New Jersey Food Waste Law Will Help Feed Hungry, And Mitigate Climate Change

Jerri-Lynn here: I don’t want to overestimate the importance of New Jersey’s new law aimed at reducing food waste, as discussed in this Climate Central post– as I am aware that the post is short on specifics on how the goal will be achieved. Indeed, the text concedes:”The New Jersey legislature is considering — but has not yet passed — other bills that may help implement the state’s new food waste law.” And these details will very much matter.

Yet in the absence of any comprehensive federal efforts anytime soon to address the climate change issue– at least while Trump remains President, and Republican climate-deniers continue to control Congress– state initiatives such as these will comprise the policy response to this challenge (supplemented of course by city, municipal, and local initiatives, and private sector programs).

The real reason this post caught my attention is that it brought back old memories of my real first summer job, as a tomato picker in the summer of ’76, in Green Township, Sussex County, New Jersey– a state that used to be known as the Garden State (and for all I know, still is).

At the time, I was a rising high school sophomore, and  a decent student musician, who’d reached the stage where my plastic clarinet no longer cut the mustard.  I yearned for a  better clarinet and coveted a Buffet-Crampon professional grade instrument, which cost $400-$500 at that time.  That was a lot of money, especially in our household.  (My parents were both teachers, and there were seven of us: three sisters, one brother, and me).

My only source of income was baby sitting– which brought in 50-75 cents per hour– and supplied all my pocket money.

But I really wanted that clarinet– so I approached my mother. She proposed that if could earn half of the money, my parents would match the other half as my Christmas present.

Even at the time, I wondered whether this answer was really intended to be a soft no– a way to close down further discussion (including inevitable whingeing on my part, I was a teenager, after all)– as saving that amount out of my baby sitting money seemed impossible. At 15, I was too young to get a NJ work permit, and thus couldn’t get hired by any proper local business. What to do?

Well, NJ did allow teenagers my age to do farm work, sans permit. I soon found out that Mr. Guidi, our high school gym teacher who owned a local farm, was hiring people to pick tomatoes, for 50 cents per bushel basket. No interview, no CV required– one just showed up every morning at the tomato fields, to be handed plastic bushel buckets, and some popsicle sticks to toss in the bucket to identify one’s output.

So, I soon found myself one morning hauling myself out of bed at 6– that’s always difficult for a teenager!– and cycled the couple of miles on my bike to the Guidi farm, to work as a tomato picker.

It was very hard, filthy, hot work, and for the record, I was a terrible at it. Some of the other workers managed to make up to $3 an hour. After three or four hours, I was lucky to come away with $6 or $7: sweat-stained, sunburnt, often with a backache, as well as absolutely filthy hands.

But I stuck to it, and after a couple of weeks, I was promoted to tomato sorter.  That for me was a big step up. This was an afternoon job– so no more crack of dawn start– and we sorted in an inside space,, out of the sun.

The pay was $2 per hour to sort the freshly picked tomatoes into three categories. The super hard tomatoes went into one basket, to be shipped into The City for sale, while the less hard but by no means ready to eat were thrown into another basket, to be sold at local farm stands. And the third category — the wonderfully ripe, red, soft, succulent  tomatoes that New Jersey is known for– were too delicate to be shipped anywhere, and were dumped into a bucket, to be tossed away.

After a few hours of doing this, I asked if rather than throwing out all these tomatoes, I could bring home some to share with my family. Sure, said Mr. Guidi.

So, I diligently sorted tomatoes, and at the end of my shift, often brought home at least a couple of bushels.  Mom either served these as salads, or combined them with produce from our garden to make sauce– and froze the excess.

All went well until  one day,  I was stopped as I was about to leave the farm with 7 bushels of extremely ripe tomatoes.

This story has a happy ending (well, a couple, actually).

Mr. Guidi examined the tomatoes, and said that none of these were fit for sale.  And he added, he was happy to see  that the tomatoes weren’t being wasted. He sent along my his best wishes to my family and especially my father, whom he knew because Dad coached wrestling for a local high school, while Mr. Guidi did the same for another.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was also doing my small bit to reduce food waste, and mitigate climate change.

By the end of the summer, I’d earned my share of the purchase price of the new instrument– and Mom soon made good on her side of the bargain.

My music teacher and his wife took me into The City one day to try out– and buy– my new clarinet.  Which I treasured all the more, as I’d earned it through my toil.


