There is a misconception about food waste and hunger in the United States. Though nearly 12% of Americans experience food insecurity, the root of this issue is not that there is a shortage of food, but that there is an abundance of food that is not well-distributed and instead goes to landfills (“Hunger & Poverty in America”). According to the Nashville Food Project, “currently 40% of all food produced in our country is being thrown away” (The Nashville Food Project). Food waste not only presents as a humanitarian, social, and economic concern in the realm of food distribution issues and hunger but also as a contributor to climate change. Our project investigates three organizations, Compost Nashville, Urban Green Lab, and the Nashville Food Project, in order to gain a better understanding of how food waste influences climate change and how public policy might address these issues. Additionally, we explore the interplay between the work of these nonprofits and social media representations of individual environmental action.
When it comes to the conversations surrounding food waste, the first thing that typically comes to mind are the starving children, typically vaguely located in Africa, their existence employed by your parents as they promise your admittance into the Clean Plate Club™. It’s the same perception of food waste I find myself running into on TikTok, most notably when I land on the infamous Wasildaoud page. Nowadays Wasil Daoud’s content has grown relatively tame, but there was a point when he was absolutely torn apart in his comment section due to him wasting exorbitant amounts of food in his posts. In one video, he messily makes an over-the-top pizza; it’s so messy that it’s obvious that he’s not going to eat it off-screen. Cue the comments criticizing his extremely wasteful antics and the many starving people that would be lucky to have that food. While a point is there, these comments are quite a bit short-sighted in their criticism, as they fail to account for starvation as a food distribution problem rather than as just a food availability problem. Jersey-born Wasil Daoud opting to throw away 5 pounds of pepperoni isn’t going to put any more food on a hungry child’s plate.
But, Wasil Daoud choosing to pursue consumer behaviors that limit the amount of food he ends up contributing to landfills would lower his carbon footprint. Excess food waste as it relates to others’ food insecurity is important as a social issue but food waste as an environmental issue is even more relevant to those in countries where food availability is oftentimes taken for granted, as there is a direct link to the food that is thrown away and the greenhouse gasses it will produce while sitting in some landfill. Ideally, people would totally cease their food waste, but since that’s unlikely, work needs to be done on the back end.
This is where organizations like Compost Nashville come in. Compost Nashville is the first composting organization to serve the greater Nashville area, employing a special manufacturing process that increases the efficiency with which the nonprofit composts. Compost Nashville offers composting services to individual households as well as to businesses. For a fee, households can pay for composting services and receive compost for personal gardens in return. For businesses, the compost they produce is donated to local farms–this same model applies as Compost Nashville provides services to other local organizations such as the Nashville Food Project and Thistle Farms. The organization also provides compostable goods to businesses–you’ve likely seen the Bongo Java coffee cup sleeves around campus. According to Catarina Muschaweck, their Director of Marketing and Communications, Compost Nashville keeps one goal in mind: “Grow food, not landfills, while diverting as much food and compostable waste as possible.”
In accomplishing this vision, Compost Nashville tracks their net carbon effect to ensure that they remain a carbon negative organization even as they intend to increase their local reach and expand beyond Nashville. Just last year, they prevented the equivalent of 40 metric tons of CO2 production, an amount that would have taken 49 acres of forest to sequester; since they first started back in April 2012, they’ve diverted 7 million pounds of compostable waste. Despite these successes, there are still places where the organization struggles while trying to achieve their mission. A fairly paid–albeit small–workforce in a self-funded organization demands that prices for their services can’t dip too low. As it stands, residential composting isn’t financially feasible for everyone who might want access to the service. This lack of access isn’t just limited by finances; currently, Compost Nashville is struggling to expand beyond the Nashville area, so many in Tennessee are missing out on convenient composting services. Additionally, even though Compost Nashville provides single-use compostable materials to businesses, there’s no guarantee that those materials even end up being composted. I’ve witnessed way more Bongo Java sleeves at Suzie’s end up in normal trash cans than in compost bins; in fact, Suzie’s doesn’t even have a compost bin that’s accessible to customers.
