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Spotlight: Christina Grace - Designing out Food Waste in Cities

In this edition of spotlight, we talk to Christina Grace, an advocate for sustainable food and waste policies and a trained cook based in Brooklyn. Passionate about food and sustainability, she has been working tirelessly for zero waste in food systems in cities. She also co-authored the NYC Zero Waste Design Guidelines with Clare Miflin.

Christina, you’ve been doing great work with treating waste as a resource and preventing food waste from going into the landfills. Can you tell us about your background and how you came to start the FoodPrint Group?

I’m a food systems planner by trade but I also spent my twenties working in high-tech. I left high-tech for culinary school and my goal was to work on local food. Through a winding road, I ended up on the West Coast of Portland, Oregon, and became involved in a local food community where I founded a farmer’s market.

I started getting pulled into policy and research - I worked on how low-income individuals could take advantage of fresh local food. That research ended up being published and fueled the next project with the food system in California as part of a project by Roots of Change.

That work was so powerful for me because I ended up interviewing hundreds of people who were farmers, fisherman, grocery store chain owners, city planners, and policymakers. The goal there was to create a sustainable food system for California but it opened the big question since California was producing 75% of the produce eaten in the United States at that time.

I was hired by the Department of Agriculture in New York where I spent 4 years running an Urban Food Systems Program. I worked on upstate farming, and also how we can process and distribute locally grown food even in our schools.

When New York city banned food waste from going into the landfills for large food producers, there were no zero waste experts at the time and this was a really new concept. I was hired by a large real estate developer to help them think about technology to process the waste across the site and what we could do with it. That project was fascinating.

I realised as we’re looking downstream on the technology front, waste is such an afterthought in what businesses do. There needs to be a more comprehensive method that looks at what companies are purchasing, how they’re setting up their places, how they’re training their teams, their policies and procedures and then tracing where materials go and leave the building. That’s the DNA of FoodPrint Group. We started in 2017 and here we are.

The packaging companies are using may end up in the ocean, or when they purchase certain food, someone is being poorly paid to grow it or it’s travelling miles by plane and having a negative impact on the planet. I didn’t expect to fall in love with the waste domain but I have found it allows me to use all of my experiences - my technology background, policy background, culinary skills - and understanding the bigger picture has been wonderful for me.

You have over 15 years of experience in projects mitigating climate change through better food business practices. Why do you think that it is important for cities, in particular, to manage their food waste?

We work with businesses, municipalities and policymakers and provide advice on programs. Most of our work with clients is in urban environments because that’s where the people are and that’s where the waste is being generated. A third of our urban waste is organic. We focus a lot on food and packaging since methane generated by food waste in landfills is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

We can address climate change in many different ways - if we’re looking at the farm-to-plate story of food, we’re making different decisions about how it’s coming, where it’s been grown, and also thinking about how waste reduction is actually impacting the resiliency of our cities.

We need nutrient-rich soil to make us healthier but we also know that compost has so much benefit. We are using it all over cities for stormwater runoff, for growing more food, and for growing more greens to have cleaner air and healthier life in cities. Waste is a problem in general and with our clients, we focus on every stream.

We put so much effort into reducing food waste and making sure we capture what we can reduce for beneficial reuse. The impact on cities is also economic. We have food donation programs - there are so many different ways we can treat this resource, for instance making sure more people eat it so it doesn’t get wasted.

We have city populations growing so fast and we need to address how we can continue to live in these spaces in a healthy way, and tackling waste is a very large part of that. We need to understand the negative impact of this waste - if it ends up in the oceans it is ending up on other people’s shores.

Talking about tackling waste, you’ve been working with technological and policy aspects - what according to you are the barriers to zero waste in cities?

Well, lack of policy is a huge barrier. When we look at environmentally preferred purchasing policies - you have places like Ontario that actually force businesses that are importing and exporting food to track packaging. Those kinds of policies can make an enormous difference in behavior because, if there is a fee, people will start to do things differently.

Here in New York City, we’ve really struggled with residential organics - the city had a program that was paused due to covid but the program was really hobbling along because it was never mandatory. And when you have an option to compost but it’s not mandatory, some people worry it’s going to smell, it’s going to have issues in the front yard, maybe there’ll be a pest problem; Even though these things were proven to work, it’s not going to pay for itself until it’s required.