By Bobby Magill,a Senior Science Writer at Climate Central. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Daily Sentinel Grand Junction, Colorado), USA Today, High Country News, and other publications. Originally published at Climate Central

A new law in New Jersey aims to shrink the state’s climate footprint and feed the hungry by drastically reducing the amount of wasted food that ends up in landfills.

The law requires the state to develop a plan over the next year to cut the state’s food waste by half by 2030. The bipartisan measure, which passed the state legislature without a single dissenting vote and was signed last week by Gov. Chris Christie, mirrors an Environmental Protection Agency goal for the entire country set under the Obama administration in 2015.

Food waste in a compost bin.
Jeremy Brooks/flickr

“The beauty of the bill is it’s going to get at two long-festering problems — climate and hunger — at the same time,” said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City. “The states are going to have to take the lead on issues like climate and this new law holds the hope of tackling one piece of that problem.”

Up to 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. ends up uneaten and tossed into the garbage. So much food is thrown away every year that it adds up to the equivalent of about 20 pounds of food per person every month. Discarded food also wastes cropland and energy that are used in the production of food.

Worldwide, processing wasted food generates about 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. That means if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest climate polluter after China and the U.S., according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

When leftovers and rotting fruit and vegetables are tossed out and end up in the dump, they become a major climate problem. Decomposing food pollutes the atmosphere with methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times as powerful in warming the climate as carbon dioxide over the course of a century.

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said that while New Jersey has implemented more effective methane emissions controls at its landfills over the past 30 years, much of the state’s garbage is shipped to landfills out of state where New Jersey officials have no control over emissions.

Less methane will be emitted from those landfills and the climate will benefit if the amount of food New Jerseyans discard is cut drastically, he said.

At least five states either ban organic waste from landfills or mandate food waste recycling to some degree, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

California mandates organic food waste recycling and requires businesses to cap the amount of food they send to the landfill each year. Connecticut and Rhode Island also require many businesses to cap the amount of food thrown out. Massachusetts and Vermont have a weight limit on food waste both individuals and businesses can throw away.

A compost bin in New York City.
Credit: Nick Normal/flickr

New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas, also have organic waste recycling or composting mandates for homes or businesses to prevent food waste from ending up in a landfill.

Mark Milstein, director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University, said state laws mandating food waste reductions create business opportunities for recyclers, composters and others.

“You’ve exacerbated climate change with a harmful greenhouse gas. There are more productive uses for that (wasted) material,” Milstein said.

“We can compost it, turn it into fuel,” he said. “If you’re going to prevent the waste in the first place, rethink how people buy food, how they utilize food. Those are all potential business opportunities.”

The New Jersey legislature is considering — but has not yet passed — other bills that may help implement the state’s new food waste law.

One bill would require supermarkets, restaurants and other large generators of food waste to separate discarded food from other trash and recycle it. Other proposals would establish new food labeling standards to reduce waste and incentivize food donations.

If New Jersey’s food waste reduction program is successful, it may pave the way for other states to follow, Goldstein said.

“We think the law has real potential,” he said. “It gets the ball rolling, which is a significant thing.”

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  1. gnatt

    what a heartfelt, charming story. along with the importance of the food issue, thanks for this.

  2. MtnLife

    Great use of “waste” food, JLS! One summer my wife and I worked for a lodge in MN. It catered to a lot of week long stays so there was often a plethora of left food items on checkout day. The housekeeping staff would fight amongst ourselves as to who got to take what home, often going home with a shopping bag full of (usually) gourmet food every weekend. We hated seeing that much food get wasted and a large amount wasn’t even opened.

  3. Stillfeelinthebern

    Thanks Jerri-Lynn! Made me think of my first “good paying” job in 1970. In the canning factory during the corn pack. 12 hr shifts, running every day for days straight because when the corn is ripe you work. Paid for college tuition. I’ve always respected people who could work hard physical jobs because of that experience.

    Reducing food waste is certainly a laudable goal and very possible. Anyone with experience with municipal composting?

    Or ways to teach kids not to waste food? I find parents allow kids to take too much and leave food on their plates because they don’t want them to overeat. Drives me crazy. Anyone else grow up hearing about the starving kids in the rest of the world? Seems like a value lesson worth teaching.

    Food policy is important in so many ways but very much ignored.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      One thing I’ve noticed during my occasional visits to India is that there is a real social taboo in place against taking too much food and wasting it. Noticeably so– a real contrast to the US.

