Food waste piles up in landfill while some Central Ohioans go hungry


COLUMBUS (WCMH) – When the food truck pulled up to Holy Family Soup Kitchen in Columbus, Cecil Swint stepped outside the building to help the delivery driver unload.

Swint started coming to the soup kitchen for meals years ago, after dealing with homelessness and hunger. For the last several years, he’s also been a volunteer.

“I had a extremely bad drug habit,” Swint said. “Ended up out of a home, pretty much destroyed a real good relationship.”

Swint said he’s fortunate to be in a good place now, but he knows many others are not.

“People that are still living in tents and in the woods, we pass out ‘woods bags,’ anywhere from 30 to 50 a day,” Swint said. “People that have jobs and might not have nothing for lunch, they can come down and get a woods bag, which is basically just deli sandwiches, maybe some water, some juice, maybe a little snack. It will help them get through the day and be productive.”

In Central Ohio, Swint and others like him who have faced hunger are not unusual. One out of six adults isn’t getting enough to eat, according to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, and the statistics are even grimmer for children. One out of four children in Central Ohio is considered food insecure.

“We have them making choices about buying their prescriptions or buying groceries,” said Marilyn Tomasi, vice president of marketing, communications and public affairs for the Foodbank. “When they can access a soup kitchen or can access a food pantry or can go to one of our produce markets and pick up some of the wonderful food that we’re getting directly from farmers, that’s a real blessing for many, many families.”

Tomasi said the Foodbank works with partner organizations such as The Ohio State University and the Greater Columbus Convention Center by picking up leftover food through its “Second Servings” program. That food is taken to pantries and soup kitchens.

Last year, Tomasi said the Foodbank distributed about 60 million pounds of food to 650 charities across 20 Central Ohio counties. That works out to about 130,000 meals per day.

“We really believe that food is health, and we know that children can’t learn if they don’t have decent good food, and we know employees can’t work hard if they are going to work every day without adequate and enough food,” Tomasi said.

A view of the Columbus skyline from the top of the Franklin County landfill.
A view of the Columbus skyline from the top of the Franklin County landfill.

While organizations like the Mid-Ohio Foodbank make a big difference, food in Central Ohio doesn’t always end up on the tables of hungry neighbors. In Franklin County, about 120,000 tons of food waste ends up in the landfill each year. Nationwide, the average family of four throws away almost $1,500 of food waste annually.

“It can be kind of the food that you’re eating at home that you’re throwing away,” said Kyle O’Keefe, director of innovation and programs at the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio. “It can be food that could be scraps that may not be for consumption. Overall, if you can reduce that food waste from the start by planning more appropriately, the right meal size, the right type of food, the right amount of food, that’s the best way to go with it.”

O’Keefe said that a large portion of food waste in Franklin County is taken to farms in the region and used to feed animals. Other non-edible waste is composted when facilities are available. Still, the Franklin County landfill is massive, composed of more than 30 years’ worth of waste.

“We see all of these as just missed opportunities to feed our economy, feed our communities and create healthier environments,” O’Keefe said, gesturing to the piles of trash and waste behind him.

While the Mid-Ohio Foodbank works with larger organizations, smaller restaurants and organizations sometimes do not donate and end up throwing food away.

“Right now, in maybe some of the smaller restaurants, it’s not worth the effort for them to be able to do this,” Rep. Cheryl Grossman (R-Grove City) said.

In collaboration with the Ohio Restaurant Association and the Food Banks Association of Ohio, Grossman has introduced legislation in the Ohio House to reimburse restaurants ten cents a pound for donated food. The bill calls for $500,000 a year to accomplish this, and the Ohio Department of Health would reimburse the restaurants.

“For those of us that aren’t going hungry, I think sometimes it’s difficult to understand what some people deal with,” Grossman said. “It makes no sense at all to be throwing out perfectly good food that could be consumed by someone.”

To fill in the gaps and get donations from smaller organizations like catering companies and restaurants, there are some smaller groups that coordinate food pickups.

Susan Keiser-Smith helps coordinate pickups from nearly 100 donors through her organization, Community Plates.

“You get to see the expression on someone’s face when they see you coming in with 50 pizzas that have not been touched,” Keiser-Smith said.

Meanwhile, other initiatives in the county are underway to combat hunger. At the Franklin County International Harvest Garden, growers are tackling hunger by helping people grow their own food. The farm sits on two acres and hosts more than 150 gardeners. The garden is open to Franklin County residents and the application process starts in April.

“We’re growing corn and tomatoes, peppers, collard greens, kale, a variety of things,” said Beth Miglin, garden coordinator at the International Harvest Garden. “We also do encourage folks to share their surplus produce with a food bank of their choice, and we do have a plot that we dedicate to grow things for the [Mid-Ohio] Foodbank as well.”

John O’Grady, president of the board of Franklin County Commissioners, toured the garden in August. He said food waste and hunger have become economic development issues as well.

“If you’ve got good food, how do you get it to a pantry, how do you get it to a shelter, how do you get it to somebody that can use it?” O’Grady said. “But then even beyond that, how do you get it to composting, how do you get it to help with methane gas? There’s a multitude of different issues there.”

Cecil Swint, the volunteer at Holy Family Soup Kitchen, said there are a number of different organizations working to combat this problem in Central Ohio.

“In the city of Columbus, there’s no reason for anybody to go hungry,” Swint said.

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