Martha’s Vineyard program aims to slim Island food waste

An innovative program is examining alternatives to shipping restaurant food waste off-Island.

Volunteers picked kale during Tuesday's glean at Morning Glory Farm. — Cameron Machell

Sophie Abrams, project manager for the Island Wide Organics Feasibility Study, said estimates are that 45 percent of Island trash shipped off-Island and sent to landfills is food waste which could be composted or recovered. Islanders are creating innovative ways to both reduce and recover that waste as part of a larger food-recovery movement that continues to gain momentum across the nation.

“We’re shipping our waste off and we’re shipping all these materials on, so it seems to make a lot more sense to be keeping it all here,” Ms. Abrams said.

The Island Wide Organics Feasibility Study was created by a multi-stakeholder oversight committee made up of eight people, and is funded by the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship. Ms. Abrams said the study quantifies how much food waste is on the Island and seeks to find the best plan to minimize the amount of food wasted. Some of the options the study is exploring include taking food waste to a network of farms for composting, or having one regional, centralized anaerobic digester or composter.

Tread gently

As part of the study’s research, it launched a pilot project a month ago, Composting on the Coast, that handles food waste from six different restaurants on the Island. The four-month project partnered with the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, which has had a shell recycling program for the past few years. With one truck and a couple of drivers, the two groups pick up food from restaurants six days a week. Participating restaurants include Atria, the Port Hunter, the Square Rigger Restaurant, and Isola in Edgartown, and the Lookout Tavern and Park Corner in Oak Bluffs.

In the pilot project’s first month, it collected roughly 4,600 pounds of food waste.

Chef and owner of Atria Christian Thornton said Composting on the Coast is well-organized and well-executed. Mr. Thornton emphasized the necessity of projects like these because, he said, food waste has the potential of becoming a bigger problem than it already is.  “Food waste is huge. It’s a big problem in this country,” Mr. Thornton said. “They say that 40 percent of our food supply is thrown out. So it’s nice when there are programs put in place to make use of food waste.”

Mr. Thornton is part of the James Beard Foundation, which provides chefs with a network of programs that deal with food, education, and food policy. One program, Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, helps chefs become better advocates and effective leaders in food-system change. Mr. Thornton called it a grassroots movement.

“We’re key in this movement because we can all make choices, chefs especially. We bring in such a volume of food, and we have choices as to how we can bring that in,” Mr. Thornton said. “We can make choices all along the way to tread a little more gently on this earth.”

For the love of compost

All of the food waste from the composting project is going to Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, making it one of the Island’s primary compost sites. The farm also composts its own farm food waste, and Ms. Abrams said they take residents’ waste for compost as well. Morning Glory Farm receives food waste from zero-waste events like the Sail Martha’s Vineyard (Sail MV) Regatta.

Currently, Morning Glory Farm is the only farm that’s certified to take food waste, according to Ms. Abrams. Farms have to be certified by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) or the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR). Food waste potentially could also be collected at local drop-offs at the dump in each town. Ms. Abrams said they already have the permitting to be sites.

The project is currently using a windrow composting system at Morning Glory Farm. Ms. Abrams said it’s a “low-tech composting system” where a large row of food waste is mixed with carbon sources like leaves, manure, and wood chips. It breaks down quickly and naturally at a very high temperature for a couple of weeks, and then the compost is moved, to cure for up to a year before it’s ready to be used on the farm.

“We don’t know that composting on the farms with windrows is the best solution, but we chose it for the pilot project because it’s easy and it’s cheap to implement, and could be done quickly,” Ms. Abrams said.

Ms. Abrams also said that windrow composting is ideal for postconsumer waste. Plate scrapings, meat and bones, food-preparation waste, and paper products can all be composted. Even paper that can’t be recycled, like wax paper, can be composted.

“That’s why we chose it for the pilot project, because you can divert so much more that way,” Ms. Abrams said.

The caveat is that they are looking at only a small portion of restaurants. Ms. Abrams said their ultimate goal is handling food waste from 150 locations, so they are researching whether they can scale the program up or need to look at another solution.

Sail MV’s Regatta took place July 7 through July 10. Each evening Sail MV’s dinners had a goal of creating as close to zero waste as possible. Instead of using plastic cups and utensils or paper plates and paper napkins, Sail MV used glassware, silverware, and cloth napkins. It collected all food waste, which then went to Morning Glory Farm.

According to Sail MV’s administrative director Hope Callen, the seafood buffet and auction on July 7, which hosted 400 people, produced only one bag of trash for the entire event.

“You do the best you can,” Ms. Callen said.

Don Hatch, who is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District put out food-waste containers last summer at the transfer stations in Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Edgartown for residents to use, according to Ms. Abrams. She said that they weren’t advertised and didn’t have good signage, so the system didn’t catch on.

In response, the project applied for grant money from the DEP for organics containers, signs, and educational materials so that residents could be more aware of the service. Ms. Abrams said the project applied for Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury, and the refuse district; however, they won’t know if they received the grant until this fall. The grants are available every year, and Ms. Abrams said they plan to help Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown apply next year.

“We have some special circumstances [on Martha’s Vineyard],” Ms. Abrams said. “We would need something that could handle seasonal influx of food waste, but also make financial sense in the winter.”

The glean team

Another solution Ms. Abrams described in a conversation with The Times is food diversion, which looks at food waste reduction and recovery before composting. It seeks to educate more people about how they can reduce their food waste, and how to recover food waste to feed to people or animals.

Island Grown Gleaning is one of the Island’s major food-recovery programs, which takes food that can’t be sold at farms and would otherwise be wasted. According to its website, they recovered 24,000 pounds of crop waste in 2014, and estimated that the Island has roughly 20,000 pounds of crop waste each year.

The program typically does two gleans a week, primarily at Morning Glory Farm and Whippoorwill Farm, and also at North Tabor, Slip Away, and Wise Owl farms.

The recovered food goes to about 20 different locations around the Island. Various elderly homes, the jail in Edgartown, Aquinnah tribal housing, Vineyard House in Tisbury, and the daycare at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) are some of the places that receive food from Island Grown Gleaning. Recovered food is taken to various Island schools and then frozen, to be used in their cafeterias. The high school, the Charter School, and the schools in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury, and West Tisbury take recovered food.

Gleaning program assistant Wendi Goldfarb said that with the help of a dozen volunteers, the glean on July 12 at Morning Glory Farm recovered 885 pounds of kale, lettuce, and squash in roughly two hours. Gleaning program leader Jamie O’Gorman, along with Ms. Goldfarb and executive assistant Sally Rizzo, led the glean.

Ms. O’Gorman said that food waste goes beyond the food itself. Water, soil, fertilizer, fossil fuels, time, and money are also wasted.

“It’s not just losing a leaf of kale,” Ms. O’Gorman said. “You’re losing all of that.”