      Picking tomatoes taught me to respect people who do tough physical jobs, and my second big HS employment discovery was about the importance of unions. I had a temp summer job the summer before I enrolled at MIT as a telephone operator for United Telephone– one of the companies Bell allowed to stay in business so it could claim it didn’t have a monopoly. That job paid a buck above minimum wage– which was a good wage at that time for that area for someone with no special skills.

      1. Yves Smith

        Yes, we have enormous portions in America and if you try to mitigate against that when eating out, either by ordering 2 appetizers rather than an appetizer and a main, or eat only half the main and ask for a doggie bag, you get looked as if you must be broke and are therefore pathetic or extremely neurotic. That behavior is acceptable only if you are an “old” person, since they don’t eat much and are on limited budgets.

        1. different clue

          Taking food home from a restaurant is socially acceptable and normal here in Ann Arbor, Michigan and perhaps elsewhere in the Midwest.

          Is taking food home from a restaurant frowned upon anywhere else in the Northeast besides NYC? Or is it strictly a NYC approach, or even more strictly a Manhattan approach?

  4. Carolinian

    There’s an Agnes Varda film called The Gleaners about the French custom of allowing poor people to come onto private farms after the harvest and collect the misshapen or slightly damaged food that is otherwise left on the ground to rot.This might not go over in America with its corporate mega farms but it is an interesting documentary.

    1. nycTerrierist

      It’s an old testament thing:

      Leviticus 23:22

      New International Version

      “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God.'”

    2. wilroncanada

      We lived in the middle of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia for several years. Many of us gleaned neighbouring fields of potatoes, carrots, etc. after the mechanical harvesting had finished. In addition, all of Nova Scotia had a yard and garden waste pickup program as part of garbage collection for at least the last 25 years. Out here in BC, supposedly more advanced, some parts of the province have just in the past few years instituted similar programs. When we live on Salt Spring Island almost 40 years ago there was no land waste. We composted all our kitchen and yard waste, along with our chicken and goat manure and grass clippings to support our garden. Plastics, metals, wood waste, etc. were recycled. All ‘garbage’ had to be delivered to a truck parked in town which delivered it off-island. Every bag cost a few dollars–I don’t recall how much. We delivered about 4 bags a year of actual garbage.
      So, congratulations, New Jersey for re-inventing the wheel. Forward to yesterday.

  5. mle detroit

    Here in metro Detroit, we have Forgotten Harvest and other scavengers. The commercially unwanted but still safe to eat food is collected not by kids on bikes but by emissions-spewing trucks. :/

    1. different clue

      Emission spewing trucks.

      Still, if CO2-spewing trucks permit keeping that food out of landfills, where it would spew
      100-times-more-powerful-greenhousing CH4; then even spewing CO2, the trucks are still part of reducing greenhouse-gas-effect overall.

      And since the truckroutes are probably short cyclical circular routes driven over and over and over again, perhaps electric trucks could eventually be substituted for the CO2 spewing trucks of today, for a further reduction in greenhouse gas spewing.

  6. Arizona Slim

    Here in Tucson, we have the Compost Cats. They are University of Arizona students who collect food scraps on and off campus. They compost the scraps and sell the compost. It’s good stuff.

    1. different clue

      University students would be in position to do all kinds of interesting experiments. Like mixing the foodwaste in different proportions with shredded newspaper, fall leaves, lawn clippings, etc. to see which different mixes make the kind of compost the end users value the most.

      Also, mixing small amounts of different kinds of ground-up rock and mineral powders generally used as soil ammendments into the compost material to see how much mineral nutrition can be binded to the long-chain carbon-based compost molecules.

      They could even experiment with feeding small batches of mixed shredded food waste and shredded paper/leaves/grass clippings to earthworms to see if they can make reliable predictable wormpost. If that worked, they could try mixing rock and mineral powders in with the shredded food and fiber waste to see if the earthworms made a super nutravitamineral wormpost for plant supergrowth support from that mixture.

  7. Scott

    Lovely story. I remember that my first job working at a Boy Scout camp, the dining hall had a “pig bucket.” At the end of each meal, the campers would empty any leftover waste in the bucket and the dining staff would empty the kitchen waste there as well. Every few days a local pig farmer would drive in, pick up the bucket and replace it with another one. The staff’s end of year meal was Hawaiian themed, including a pig, provided by the farmer.