Mandatory recycling, mandatory organics separation from landfill for beneficial reuse, composting, and anaerobic digestion - these things are critical. Every city needs to require residents and businesses to be separating and managing their materials for the circular economy, and that’s going to drive change.

We did have a couple of new clients - restaurant groups in the midst of this suffering from the pandemic that still wanted to launch their waste programs. I think people, in general, see the connections between the pandemic, climate, and food system. And they also want to do something good.

For example, in London, they have landfill taxes, carbon credits, and carbon taxes, and that’s driving change. Those policies are critical and I think the barrier is that we like to blame people for poor recycling but the behavior will change when it becomes the norm, which is where policy comes into play.

Policies really do alter people’s behavioural responses to recycling and food management. In a similar way, the design of our spaces also affect behaviour. You have worked with Clare Miflin and co-authored the zero waste design guidelines for food-waste systems in New York City. Can you tell us more about your experience in drafting these guidelines?

I believe strongly that most people want to do the right thing and we make it really hard. If you’re standing somewhere and there is only trash and recycling, how can you compost? We work in so many food places where you’ll see black bins filled with trash everywhere and then a big compost over in the corner. It’s rush hour at lunchtime and I have to walk across the kitchen to dispose of my compost and my bowl is full; I have a black bin here, I’m going to tip it. So much of what we do are simple changes that would make it very convenient for people to do the right thing.

We’ve made single stream recycling easier, we’ve made it easy for people to co-mingle paper, glass, metal, plastic because we don’t think they’re capable of putting the metal in the right bin. People are capable. You go to Sweden and there are several different recycling choices, and people do it because that’s just how it is. So we’re working with clients to push the envelope and separate as many different things as possible to optimize the end-use opportunity.

Glass may go in the Mixed Recycling Facility, or it may go to th landfill because there’s no market for it, or it’s not worth it for the company to recycle it. But if it’s separated and we find a company that focuses just on recycling glass, they’ll come and pick it up and take it.

So the design piece, there’s such a big ‘aha!’ when you sit with architects and developers and you start talking about very simple things that they never think about when they’re putting the building together. Often waste management is left to the very end and because they want to rent as much as possible in the basement for tenant storage or whatever.

The process of bringing different stakeholders to the room from the city from the world of developers, architects, policymakers, advocates, and building managers who actually have to handle their teams moving waste all the time - those conversations were so valuable.

We try to get companies to realize they need to design appropriate space ahead of time.

This all requires thinking about where it is going to be disposed of, how it is going to flow through the building, what it means for staff time, is the organics container too heavy to push, is that a problem where people are going to get injured. We look at all the things that really turn managing waste into not just a design opportunity but a program. We can look at these material as resources and save our clients a lot of money and time and maximize those circular economy opportunities.

The pandemic impacted many industries. Has it affected your work or your vision of advocating for sustainable food and waste policies, especially since you engage with different types of communities, clients, and people?

In terms of the pandemic, it has created so many challenges. We work in food and hospitality, we have businesses that haven’t reopened yet, some won’t reopen. I think it’s been devastating particularly here in New York on the ground, you can walk to the city and can really visually see all the closed businesses. So it’s been economically challenging.

Figure A: Post-COVID Food Service Interventions Visual

Also in the world that we work in, our clients/teams have been essential workers because they’re feeding people and it’s been scary and dangerous, people have gotten sick.

The way the people are getting their food through delivery, everything is packaged. Even our clients who have piloted this fabulous reusable dishware program stopped that because the reusable dishware was worrying everyone. The plastics industry has done a great job at telling people that they’ll be safer if everything is prepackaged. They have the money and resources to really market that whether it is true or not.

As for impact on waste, the city of New York here stopped residential composting and it will pick up but not in the near term… I think that trying to get back to where we were pre-pandemic is going to take a while and that means so much more has gone to landfill than we would want to see. In so many ways it has been negative for the circular economy.

We did have a couple of new clients - restaurant groups in the midst of this suffering from the pandemic that still wanted to launch their waste programs. I think people, in general, see the connections between the pandemic, climate, and food system. And they also want to do something good.

How do you think cities should move forward post-pandemic, specifically with regards to their food and waste policies?

