A Food Secure Community in West Philadelphia?


SustainableUniversityCity shadIn preparation for the Northern Virginia Hunger Summit, the Capital Area Food Bank of Washington, D.C. asks, “What’s next in the fight to reduce food waste?”

Our chosen next step is an action model; an Urban Food Recovery Model. At the University City District (UCD) in West Philadelphia we are building a whole community approach to prevent food waste by capturing surplus food and then diverting it to either feed needy people or for composting to enrich local soils.

The UCD thinks it is on its way to becoming one of America’s first Food Secure Communities, where food is accessible to everyone every single day. The missing link needed to close the food gap between those with enough and those without is to dramatically increase food donations. The vision is to bring the entire neighborhood together to capture and distribute surplus food that would otherwise be wasted and to build economic benefits at the same time.

Team effort

What distinguishes this food recovery model approach is coordination through an economic development district and a focus on the entire community. If successful, everyone can celebrate and bring this issue to the forefront of Sustainable University City. This model can be replicated wherever the desire and resources are available.

The UCD is a small 2.4 square mile mixed residential and commercial neighborhood with about 48,000 permanent and university residents. It houses three universities, medical buildings, federal offices, and numerous restaurants. Despite its small breadth, it disposes more than a million pounds of food every month. Most of this food goes to the landfill, some down garbage disposals; a little is transformed locally into soil compost, and a meager — although precious — amount is gracefully placed on the plates of food-insecure people.

UCD launched the first pilot program of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Urban Surplus Food Recovery Model on June 5, 2013. What at first was an attempt to divert local food from landfills has grown into a working model for a hunger-free community. About 21% of the residents are food insecure. Our initial goal is to keep the community pantries, cupboards, and shelters full (Map the Meal Gap).

UCD joined the pilot after an USEPA community-based analysis of food resources in Philadelphia found that they had all of the elements that our team thought would be needed for success, such as:

• For-profit food recycling businesses
• Social and environmental aura
• Community composter for residential drop-off
• Diverse sources of surplus food
• Leadership – one of the strongest economic development districts in Philadelphia

Helping hands are delivering

The USDA provides most of the food support with over 6.3 million pounds going to the zip codes that include the UCD.

Local food agencies distribute another 160,000 pounds of food collected from neighborhood donors. This is not enough though; the community is not hunger-free. Based on our preliminary estimates another 2.2 million pounds of food is needed each year or 6,000 pounds a day.

Another 10,000 lbs. being tossed

We estimate that more than 250 local grocers, restaurants, hotels, colleges, and others are throwing out around 10,000 pounds of food every day that we can capture. That is more than we need and the reason for our optimism. We can gather what we need by matching local food collection and distribution agencies to local food sources. Surplus food that is not best for eating will be composted; hence, a new source of soil nutrients for the expanding number of community gardens in the District.

Through its local food agencies, the District has just compiled a list of criteria for successful donations along with a list of experts at the local food banks that can arrange for safe, reliable food pick-up and distribution to patrons in the community.

Here is a partial list of some of the other UCD activities that are helping:

• Media event and press releases
• Distribution of attractive Food Recycling Project informational postcards
• Street Teams meeting with their neighbors
• UCD Food Recycling Project window stickers for supporters
• Tools and data support from USEPA
• A new website

Specific goals set

UCD intends to double the number of residents composting food within a year. SHARE, a major food relief organization, will increase the number of local direct pickups by 50% and the amount of donated food by 50,000 pounds in the first year.

Other goals to integrate farms, colleges, churches and others to the pilot have also been set. Current trends indicate that we are on track to meet the goals.

Momentum is building in the daily fight against food waste and hunger because people care.

Thomas O’Donnell is an Adjunct Professor of Sustainability at Philadelphia University