Regarding public policy as it relates to sustainability, Catarina Muschaweck expresses that she “wishes that it would become the norm”, that sustainability and social responsibility for the environment was the baseline rather than conscious choice. Despite Compost Nashville faring well without outside investment, Muschaweck conceded that there is a need for funds that focus on organizations working towards a more sustainable future.
The issues that Compost Nashville faces indicate a need for political reform that prioritizes sustainability. This goes beyond just funding organizations like Compost Nashville that work to mitigate the effects of widespread excessive wastes. Achieving sustainability as a social and economic norm requires policies that encourage a culture that fights waste production consumer and corporate spheres. There needs to be a focus on precautionary policies that educate people on sustainable living and encourage those positive behaviors while also providing people with the resources they need to easily engage in those behaviors. There is a need for economic investment in sustainability that values the maintenance of our environment and, on a corporate level, policy reform needs to limit the overabundance that produces waste in the first place. The development of a sustainable culture can’t come solely from a governing body and economic entities.
This is where we end up back on TikTok, more specifically, sustainable and zero-waste TikTok. Users active on this tag produce a lot of TikToks talking about changing small habits to act more sustainably. For instance, one user might encourage composting while another one might talk about switching to sustainable menstrual products. Although there is often the assumption that their audience has the same degree of financial freedom and free time as they do, the TikTokers still educate viewers on a wide range of sustainable practices. Overall, the way TikTok promotes sustainability sometimes fails to be class conscious but is still a step in the right direction since it–at the very least–reveals to people that there are alternatives to the way they’re living currently, which has the desired effect of cultivating a culture of environmental awareness and sustainable consumption.
The interconnected issues of food waste, climate change, and hunger are multifaceted. They present humanitarian, social, economic, and environmental concerns. Just as TikTok users propose various individual solutions to these intricate issues, many organizations take different approaches to providing potential resolutions. Another organization that we looked into was the Nashville Food Project. The Nashville Food Project is located at 5904 California Ave, Nashville, TN and is a non-profit that attempts to mitigate issues related to food in Nashville. Two of the main issues the organization handles are food waste and hunger, which go hand-in-hand. Though there is an abundance of food in our country, there are still so many people who are left hungry. In order to gain a deeper understanding of this issue and the Nashville Food Project, I interviewed Elizabeth Langgle-Martin, their Community Engagement Manager.
The Nashville Food Project began in June of 2007 as a way to deliver mobile meals to the homeless community of Nashville. It has now grown into a large non-profit organization that operates mostly through donations from foundations, congregations, and corporate donors and focuses on three main pillars. The Nashville Food Project aims to “grow, cook, and share.” These pillars support the mission statement of the organization: “To bring people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food, with the goals of cultivating community and alleviating hunger in our city” (The Nashville Food Project).
The “grow” initiative refers to the three gardens/agricultural sites the organization supports around the Nashville area. The goal of these gardens is to “support ecosystems and food production connected to our specific places and communities” and to “promote connectivity, build resiliency, and act in a framework of justice and anti-racism” (The Nashville Food Project). Within the gardens, thousands of pounds of fresh produce are produced for meals (which are then distributed to those facing food insecurity in Nashville) (Langgle-Martin). Additionally, the gardens—used by neighbors, families, and individual plot-holders—provide the space for over 80 community gardeners to grow their own crops (Langgle-Martin). People “gather [in the gardens] to turn compost, raise chickens, provide homes for bees and other pollinators, tend vegetables, plant cover crops to protect and nurture the soil” (The Nashville Food Project).
