Meals waste is an issue; This Memphis group is engaged on options

This is the first in an occasional series on food waste in Memphis.

Memphis loves food – until it ends up in the trash can.

But a group of Memphians and their organizations are banding together to promote loving eating across the city’s supply chain through an initiative they call the Memphis Food Waste Project. The project, led by Clean Memphis, aims to reduce the food that goes to local landfills by 50% by 2030. This is in line with the goals of the United Nations, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Food is personal,” said Janet Boscarino, executive director of Clean Memphis. “This is how we come together and share our culture. It should be shared and never wasted.”

Over the coming weeks, The Commercial Appeal will tell the stories of the people involved in this effort, from food saving to composting, and the people who are fed as a result.

A problem and an opportunity

According to the Memphis Food Waste Project Task Force coordinator Heidi Rupke of Clean Memphis, a family of four in Memphis could save an estimated $ 1,800 a year by eliminating their food waste.

Food waste is both a problem and an opportunity for Memphis.

Memphis and Shelby Counties generate approximately 1.7 million tons of waste each year, approximately 30% of which is food-related. This is evident from Shelby County’s waste reports. To put that in perspective, that amount of foodborne waste would fill 4,535 FedEx Boeing 777s and, if you used them on a large scale, easily outweigh the Empire State Building.

But those leftover food and scraps don’t magically go away: Much of this waste ends up in one of the local landfills, where it releases methane gas when it rots, said Heidi Rupke, who coordinates the Memphis Food Waste Project’s task force. This gas then enters the atmosphere, where it traps heat and creates a greenhouse effect. In the 20th century, methane caused 23% of climate change, according to NASA.

“Our food waste – all of ours – is warming the planet,” said Rupke. “And by just throwing our leftover food in another bucket and making sure it’s composted, we’re reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.”

But the vast amount of waste that goes to landfill is also an opportunity to address another problem in Memphis: food insecurity.

The average family of four living in Memphis wastes about $ 1,800 worth of groceries each year, Rupke said. Before the pandemic, however, one in five people in Memphis was considered “food unsafe” – meaning they lack regular access and resources to buy food, according to Feeding America. Rupke said it was probably one in four people now.

However, if Memphis can develop an “ambitious” plan to reduce food waste, the city could close the “food gap” – that is, the difference between people’s actual spending on food and what people spend on food is 19%, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council ( NRDC). Clearing all waste would fill 42% of this void.

So for those involved in the Memphis Food Waste Project, it’s clear what it’s about: Memphis can drastically reduce its food insecurity and methane emissions by reducing food waste. The question now is how this can be done.

Work towards solutions

How does Memphis reduce its food waste? It starts at home, said Rupke.

Approximately 40% of the food waste in Memphis comes from private households, which is why one of the more immediate goals of the Memphis Food Waste Project is to encourage more people to buy only what they need, save their leftovers, and either compost or extra groceries to donate.

Memphis Transformed, an initiative of the Chairman’s Circle of the Greater Memphis Chamber, is overseeing the food waste awareness campaign already launched on social media with the hashtag # 901SaveTheFood. The campaign will add billboards and bus packaging through March, said Lisa Brown, project manager at Memphis Transformed. The campaign also calls on people to sign a pledge about food waste.

“For me personally, the piece hits food insecurity near home,” Brown said. “When you think of Memphis, and this is such a delicious city, so to speak – we are known as a culinary staple in America – but about 20% of our city is food unsafe. This statistic really makes you pause and think.”

She added, “This is a very important issue to me because nobody wants to think about getting hungry and there is so much food in the system that is being lost.”

But public awareness is only the first step, said Rupke. Another goal is to develop a project task force that currently includes representatives from Clean Memphis and the City of Memphis. Grocery chain Kroger is providing seed capital for the task force, which will find ways to meet the goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.

The project’s other two immediate goals are to work with the City of Memphis to encourage employees to waste less food at home and to expand and improve the existing network of organizations working to eliminate food waste. The task force also hopes to conduct a “food waste audit” on three Memphis City properties – a fancy way of saying the project will sort the garbage out of the buildings, analyze the causes of the food waste, and work with the city on adjustments make.

Although Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland signed a proclamation to reduce food waste in Memphis on December 19, 2020, the city communications bureau declined to make anyone available for an interview about the Memphis Food Waste Project.

What could that mean for Memphis?

When Rupke first became interested in food waste in 2017, she and her husband, Rhodes College physicist David Rupke, were on vacation in Australia. She said the people there saw food in a different and healthier light than in America.

“There were just really cool initiatives that weren’t considered really cool,” she said, listing programs to sell ugly products and bring leftover airline sandwiches to hungry people. “They were exactly the way things were done.”

Over the next two years, she socialized with other Memphians who shared her passion, and eventually joined Clean Memphis in 2019. Her “10 year dream” is for people to try not to overeat but when they know what to do with it, she said.

“I would see less downstream trash. I would see a cleaner city. We would have families who are well fed and have the ability to prepare, freeze and care for food,” she said, describing what she wants for Memphis. “I think an old word is food sovereignty. Not that they grow their own food, but they consume everything before it goes bad and that would be a valued skill.”

Take part

For more information on the Memphis Food Waste Project and how to get involved, visit and

Do you have any ideas about food waste? Or questions? Or concerns? Columnist and storyteller Ryan Poe would love to hear them. Reach out to him at [email protected] and on Twitter @ryanpoe.

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