What happens to the food we don’t eat?

| 09 Mar 2012 | 10:46

By Becca Tucker It’s a disheartening stat: 40 percent of the food produced in this country never gets eaten. But look closely and you’ll see there’s more to the story. This extravagance in our dumpsters has given rise to new industries devoted to intercepting garbage before it gets to the landfill.

Here are two. It’s composted

1. A yellow truck backs up the long driveway and parks at the unloading dock. The driver gets out and unhinges the truck’s rear. Jill Fischer, who has just started giving me a tour of Ag Choice, a five-acre composting facility in Andover, nudges me backwards.

I immediately see why. The truck vomits a red liquid stream into the pit below, where it splashes. Then comes the overwhelming smell. I expect putrid stink, not… strawberry shortcake.

This puree seems to be what’s left from the process of making either a flavoring or a fragrance (Jill can’t divulge clients’ proprietary information). Before Jill’s husband Jay Fischer came up with the idea of converting his sawmill into the only composting facility of its kind in New Jersey, this leftover puree was garbage. Since 2006, Ag Choice has diverted three million pounds of food waste from local landfills. Now, strawberry puree is one of many ingredients in a recipe that will produce high quality topsoil and garden compost.

2. Within 24 hours, a backhoe shovels the puree into a pile seven feet high and 12 feet wide, where it will mix with some sampling of South American gourds, horse manure, milkshakes, moldy corn silage, paper filters, peppers, pineapples and leaves, plus a little clay to build humus. There it will be left to rot under a green row cover.

A straddle turner, which Jay went to Denmark to buy, will turn the row to exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen, necessary for aerobic decomposition. In two weeks, nothing in the rows will be recognizable. In eight, the soil will be ready to dry, screen and bag.

3. The Fischers sell the resulting compost and topsoil to garden supply stores and landscapers. It’s highly fertile stuff , if the South American gourds growing rampant all over the composting facility are any indication.

It Feeds the Hungry 1. This can of beets comes from a Price Chopper. It might have fallen off the shelf or had a rough journey to the store. It was dented, but not terribly. A clerk pulls the can and reverse scans it. Years ago, it might have gone to the dump. This one’s bound for Latham, north of Albany.

2. Welcome to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. Forklifts buzz around the 64,000 square foot warehouse. About 27 million pounds of food will pass through this building this year, up from 11 million in 1990. Shelf stable food like our can is stored on a loft – the volunteers below literally laboring under tons of work – until a forklift brings the pallet down to the sorting room fl oor.

Here, old or punctured food goes onto a conveyor belt that leads outside into a dumpster. Good but sticky food goes on another belt leading to a sink. The rest, volunteers sort into categories and enter into a computer. Our can goes into a banana box with other canned fruits and vegetables. When the box is full, it’s forklifted to its assigned unit of the warehouse, where it waits to be ordered by one of a thousand pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters.

3. Every Wednesday night, Our Father’s Kitchen in the basement of the Sacred Heart Chapel in Monroe cooks and serves a hot dinner to about 100 people, who are bused in from Central Valley, Harriman, and Woodbury. Volunteers make 50 more to-go meals for people who can’t leave home. About half the food served here probably would have ended up in the garbage three years ago, before the soup kitchen started.

The menu the night I stop by is hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, salad with carrots and tomatoes, and a plethora of bread, buns and bagels. The bakery stuff was donated by Stop & Shop, Shop Rite and Stewart’s because it was at or near expiration. No beets, though. Our can hasn’t showed up here yet, but it might.

Our Father’s Kitchen buys about one sixth of its food from the food bank for 16 cents per pound. On any given Wednesday, our beets might end their journey in a few of the 100 hungry mouths just now filing in for dinner.