    For those wanting more information, the EPA has a very good resource on food waste.

    My biggest issue is that it minimizes the importance of the first three actions. These are far more beneficial than composting food. You need to be very careful when sending food to a large-scale composting facility. If done incorrectly, it can release significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere. About a year ago, I read which argued that it is actually better for global warming if food waste is sent to a landfill with gas capture and energy production than to a composting facility without. I wasn’t completely convinced, but it was an interesting argument.

  8. Otis B Driftwood

    What a wonderfully written and touching story, Jeri-Lynn. Reminds me of the sundry jobs I worked as a kid growing up in Illinois.

    I told my wife last night about my first job, in fact. When I was eight years old, my best friend and I had a lawn mowing business. We used the hand mower that belonged to my father. Because we were still small, my buddy and I would grab each side of the mower handle and push it together through the grass. We had our can of 3-in-1 oil and our edge clippers and a rake for the clippings and we would charge 25 cents per lawn and split the earnings. We did pretty well that summer.

    And in the winter, we continued our business partnership shoveling snow together.

    By the next summer, my buddy’s father had bought a gas-powered mower. And I remember looking forward to using that mower for our business. My buddy told me that his father told him that with his new mower he wouldn’t need help cutting grass, and that he would cut grass on his own. So we effectively became competitors. I was big enough by then to manage the push mower on my own, but it was a good lesson in business and the limits of friendship.

    Thank you.

    1. different clue

      Leave it to your buddy’s father to teach these mainstream bad-bussiness-ethics to your buddy. Your buddy’s father probably didn’t even think these were bad-bussiness-ethics. He probably thought these were bussiness-ethics because they were the only bussiness ethics the Ethics Instruction Lords ever permitted him to be taught.

  9. Auntienene

    North Jerseyan here. There are still farms in Sussex county and farm stands and our license plates still say Garden State. I grow my own beautiful Jersey tomatoes and where I have my compost ditch I get some kind of volunteers every year. This year it’s potatoes. Last year it was butternut squash and tiny pumpkins. And damn it, I have this enormous groundhog who ate my Brussels sprouts plants.

    1. human

      Lost all but two of my sunflowers to a groundhog earlier this season and just this morning found a new hole in the fencing! Damn pig. He didn’t bother the peppers and eggplants. Not sure what he was after.

    2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I was last in Sussex County in late Sep or early Oct 2016– spent a very rainy afternoon in Newton, at a wake for a family member. Didn’t get out into the countryside at all that day. Glad to hear that Sussex County still has its farms– and that the license plates still say Garden State.

  10. heresy101

    Regarding sending food and green waste to a landfill: Waste Management and the mafia love it but that is a not a good way to utilize organic materials. Landfills leak the methane through breaks in the landfill cap and there is so much generated that it must be burned in a flare stack (often 6-8′ in diameter and 30′ high) to avoid GHG emission regulations. In the best case, a company adds some reciprocating engines that generate electricity on the methane that is piped to them. I’ve worked on 5 contracts with different landfills that generate 12MW round the clock (85% CF) for a small municipal utility. This is one type of those horrible renewables that the Kocks are railing about.

    A better, if more costly, solution to composting and landfills is to use anaerobic digesters to reduce the green waste to methane and compost while using the methane to generate electricity. In the Central Valley there are some dairies that utilize the manure to generate electricity in a relatively primitive manner. There are many more ADs across the country, but nowhere enough. The feds estimated that 12% of CA’s energy could come from the biogas stream. A modern example of AD is the 1.6MW plant in Fremont: I’m hoping to arrange a visit in the near future.

    The key point of the article about avoiding wasting edible food is so true, though.
    Just like aluminum, paper, cardboard, and other recyclables need to be removed from the garbage stream, all food products that are not rotten, just off color, or otherwise edible need to be utilized for food banks, etc.

  11. Norb

    Thanks Jeri-Lynn. This post points to the importance of shaping the collective consciousness of society. Neoliberals have been successful at maintaining the illusion that the current system is both efficient and just. Thus cementing their hold on the ideology informing society and directing action. As long as the majority of citizens buy into the notion that large corporations are a benefit to society, many of the problems facing us today will not be improved.

