Vermont is taking recycling and waste reduction to a whole new level with the Universal Recycling Law, passed unanimously by the legislature in 2012. Universal Recycling bans disposal of recyclables (metal, glass, plastics #1 & #2, and paper/cardboard) beginning July 1, 2015; yard and wood debris beginning July 1, 2016; and food scraps (in phases) beginning July 1, 2014 with the largest generators (resorts and institutions), and culminating in a full ban July 1, 2020. Simultaneously, solid waste haulers and facilities are required to provide collection services as materials are banned from landfill disposals.
“Complying with Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law, Act 148, is becoming more than about meeting mandates,” says Pat Sagui, director of the Composting Association of Vermont. “The legislation has spurred organizations to connect with one another and communities to leverage opportunities for food rescue. Farmers partner with charitable food security organizations which is a win/win. Food is gleaned post commercial harvest and moved into food production for Vermonters. Getting crops out of the fields reduces the risk of overwintering disease and fungus and lessens the attractiveness to unwanted wildlife.” Sagui is also the chair of the Food Cycle Coalition, a task force of the statewide Vermont Farm to Plate food system plan to increase economic development and jobs in the farm and food sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters.
Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law is being implemented by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and aligns with the state’s Farm to Plate nutrient management goal to divert food scraps away from landfills and back into the food system. The Farm to Plate Food Cycle Coalition is a diverse group of stakeholders including the Composting Association of Vermont, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, solid waste districts, food rescue groups, and composting companies who are working to increase organics diversion in response to Farm to Plate and Universal Recycling. The Coalition is working to divert food and organic materials that would otherwise be wasted and redirect them to support Vermont’s local food system through a hierarchy that places source reduction in the top tier followed by food rescue, and then onto animal feed utilization, composting and anaerobic digestion, and energy recovery.
“Farmers are very resourceful and are quick to put un-marketed crops to work for the farm as animal feed or to add fertility to the soil. However, when crops are left on the farm it represents a lost food resource to humans. When a farm makes excess crops available to its community the benefits not only provide food, but unique educational opportunities for community members to engage with the farm and learn about the local food system. Farmers can provide for more of the community while still retaining a large amount of organic matter for animals and soil,” shares Theresa Snow, director of Salvation Farms, a non-profit that coordinates agricultural surplus management or “gleaning” with Vermont farmers.
Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vermont is in their second season working with Salvation Farms and provides product to the Vermont Commodity Program work at the Southeast State Correctional Facility. Farmer Luke Joanis shares, “last year’s fall potato harvest left us with quite a high incidence of ‘hollow heart’ among our russet potatoes. From the outside these were perfectly normal looking tubers, but on the inside they were hollow! One regrettable side of this business is the market demand for unblemished produce, which can sometimes create a glut of perfectly edible yet unsaleable product. The compost bin can often be an unsatisfying end of a long road to fruition. Food rescue organizations, such as Salvation Farms, help us to further fulfill one fundamental purpose of our farm, getting healthy food to those that need it.”
Food insecurity in Vermont is on the rise with 13% of households being food insecure (compared to 9.1% in 2000). Another Vermont Farm to Plate food system plan goal is to increase the percentage of Vermonters who will have access to fresh, nutritionally balanced food they can afford.
The Vermont Foodbank distributes 400,000 pounds of donated and gleaned food to 270 food shelves, meal sites and senior centers across Vermont annually. Farmers can work with Vermont Foodbank volunteers to harvest and gather excess produce or “seconds” from farms. The produce might have small blemishes or an irregular shape, but otherwise is of good quality. Food rescue allows the Vermont Foodbank to provide healthy food to Vermonters who might not otherwise have access to local produce.
From antiquity to present day, gleaning has been a method of providing food to vulnerable populations by collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after the harvest. “Salvation Farms has witnessed the impact of increasing access to local foods by those engaged in the process of gleaning and receiving. People begin to see local farms as a vital part of their community, something not separate from their lives, not something just viewed from the road,” Snow continues. “This effects purchasing choices, the belief that local, wholesome food is for everyone, and the realization that food going to waste on our farms doesn’t have to be a reality. This builds our agricultural economy and future.”