Well, I think that the pandemic has uncovered all of the things that are broken in our food system. The essential workers that had to show up in the meatpacking facilities are often the least paid, the least protected people in their work. If we can only feed people a certain way by underpaying people, that’s not a working system. Because the most underpaid and undervalued are risking their safety to be working during the pandemic to support their families, many got sick.

Figure B: Guidelines on safely managing and reducing waste in food places

I think from a ‘how our food is produced and, ‘how far it travels’ [perspective]. A sustainable food system thinks about public health, it thinks about the quality of the life of the people that work in it, it thinks about the environment. We’re looking at how our food is grown regeneratively so that generations beyond us will be able to eat good healthy food. We’ve got livelihood, social equity, economic and environmental justice.

The food system is the place where everything intersects and we have an opportunity from how we’re growing our food, protecting our soil, all the way to how we’re handling our wasted food. To show how it can be done can have an enormous impact. More people work in the food system than any other field - it’s restaurants, grocery stores, farms, it’s everything. When we say post-pandemic, the good work that’s been happening in rethinking regenerative agriculture and the food system has to accelerate tremendously.

Food waste is now number one in our climate change problem because of the impact of methane. What can we do to make all this stuff happen more quickly in the places that it needs to happen?

Everybody eats, everybody understands how important food is yet we’ve come to this place where our food is traveling thousands of miles to get to us; it’s packaged and plastic, and it’s been grown in ways that destroy soil and using pesticides and high impact chemicals that I think it’s such a no brainer. We have to break habits that are not even economically good for us.

I am passionate about all of the different places that connect in the food system that are broken that needs to be fixed, and a big part of this is piloting things that really work, like regenerative agriculture, composting systems in cities, growing more food in urban places not necessarily because we might feed everybody from our rooftop but because people need to understand how food is grown and where it comes from and be part of it.

There’s a lot of joy to be gotten out of growing and tasting something that has flavour versus something that travelled 3000 miles. I really really think our cities are places where we have to be innovating - whether it’s designing our buildings for zero waste, or growing food, or piloting ways we are paying a fair wage to people working in food places.

How do you think individuals in cities can reduce their food waste? Perhaps you could share from your experience as a chef trying to reduce waste while cooking!

Even if you don’t have an opportunity to compost, it’s a really good practice to put all of the food you might have disposed of in the trash aside for a week and just assess what’s in there.

Then you might say, well, if I was cooking more, maybe if I made soup, I would have put those greens in the soup, but I didn’t want to eat them - so you start to see what you might have used, but you definitely also realise what you’re buying too much of, or if you’re ordering from a particular food place, you can see that their portions are too big. The whole point is to pay attention and learn. You can’t reduce it if you don’t understand it.

That is what we do with our clients. We audit their waste first, and we say, this is coming from here, and this is what we can do. But at home, when I see the kale in the fridge is starting to wilt, I immediately think “I’m going to roast it, I need to put it in soup, I gotta do that now, or else it’s not going to be edible.” If you see something in your fridge and you’re not ready to eat it, you can freeze it because you may want it later on. So you start to think, what can I do to make sure it’s eaten? We have such a problem of poverty and food insecurity in NYC and it’s very visible due to the pandemic. Community groups have purchased refrigerators that they are putting outside in neighbourhoods all over the city where people can bring leftovers and food, or they can buy food and put it in, and anybody can take it.

In large buildings, if there is a shared waste room or storage area, if the building has a refrigerator - let’s say you’re going on vacation you’re leaving and you realise you have lots of food you did not eat, you could bring them there and label when you purchased it, and everybody else in the building can eat it and it does not go to waste.

I think those kinds of things will go such a long way, and it also connects people. You bump into people, you learn what your neighbour cooks, these are all important in building connections and having the world be a better place.

Do you have any favourite recipes that require little ingredients that are good for beginners?