    I am hopeful that grass root efforts are taking shape and gaining more influence. Concerning food, self sufficiency and local production are the future and provide many opportunities to solve social balance problems. Seeing community gardens open up in both city and suburbs indicate that minds are changing. In America, there has always been the debate on what type of society, collectively we would construct, an agrarian or industrial. The mindsets needed to construct each are constantly at odds. The needs and interests of the industrial conflict with the interests and values of the agrarian. To date, it seems the industrial has triumphed, but more and more people are realizing it is a hallow victory.

    The current set of world leaders seem incapable of resolving this conflict. Their incompetence is the best argument I can think of for a restored belief in Democracy and a demand for effective citizenship.

    Taking back the land and assuming responsibility for how it is treated is an important first step on the road to political independence. This holds true for a large agricultural business that demonstrates true civic responsibility, a home gardner, or a tenant with a pot of tomatoes on the balcony or neighborhood plot.

    Its funny how immigrants seem to know this fact instinctively. They form communities of mutual support, cherish their cultural history, and mostly work diligently for their future.

  12. ewmayer

    Great story, Jerri-Lynn: we did a similar ‘waste not, want not’ thing with unsaleable salmon and crabs one summer back in college, working in several onshore processing plants in Alaska. But as nice as your Mr. Guidi sounds, I wonder that it never occurred to him to take those bushels of too-ripe-to-sell tomatoes and turn them into homemade spaghetti sauce, which he could’ve sold at his local stand for a nice premium over raw tomatoes. Offer, say, a nickel per empty mason jar to encourage folks to recycle those.

    At the same time, it occurs to me that the #1 way Americans could reduce food waste would be to stop overeating. The average American consumes, what, roughly 50% more calories than needed to maintain a healthy weight?

  13. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

    Your suggestion about turning tomatoes into jarred sauce reminds me: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

    This isn’t really so long ago– just over 40 years– but at that time, where I grew up, people didn’t buy tomato sauce. They made it. I’ll admit, often using tinned tomatoes, but never paying any premium for ready-made sauce. (And just as an aside, usually, it was the woman of the house who did the cooking– although not always. My Uncle Joe was far and away the best cook in the family– and his wife, Aunt Stel, and my Mom, were tied as best baker.)

  14. TG

    This is a dangerous folly. Well-meaning, but dangerous.

    ‘Hunger’ and ‘climate change’ are not acts of God. They are primarily being created by massive population growth, which in turn has been either forced/encouraged/allowed to continue without discussion by the rich because of their love of cheap labor above all else.

    No amount of conservation can keep up with the potential of populations to double every 20 years or so. You can, with some effort, improve the efficiency of a process by a few percent. Then wipe out all the gains by jamming in more people. Now you are still paying for the previous efficiency gains – via laws, more complex systems, more time and effort – but you have conserved nothing, and ‘hunger’ and ‘climate’ change continue apace. Then we jam in even more people, but we meet diminishing returns: every extra percent gain in efficiency costs more and more time and effort and capital…. And we keep jamming in more poeple…

    It is as if we were on the Titanic, and the ship was sinking, and we encouraged everyone to throw their shoes overboard to lighten the load. The weight of everyone’s shoes is trivial compared to the thousands of tons of seawater rushing in through the hole in the hull, but we can’t talk about that because it’s ‘racist’ , i.e, the rich don’t want us to talk about it…

    1. Tim

      Inequality has been around with us forever, overpopulation has not. We focus on Inequality because we understand it from history. There are few lessons from history on overpopulation, those that exist (china one child policy) take people to an ethical dilemma they don’t want to face, unless forced to, and so far our social norms are not forcing us to they are doing quite the opposite.

      The mechanism is also somewhat indirect in western societies: Poor people in need of child labor and support in their old age have lots of kids,some emigrate to western societies where we simply “see population growth” even though rates of domestic childbirth are quite reasonable.

  15. Larry Y

    I regularly go through Sparta, NJ, and drop by the Sparta Farmer’s market. Just this past weekend, I took the back-roads from Sparta to Hackettstown.

    The sweet cornfields, vegetable fields, dairy, etc. are still there. Blueberry season ended a few weeks ago, and now the white peaches are in. The NJ State Fair is still held every year at the Sussex County fairgrounds (starting this week), which has the cow milking demonstrations, prize animals competitions, pig races, etc.

    Anyway, Taiwan has a system that sorts household waste not only into compost, but food scraps that can be used to feed pigs. The Guardian says 2/3 of food scraps goes to the pigs – A real throwback!

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