Cincinnati, Ohio set bold goals in its Climate Action Plan. Among them are reducing food waste by 20 percent by 2025 and hitting 50 percent by 2028 –at the same time the metropolis aims to triple urban food production. The idea is to get a better grasp on two big problems. One is food insecurity; it impacts 33 percent of Cincinnati families. The other is amassing organics in landfill, to the tune of about 12,592 tons of residential food waste in 2021; that figure nearly doubles when food manufacturers’ and food service providers’ waste is added to the equation.
The initial challenge is just making people aware these food system problems are real and of their consequences. Then come the tasks of developing infrastructure to capture and recover more would-be waste; figuring out how to scale solutions; securing funding; and changing behavior, says Robin Henderson, program manager, City of Cincinnati, Office of Environment & Sustainability.
Ohio’s third largest city, Cincinnati is busy carving out strategies and a work plan, but getting started was not easy, and there are still mountains to climb.
Coming up with a robust plan, then executing it can be daunting for any municipality. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Food Matters program launched several years ago to help, beginning with pilots in Nashville, Baltimore, and Denver. The initiative has since grown, with over 20 cities now involved.
The Food Matters team guides participants in developing programs and policies around preventing waste and capturing food’s value, meeting them where they are, whether at the very beginning of their journey or, like Cincinnati, well on their way.
Cities tap into the NRDC gurus’ insight, but they learn from each other too.
“In 2020 we launched a Food Matters regional initiative to have cohorts of cities in different regions. We use the regional synergies to engage cities as peers to work with each other to drive forward solutions to reduce food waste,” says Madeline Keating, city strategist and Food Matters initiative lead at Natural Resources Defense Council.
While they all have some shared priorities and goals, each municipality is also unique. So, setting up to be able to work with any one of them has taken thought.
Part of the plan has been to shift from going at multiple strategies at one time (in the days where there were only a few participants) to a narrower focus.
“It’s how we can concentrate our expertise in a targeted way instead of spreading thin across cities,” Keating says.
Customizable templates help to move more cities along. These tools guide in developing policies around issues commonly on cities’ radar, with language each one can plug and play that’s relevant to them.
Keating points to a couple of examples: Increasingly cities want to compost, but often have a tough go finding markets for the end product. So, a model policy was developed around procurement of finished compost. Then there’s the ongoing battle around transparency and capturing good data, which inspired a template for mandatory reporting for large generators to capture insightful details like how much and what kind of food waste they produce.
Not all cities are ready for policy action. They may first need to focus on testing different strategies, educating stakeholders, and other early, critical steps. The preliminary work starts with working alongside
cities to understand what efforts to reduce and prevent food waste have already happened and what key measurements are available to assess, among details.
“With this information we can build a roadmap of where the city wants to go, how to get there, and lay out a reasonable timeline. This initial planning phase includes figuring out what strategies to implement and, oftentimes, testing a pilot project. It is a foundational process that allows cities to build consensus around next steps, get buy-in from other stakeholders, and pinpoint what changes are needed at the policy level,” Keating says.
A baseline calculator tool gives a pretty good idea of how much waste is generated across all sectors. An alternative to expensive and time-consuming waste audits, the calculator was created based on data from audits done in the first few participating cities.
Captured intel gave a solid idea of how much food is going to waste across industrial, commercial, and residential sectors; then equations were created, based on the data, and built into the calculator.
It’s been a go-to tool for getting a solid start, but then there’s more to do.
“We continue to offer insight. This is what we see across sectors, and these are our recommendations. Then we provide guidance and technical support, tailored for cities’ unique goals,” Keating says.
For cities like Cincinnati who already have a path forward the support may look a little different.
The Midwest metropolis came into Food Matters having already begun to broach food waste through a city-county partnership. It had convened food waste summits with community stakeholders; obtained funding for a local non-profit to support food waste reduction; and was utilizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Food Recovery Hierarchy to identify strategies and prioritize actions to prevent and divert wasted food.
What was still needed was clearly defined, encompassing strategies, along with tools to execute those strategies, which NRDC Food Matters provided, says Robin Henderson, program manager, City of Cincinnati, Office of Environment & Sustainability.
Four years out from hooking up with Food Matters, the city has almost completed its 2023 Green Cincinnati Plan to include goals and action steps to tackle food waste.
NRDC’s work in this space came to the city’s attention through the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge. Then Henderson and her team attended an NRDC Cities Summit convening.
“The vision, organization, technical assistance, and resources NRDC offered at the time made it easy to come back to Cincinnati and try implementing some of their ideas.
“Then the opportunity opened up to be part of the Food Matters Great Lakes Cohort, to regionally tackle various well-defined strategies and share best practices. The structure of Food Matters has helped the city identify clear next steps and provided both the ‘how-to’ behind accomplishment and the encouragement to try,” Henderson says.
The most immediate program goal is to engage more cities in peer learning networks so they can replicate solutions.
“They are strapped for time and we want to provide lessons learned and strategies so they do not have to reinvent the wheel. And we want to make sure strategies are implemented with equity to benefit marginalized communities. We want strategies that work for everyone,” Keating says.
Further out the aim is to have far-reaching ways to ensure food does not make its way to landfills.
“Cities, counties, and local organizations hold a lot of power in shifting how we value food. The longer term goal is to create a less wasteful food system, and we see cities as key to achieving this.”