In terms of the fridge cleanout it has to be something that you can toss a bunch of vegetables in, so it’s usually soup. A vegetable soup, or if you have chicken or beef that you can add a small amount of meat to it to give it more flavour. Or we’re going to use olive oil and we’ll make a big vegetable roast with kale, broccoli with potatoes. Then you can use that as a side dish for 3 days. Keep it simple, you can use your favourite herb or spice mix to season the vegetables. How does your passion for cooking translate into managing food waste in cities? I’ve worked in commercial offices and government, and the most exciting places to me are always food places because there’s a level of energy and passion. There’s physical skill because you have to know what you’re doing, but there’s also a science to cooking - understanding how different things will react to each other and how you get something to come out the way it is. I think Chefs don’t want to waste food. Food places get very busy, and during rush hour it’s easy to lose track of how much is landing in the compost or trash bin because you’re just getting things done. But when you actually make a cook aware of what was wasted, they want to do everything they can to not have that happen because a) it’s not good financially, and b) they want people to eat the food they have made.

So those environments are challenging because they don't have money to burn or spend on exciting initiatives and technology all the time. But that makes them exciting for me because we’re trying to do things efficiently and cost effectively. The people there always think fast on their feet - our clients are coming up with ideas all the time to do things differently and we also learn from them.

Our work just fits so well because a lot of food places work with very strict operating procedures and food safety procedures so we’re just asking to add another procedure - looking at how we’re handling our materials so they don’t become waste. Starting from what you purchase all the way through creation. We’re working in a way they understand, but just asking them to do some things a bit differently.

Your work sounds so exciting and inspiring, and i’m sure there are a lot of students and entrepreneurs who want to work in managing waste and in the sustainable food space. What would be your advice to those people?

There are so many university programmes now that have food policy classes, food in the environment, food and public health, etc. We have a food policy programme at NYU. We are constantly lecturing to university students here in NY, because there are so many programmes that our work can slide into.

I would say, for those who want to do it, there’s certainly educational opportunities, but show up and be willing because some of this still feels very nascent and new, even if there isn’t a perfect job that meets all your requirements, be willing to volunteer for some of these organisations doing the good work.

My experience has been that where I have given my time around policy advocacy, wonderful work opportunities have come my way. It’s really impt to understand that there’s a large community of people out there already who are doing this work and you have the opportunity to learn from them on the ground.

Reach out to people, volunteer for events and initiatives and get engaged in policy and a good career will grow out of that.

To date, you have achieved so much in advocating for sustainable food and waste policies in cities. What is the proudest moment in your entire career?

The design guidelines were one proud moment. I’m so grateful to Clare for spearheading that process. I’m a mom of two kids so I have to be hopeful and believe things are going to get better for them. Here they are growing up amidst COVID and it can be very scary for young people - to feel hopeless about climate change and all the bad things happening around them. As an older person, I feel we have to get our act together because it’s our job to make sure that our kids and those who come after have a world that’s at least as good as what we have, or hopefully better.

My proudest moment would probably be when I founded a farmer’s market, with my neighbourhood association when I was living in Portland Oregon, and through that process I met 1000s of people.

We were doing all these cool things but what I loved most about the market was seeing the same faces every week. There were people who would come and carry my daughter while I was running around, and I have lived in lots of nice places but I have never felt so much a part of a community. When you start to feel that intense connection, once you feel that embedded in a place, you want to protect it and make it better. I think that part of why we’re where we are now is because we become distant from our places.

Let’s finish off with something fun – what is one thing, be it a quote, a person or a book, that inspires you to continue with your work?

I feel like a lot of my inspiration is less coming from climate change, or food system change, the things that I'm working on, and more about places. I read a lot of the author Rebecca Solnit, she is wonderful.

We were talking earlier about paying attention to where you are. She’s got lots of books that are really about being, about walking, about being where you are, and understanding that place. I think we become so disconnected with our daily routines, when we’re rushing to work, on public transport, we are underground half the time. When we’re commuting, we’re not even seeing where we are.

You can try to wrap your head around the planet and everything that’s happening around the world, and it can get so overwhelming. It’s good if you can just kind of get an understanding of where you live, and what you love, the people you care about - and figure out what impact you can have.

It’s easier to care about other people’s places in the world and wanting to help them protect their places when you have such a strong connection to your own. I guess that’s, I would recommend Rebecca Solnit, but I would also recommend people stop and walk and look and really take stock of what is special about where they live and where they are in the world and think about ways they can make it better.

Join us on April 23, Friday, 9am GMT+8 to hear more from Christina in our panel event. Register here.

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