Food Cycling

Compost is a powerful symbol of nature’s potential for renewal and rebirth. It is the product of decomposed organic material (fruit and vegetable scraps, straw, hay, leaves, coffee grounds, etc.), which essentially ends up looking like healthy soil when it decomposes. In the absence of chemical fertilizers, organic farmers use compost to add fertility, nutrients and minerals to their soil.

However, organic materials don’t always end up cycling back into the system in a productive way. According to the NYC Department of Sanitation, “the average New York City household discards 1.3 pounds of food and yard waste each day,” which adds up to “more than 750,000 tons per year.” It’s tempting to think that we can throw things away and that they’ll actually go away. But there is no “away,” as waste in a landfill contributes methane gas to the atmosphere, adding to global warming.

By placing organic materials in landfills, we squander productive organic material that could restore fertility to the soil that was used to grow some of that very food we are now throwing away. It is important to see the cyclical nature of our food: once we have consumed food, we can then cycle the remnants back into the system. Compost can also be used to bio-remediate the contaminated soil found in urban areas. Nature wants to be restored and repaired, and we should work with it and encourage these processes to occur.

The way our system is currently constructed relies largely on a linear viewpoint of food: grow, eat, and throw away waste, a vision that encourages the use of chemical-based fertilizers for soil fertility. Composting allows for a more natural, more harmonious, cyclical method of living and eating. Instead of looking at food scraps as waste, as something to dispose of, they should actually be seen as something incredibly valuable and precious, something to be used for the good of the land and of our continued sustenance.

There is certainly plenty of food wasted each day in New York City, food that could be productive compost for a community garden. A key question is: how to connect the food waste from a supermarket to a community garden in need of productive, fertile soil? ExcessNYC is working on a creative answer.

On Saturday I attended an urban food waste workshop at 3rd Ward, where the two minds behind the Excess project, Ricardo Miranda Zuniga and Brooke Singer, shared their research about food waste in New York City and offered their solution: the food rescue bike, which will connect food waste from grocery stores to a community garden in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. They will establish relationships with nearby grocery stores to pick up their food scraps that would normally go to waste. The scraps will be placed into the compost tumbler on the back of the bike, and in the process of pedaling the bike, the rider will also be turning the tumbler and aerating the compost to start the decomposition process.

The bike may in fact be most effective not in food rescue but in education. It is a work of art, a creative solution to a vexing urban problem. When seen in the streets of Brooklyn, it will attract attention from compost experts and non-experts alike. When people ask about the bike, they will get a lesson in food rescue and compost, which will help spread consciousness about the issue of waste.

Ricardo and Brooke spoke of the fact that the majority of food waste comes at the harvest, on the farm, where gleanings are left to rot and much edible food is left behind simply because it doesn’t fit our standards of perfect appearance. Still, the food rescue bike, in delivering food scraps to a community garden to be turned to compost, and in spreading consciousness, is starting us down a much more sustainable, harmonious path.

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