been instrumental in helping us divert wasted food from the city’s landfill and put it to excellent use.”
The pilot program demonstrated high demand for produce, Patton said. Now the organization needs more volunteers to transport produce and more grocery partners willing to take the plunge on diverting waste.
Blue Zones Project is also pushing for wider policy changes that would encourage grocers to stop relying on dumpsters to dispose all waste, she said.
“We’re also realizing that there is not a true incentive at the policy level for the grocery stores or for businesses to be diverting their waste from the dumpster and putting it to better use,” Patton said. “They have to be willing to do it because they want to, because they want to create something good.”
Patton pointed to laws across the country, especially in San Francisco, giving businesses discounts for composting or recycling and implementing fees when companies send recyclable materials to a landfill. Without those added costs, known as “tipping fees,” businesses have little reason to spend time and money on diverting waste, she said.
For now, Blue Zones Project has shown that waste diversion can work when all parties are on board with the mission, Patton added. G.E. Foodland Inc. has shown interest in expanding the program to its stores across North Texas, and more urban farmers are popping up across Tarrant County.
“We also have pantries that are interested in receiving this produce that is still wholesome and edible,” Patton said. “With more willing volunteers, or a third party organization like (Compost Carpool), this project could expand to more stores. We’re seeing that it’s possible.”
Disclaimer: The Fort Worth Report’s health reporter position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. News decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
This story has been updated to reflect that Texas Health Resources’ nonprofit arm funds Blue Zones Project Fort Worth. The article previously stated that THR funds Blue Zones initiatives around the country.