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NRDC’s Keating Keen to Reduce Food Waste Across U.S. Cities

Madeline Keating, City Strategist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Healthy People and Thriving Communities program, was recently named as a Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient. She spoke to Waste360 about her work with NRDC to reduce food waste in cities, increase access to healthy food, and build more equitable communities.

Waste360: What are your major roles and responsibilities?

Madeline Keating: NRDC is a large environmental group made up of lawyers and scientists and policy advocates and online activists and members, and our work involves fighting climate change, eliminating chemicals from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, protecting endangered species, advancing urban sustainability, and building healthy and equitable cities.

My role at NRDC as a City Strategist is working mostly on city-based advocacy around a number of different issues, but the majority of my time is really focused on food waste reduction in cities. Over the past two years, I have been a city lead through our Food Matters project, which works with cities to implement innovative strategies and solutions for comprehensive food waste reduction.

I’ve led our work in Denver, which is one of our two model cities, the second is Baltimore, to test our food waste strategies.

Waste360: What are some of the initiatives that you are working on regarding food waste reduction?

Madeline Keating: I work directly with city staff to support the region, and engage directly with local partners, and provide technical support in developing city engagement strategies. I also help to build our knowledge sharing network.

Probably my favorite project that I have been a part of is Denver’s Neighborhood Food Waste pilot. Through our initial work in Nashville, we helped to launch the Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge so that restaurants could compete to reduce food waste. Building off of that work, we worked closely with city staff in Denver, and some local partners to create a neighborhood-by-neighborhood challenge for restaurants to reduce food waste.

I am really excited that we are ramping up this work outside of Denver and Baltimore. We are going to be doing this project on a regional scale in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. We launched the initiative for both of those regions last week. Right now, we are in an application period, where eligible cities or organizations that work closely with cities can apply to be part of what we are calling a regional cohort.

The goal is to implement a lot of the strategies that we have created and that are laid out in our toolkit, drawing from the lessons learned through our deep engagement in Denver, Baltimore, and Nashville. Those tools are available on our website. They are guides, and some of them include templates that cities can customize for their needs on a wide range of strategies.

Waste360: What has been something you have found to be exciting or enriching about working in the waste management industry?

Madeline Keating: I have created a niche for myself that is a unique combination of food systems, urban sustainability and environmental advocacy, which is where, waste management, or in my case, probably a better term is waste reduction, comes into the picture.

Since my work in the industry is mostly aimed at food waste, I really approach waste management through the lens of creating a more sustainable food system.

I believe that a truly sustainable food system is one where we don’t really have waste, and we don’t need to focus so many resources on waste management. There are so many other ways to address food waste before thinking about big municipal recycling programs. For example, we have worked with many of our cities to implement consumer food waste prevention messaging campaigns, like Save the Food.

How do we address the breaks in our supply chain so that we are not creating so much surplus that it will go to waste? How do we help consumers change their mindset about food and waste?  How do we use the remaining inedible scraps and turn them into nutrient dense soil amendments that ultimately are really helpful in rebuilding our depleted soil?

I envision a world where our food system is efficient, and it feeds all people; it builds community and wealth; and there is not waste.

Waste360: What new projects or initiatives are on the horizon?

Madeline Keating: There are so many amazing on-the-ground organizations in cities all over the country that are already doing [food waste reduction] work and have been doing it for ages. And, they are doing it in a way that also builds community and builds community wealth and health.

NRDC, through this project, is in an interesting position because we are a large, national environmental organization. When we are working in the city space, we have to own that we are that large, national environmental organization and be invited to do this work, because we are not the local experts.

The people on the ground at the local level are the experts, and there are so many people that do community-building, urban gardening, farming, education outreach, food rescue and anti-hunger work. Those are the people that have the day-to-day interactions with residents who are food insecure.

There is a real opportunity with this work to reduce food waste at the local level through building and strengthening community and neighborhood food systems. We work to help build connections between those organizations and our cities, as partners. One example of this is that we were able to build capacity funding for local partners in our Food Matters grant, and through that create a local partners grant program.

We ended up funding 10 Denver organizations through the first round of funding. We found that the organizations contributed to 270,000 pounds of food donation, over 1,700 new clients were served by food rescue organizations, and 3.7 million pounds of food scraps composted. We really do think that we were helpful in building capacity.

We are excited to continue to think through how we can make these partnerships be the most helpful to organizations working on the ground.

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