Sustainable America Blog

Flipping the Farm-to-Table Equation

pigs eating from trough

Photo Credit: WhiteJaune via Compfight cc

A handful of high-end farm-to-table restaurants in cities like New York City and Orlando have found a new way to get the most out of the close ties they keep with local farmers. Vegetable peelings from the kitchen and leftover fare from diners’ plates are catching rides back to the farm to become gourmet livestock feed. The arrangement means savings for farmers and, thanks to better-fed birds, cows and pigs, better-tasting meals on customers’ plates.

But there’s more at stake here than better food and savings. Turning food waste into animal feed offers one solution to an epidemic problem. Forty percent of U.S. food goes to landfills uneaten, at an annual cost of $165 billion, while nearly 50 million Americans live in a state of food insecurity. Add to that the cost of flushing away 25% of our freshwater, 4% of our energy, and the greenhouse gas methane that rotting food releases. Composting is a common and growing way to address part of the food waste chain, but diverting food first to feed people or animals is more in line with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy.

Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy

Not that turning food into animal feed doesn’t present challenges. Logistical hurdles like transportation and the need for refrigeration prevent many farmers from taking advantage of food waste donations. That’s why food into fodder works well for restaurants and food sellers with existing ties to local farms. Farmers often have trust issues and concerns about the dietary needs of their animals. Meanwhile, surpluses and needs don’t always match up. Such logistical difficulties are prime targets for crowd-sourced tech solutions like, which publishes instant alerts from farms and food sellers to facilitate cheap, immediate access when and where surpluses and needs arise.

Would-be table-scrap up-cyclers also face Federal and state regulations designed to protect livestock and consumers. According to federal law, if food contains no meat or meat byproducts, it can be used as animal food. Otherwise, it must be boiled. State regulations vary, from outright bans to oversight.

Obstacles aside, EPA-documented success stories at major universities, recycling companies, and global corporations like MGM Resorts International and 3M show that such schemes can succeed on large scales, to the benefit of all. At Rutgers University in New Jersey, dining halls send an average of 1.125 tons of food scraps per day to a local hog and cattle farm, which costs half the price of sending it to landfill.

Because food is wasted at every step of the production and retail process, plenty of opportunities to reclaim calories and nutrients, not to mention resources spent on production, arise before dinner even hits the plate. Identifying waste and routing it to farms presents lucrative business opportunities for savvy recycling operations. A 2012 Georgia University study looked at a company that converts fruit, vegetable and bakery waste from hundreds of Walmart stores into cattle feed, and deemed it to be the most efficient way to recover losses because it presents the greatest recovery of value at the lowest cost.

In Great Britain, inroads have been made into developing regulated, safe supply chains to turn “former food” back into nutrition at every step in the cycle, beginning with production and packing and ending at picky eaters’ plates. As a result, UK farmers can rely on a steady supply of high quality, cheap, second-hand feed.

While consumers can do a lot to prevent food waste, global problems require cooperative solutions. Composting is great a great use for food waste, but food waste prevention is even better. Using food as food, before turning it into fertilizer, will help our country meet our goal of cutting food waste in half by 2035.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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