The “cook” initiative refers to the two commercial kitchens that the organization uses to prepare about 5,500 meals per week which are then distributed to members of the Nashville community. The kitchens use recovered, donated, and garden-grown foods in order to prepare these meals. In terms of food recovery, the Nashville Food Project recovers would-be waste food products from donation partnerships with local Nashville grocers, farmers, markets and restaurants: “every day, we’re astounded by the generosity and creativity of these partners, who share not just their ‘seconds’ but their best. From a grocery bag filled with the first harvest of a backyard gardener, to over 20,000 pounds of fresh, never-frozen meat recovered from a local meat conference—each bit of food shared is vital in supporting our mission to alleviate hunger and cultivate community” (The Nashville Food Project). Food recovery is particularly important because it ties directly to food waste. Food waste does not only refer to food, however; wasting food also wastes all the resources that went into producing the food: the labor, the water, the energy, the transport, the packaging, the land (usually which many trees were cut down for.) In fact, globally, “food waste accounts for 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. To put this into perspective, the aviation industry generates 2.5 percent” (Bonneau).
Finally, the “share” initiative refers to distributing meals to the Nashville community. Distribution is made possible by the 25 partner nonprofits and community groups. Some of the community groups include “after-school programs, ESL classes and emergency shelters” (The Nashville Food Project).
With these three initiatives, Elizabeth spoke to me about how The Nashville Food Project mainly focuses on enacting change at a small scale, consumer level. She told me that an easy way to better address the issues of food waste, climate change, and hunger is to encourage people to be mindful of how they individually contribute to food waste, and thus hunger and climate change. Zero waste cookbooks are a unique, exciting way to incentivize individuals to be conscious of food waste and how their actions contribute. “Cooking with Scraps: Turn Your Peels, Cores, Rinds, and Stems into Delicious Meals”, “The Zero Waste Cookbook: 100 Recipes for Cooking without Waste”, and “The Zero-Waste Chef: Plant-Forward Recipes and Tips for a Sustainable Kitchen and Planet” are three examples of exciting, sustainable, mindful cookbooks.
Furthermore, Elizabeth spoke to me about the various state and national government policies related to hunger and food waste. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal welfare food program for low-income individuals and families. SNAP is meant to be a government safety net that protects or helps people experiencing food insecurity. However, Elizabeth also explained to me how SNAP is actually problematic and doesn’t always work the way it is supposed to (Langgle-Martin). For instance, SNAP benefits may be too low since they don’t take into account the variation in food prices based on geography, nor the cost variations associated with age and/or differing nutrient requirements and the costs of time spent in food preparation. In terms of state government, The Nashville Food Project often looks to the Tennessee Justice Center for nutrition advocacy. The Tennessee Justice Center advocates for a variety programs: SNAP, child nutrition through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Programs (SBP), Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) (Tennessee Justice Center). These local and statewide programs that the Nashville Food Project looks to for guidance ultimately help the organization achieve its mission of bringing people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food, with the ultimate goal of reducing food waste and easing hunger in the Nashville area.
So far, we’ve contextualized sustainability in terms of food waste and spoke about how composting, producing compostable products, growing food, and food recovery are all improvements concerning fighting the effects of food wastes, demonstrating that food waste is best seen not as a simple, isolated issue, but as one of many contributors to climate change. From food waste to natural disasters to pollution to the fossil fuel industry, the scale of climate change can feel overwhelming, making it easy for any individual action to feel pointless. In a world where over half of emissions come from only 90 companies, it can be difficult to imagine individual change as anything but a dead-end.
Because of this disconnect between the scale of the problem and the scale of individual impact, it can be difficult for nonprofits to motivate individual environmental action, especially given the void of guidance from the government. How do environmental nonprofits, specifically Urban Green Lab, attempt to bridge this gap, and how do they both rely on and go beyond governmental guidance to encourage individual accountability? Furthermore, as climate change has become a heated partisan debate, there’s the danger of party loyalty pushing people away from sustainability (which is often seen as a “left wing” issue). Has the politicization of environmental issues formed an obstacle to nonpartisan environmental work, and what steps are nonprofits taking to overcome it?
