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Army Ramps Up Food Waste Diversion and Prevention

A number of Army bases across the U.S. are working to reduce food waste, collecting and turning it into a resource.

Fort Hood, an Army installation near Killeen, Texas, has set out to divert 85 percent of its waste from landfill by 2020, targeting food scraps especially. That’s a lofty goal since, in 2015, the base with six dining halls, three food courts and a cafeteria diverted a modest 42 tons of this material. But by 2017, that figure jumped to 700 tons. At first, the food waste was hauled to a composter in Austin, but the base has made some major changes to be able to move onto bigger plans.

It just launched its own processing facility and is preparing to sell compost in the community. To keep the feedstock coming, staff intends to add 10 buildings to the collection route each year.

“Our next really big challenge will be fine-tuning the compost material to see if we have reached Grade 1 quality,” says Jennifer Rawlings, sustainability and pollution prevention program manager at the base.

“Fairly recently, the Army realized food waste is a large problem. As we characterized its waste, we learned food waste was a main component of the stream in many installations,” says Giselle Rodriguez, program manager for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL).

The undesired trend has driven a flurry of activity, both branch-wide and at individual installations like Fort Hood. Among other projects is evaluation of several food waste diversion technologies including dehydrators, which one base in Virginia estimates could divert 200 million pounds annually, turning much of the decomposing material to mulch. One installation in South Carolina collaborated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on a project to prevent food waste in the first place. Others with the same goal are doing food donation work in their communities.

The dehydrator demonstrations started at Fort Lee outside of Petersburg, Va., though they’ve since expanded. Food waste is sealed and heated, then solids are separated from the water, with the water sent to the sewer.

“We learned you can landfill dry solids and reduce food waste by 90 percent. We also studied using landfill dry solid as soil amendment, but there are caveats because it isn’t digested, so it would have to be further processed,” says Rodriguez.

Fort Hood is also looking at dehydrators, and Fort McCoy in Monroe County, Wis., has invested in four of them that it is testing.

“We are exploring opportunities to reuse the dry food waste, possibly in sludge drying beds or as a nutrient land application, though as a land application it would have to be tested and decontaminated,” says Tyrone Cook, solid waste and recycling coordinator for the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve.

As with a growing portion of the private sector and governments, the Army is looking at preventing food waste rather than simply diverting it.

“Many approaches are reactive. But moving forward, the Army would like to address source reduction,” says Rodriguez. “Source reduction is about changing behavior, so we are working hard to shift thinking to see that food does not become waste. That starts with procurement practices that reduce wasted materials and better planning to calculate meals portions.”

As a step toward this focus shift, Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., did a trial incorporating LeanPath, a food-tracking application designed to cut waste generated during kitchen operations, from procurement to preparation to serving.

In three months, two dining facility kitchens weighed more than 27,000 pounds of prepared food and scraps and adjusted their practices based on what they learned. They ended up salvaging 8,000 pounds of edible food, donating it to a local charity serving homeless people.

“During the trial period, LeanPath allowed these dining facilities for the first time to measure the amount of food that is being wasted. An added benefit was that the reasons for the creation of the waste could be entered and known by managers, enabling them to make adjustments in procedures and purchasing to minimize food waste,” says Andy Poppen, environmental engineer at Fort Jackson. “Further, these facilities discovered ways to do more ‘progressive cooking,’ meaning meals are prepared as needed as opposed to for specific headcounts. Ultimately, it enabled them to save money, time and resources.”

Back at Fort Hood, Rawlings has positive feelings about the future of the installation’s food diversion program, especially tied to the push to collect more and turn it into a resource.

“We have buildings knocking at our door to be added on [to the collection route]. The best part will be when we have a final product and we can start to sell and close the loop,” says Rawlings.

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