In order to answer these questions, I profiled Urban Green Lab, a local Nashville environmental non-profit.In doing this, I spoke to Noah Spiegel, the Director of Operations. Urban Green Lab is a local Nashville environmental nonprofit focused on creating change at three levels: homes, classrooms, and workplaces. They have a variety of resources, ranging from curriculums and training for teachers to the Nashville Food Waste Initiative, which attempts to educate the community about food sustainability. Their programs are categorized under the umbrella of “education” – rather than focusing on legislative change, Urban Green Lab attempts to carve out a niche for itself in educating the public (both formally and informally) on sustainability.
Given this focus, Urban Green Lab is acutely aware of the importance and difficulty of motivating individual action. According to Noah, Urban Green Lab reacts to this disconnect by targeting “the middle” to create change. Instead of relying on a “bottom-up” or “top-down” model of reform, Urban Green Lab aims to create change-makers in the “middle” of their respective institutions (be it a workplace, a school, or a home), and encourage those change-makers to affect both the people “above” and “below” them in the organizational hierarchy. In a workplace, this could look like a mid-level employee advocating for sustainability both for their team of workers and to their bosses. In a school, this could look like a teacher crafting lessons on sustainability for their students while advocating for more sustainable practices to the principal and other administrative figures. Using this strategy of targeting influential individuals, UGL aims to both “spill up” and “spill down,” while demonstrating to people the tangible impact they can have on sustainability in their local communities.
Moreover, Urban Green Lab’s pitch to individuals draws from empirics. For example, Noah gave the story of electric cars as an example of consumer demand shifting the economy towards sustainability. According to Noah, when consumers demanded electric cars (partially due to their potential as an environmentally friendly transportation method), companies reacted to fill that demand. Similarly, Noah argues that the simple individual changes Urban Green Lab pushes for (including reducing individual food waste) can slowly and cumulatively shift the consumer landscape in a direction that sways corporations in a positive, more sustainable direction.
Urban Green Lab finds politicization of environmentalism frustrating, as partisan divisions may drive people (especially Republican leaning people) away from environmental movements perceived as “left wing.” This politicization of what should be uncontroversial issues (such as sustainable living) is largely a result of political battles in DC far out of Urban Green Lab’s control. According to Noah, Urban Green Lab tries to align with governmental sustainability goals (from city goals to United Nations goals) but doesn’t focus on advocating for policy change. Instead, he sees a societal mindset shift catalyzed by individuals as a necessary prerequisite to effective policy change. Their angle is to tackle education (both formal and informal education) in order to influence individuals in a more sustainable direction. They have some explicit intersections with public policy (for example, advising on city task forces or consulting with Nashville Metro Water services). However, they do not necessarily view these roles as advocacy, but simply informing the government of the sustainability landscape and Urban Green Lab’s actions so that government efforts can be well-informed and well coordinated.
Urban Green Lab also has an active social media presence, with a recent Instagram campaign featuring posts declaring “A little change goes a long way.” Their Instagram also has calls to individual action such as “Food is beautiful, waste less” and “Keep your office sustainable.” Urban Green Lab’s social media attitude towards individual change is far from universal, however. Social media, particularly Instagram, also finds its fair share of posts that are pessimistic about the ability of individual change. For example, one reel by @earthbyhelena (who has 31.5k followers) tells viewers to not beat themselves up for “not being ‘sustainable’ enough,” with a follower commenting that she is “sick of” people acting like “we as individuals can meaningfully address climate change by making better choices.” Clover Hogan, who has 11.9k followers, posted a video with a similar sentiment, captioned: “It frustrates me when we blame the individual – when we guilt the ‘consumer’… incremental behaviour change is nowhere near enough. We won’t deliver a better, brighter future through buying reusable cups or turning off the lights.” Similar posts denouncing placing responsibility on the individual can be found from the Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Anarchist Environmentalist (who has 52.9k followers).
While the impact corporations and other structures have on climate change is massive and undeniable, organizations like Urban Green Lab take issue with the implication that individual change is meaningless. In response to these pessimistic attitudes, Urban Green Lab attempts to convince people in the local community that their choices matter – both through social media, and the previously mentioned strategies of targeting the “middle” and pointing to successful past examples. This focus on encouraging everyday sustainable choices and living is Urban Green Lab’s tactic to fight systemic issues like climate change. Although Urban Green Lab’s mission expands beyond food waste, they have similarities to Compost Nashville and the Nashville Food Project, in that they target individual action, hoping individual choices will spill up into broader structural changes.
The three issues of hunger, food waste, and climate change overlap extensively: hunger is a symptom of food distribution issues and climate change is an effect of food waste. Therefore, although each nonprofit provides different programs to influence individual choices in a more sustainable direction, the work of Urban Green Lab, Compost Nashville, and the Nashville Food Project are all intertwined and related. All three nonprofits target action at the level of the individual, and work against societal attitudes surrounding the irrelevance or ignorance of the effects of our individual choices. Compost Nashville and Urban Green Lab, however, also have explicit attempts to outreach to businesses (although Urban Green Lab especially still sees individuals within businesses as the key to corporate change). Finally, the nonprofits differ in the specific aspects of sustainability they aim to address. While the Nashville Food Project and Compost Nashville zero in on food waste, Urban Green Lab takes a more expansive approach to sustainability that encompasses but also goes beyond a focus on minimizing food waste.
While the work of all three organizations is laudable, there is a need for policy change that encourages a culture where individuals engage with sustainability as a norm. For instance, policy could be utilized to make residential composting a standard, rather than something that only a few choose to pursue. Policy could also be employed to minimize the food waste that comes from company overproduction as well as mitigate the effects of food waste and the prevalence of widespread hunger by establishing procedures that divert consumable food waste from landfills to shelters. Beyond actual policy, simply reminding consumers to be conscious of food waste while eating out is also helpful. Vanderbilt does a fairly good job with this. The pictures below show two signs at the EBI dining hall regarding food waste.
In closing, by investigating Compost Nashville, The Nashville Food Project, and Urban Green Lab, we have concluded that policy and change surrounding food waste, climate change, and hunger can take place on a variety of strata and in various forms. Though action may occur in differing ways, as seen through our investigations of the local organizations, all three share the hope of combating the interrelated issues of food waste, climate change, and hunger.
Much thanks to Compost Nashville, the Nashville Food Project, and the Urban Green Lab for giving up time for interviews and making this project possible,
Paulette DeJarnette, Rachel Karetsky, and Samantha McLoughlin
Bonneau, Anne Marie. “The Zero-Waste Chef: Plant-Forward Recipes and Tips for a Sustainable Kitchen and Planet.” Amazon, Avery, an Imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021, https://www.amazon.com/Zero-Waste-Chef-Plant-Forward-Recipes-Sustainable/dp/0593188772.
Hard, Lindsay-Jean. “Cooking with Scraps: Turn Your Peels, Cores, Rinds, and Stems into Delicious Meals.” Amazon, Workman Pub Co, 2018, https://www.amazon.com/Cooking-Scraps-Peels-Cores-Delicious/dp/0761193030/ref=pd_lpo_1?pd_rd_i=0761193030&psc=1.
Starr, Douglas. “Just 90 Companies Are to Blame for Most Climate Change, This
‘Carbon Accountant’ Says.” Science, August 25, 2016
“Hunger & Poverty in America.” Food Research & Action Center, 8 Dec. 2021, https://frac.org/hunger-poverty-america.
“The Tennessee Justice Center.” Tennessee Justice Center, 25 Apr. 2022, https://www.tnjustice.org/.Torrico, Giovanna, et al. “The Zero Waste Cookbook: 100 Recipes for Cooking without Waste.” Amazon, Hardie Grant Books, 2019, https://www.amazon.com/Zero-Waste-Cookbook-Recipes-Cooking/dp/178488247X.