This Thanksgiving, Nashville Saves Food and Feeds the Hungry

In Music City, restaurateurs, grocers, farmers, volunteers, the mayor, and NRDC's Nashville Food Waste Initiative are harmonizing in the fight against wasted food.

The sixth annual Mission Possible Turkey Fry, hosted by country music star Tracy Lawrence

Credit: Splash News/Alamy Stock Photo

The generosity flows year-round at the Nashville Rescue Mission, the city’s largest homeless shelter, but it’s never more obvious than during the week of Thanksgiving. Starting at 4 A.M. on the Tuesday before Turkey Day, country crooner Tracy Lawrence and his star-studded friends arrive and begin frying 500 turkeys (as the local fire marshal supervises). More than 150 volunteers join to carve the birds, prep meals, and help in the dining room. Everything is in bulk, especially the guest list. Upwards of a thousand people, some chronically homeless or otherwise food insecure, gather to enjoy a warm plate of turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes, rolls, and salad.

Nashville is a city of both abundance and scarcity. Its landfill brims with perfectly edible food even as approximately 108,000 of its residents don’t know where their next meal will come from. This, of course, could be said of most communities across America, where up to 40 percent of all food goes uneaten. But Music City—through its restaurants, grocery stores, and farms—is trying to close this gap by redirecting extra food to more worthwhile destinations.

For the past two years, NRDC’s Nashville Food Waste Initiative has been working with Mayor Megan Barry’s office and groups around the city to tackle the issue. The first step is to think about wasted food differently. Here, surplus food can be rescued to provide a meal for someone who needs it, and food scraps that can't be donated can be turned into compost. The second step is figuring out what parts of the city’s waste stream are most ripe for change. Only then can planners know where and how best to focus their efforts, says Bob Gedert, a consultant for Resource Recycling Systems. Gedert has already helped Fresno, California, and Austin, Texas, create zero-waste plans.

Volunteers serving lunch to the homeless at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville
Credit: Mark Humphrey/AP Photos

According to a new report by NRDC, Nashville’s restaurants and households each contribute about a third of the city’s food waste. Another recent NRDC report finds American grocery stores to be the largest untapped source for food donations. Meanwhile, about 7 percent of all the food growing on U.S. farms never even gets harvested.

We have an opportunity to make Nashville a healthier, more sustainable community where we save taxpayers money by going after organics,” says Mary Beth Ikard, the city’s transportation and sustainability manager. The metro area currently pays $5.8 million in landfill fees every year, and for every ton of food waste that Nashville diverts from the landfill, it will save about $37. With the mayor’s office rolling out food waste initiatives across the city, this will eventually add up.

In Restaurants

It didn’t take long for Karl Ebert, associate director of operations for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, to realize he was really in the waste business. During his early days on the job, Ebert worked a catered event for 300 people for which only 100 showed up. At the end of the night, the caterers scraped tray after tray of excess food into the garbage. Seeing all that good food go to waste made Ebert sick. So he set about making some changes.

Credit: Eivaisla/iStockPhoto

Over the next six months, Ebert educated his entire staff about the social, environmental, and economic costs of food waste and implemented a system for donations and composting. The Country Music Hall of Fame is now one of 56 businesses to join the mayor’s Food Saver Challenge, in which restaurants adopt measures to curb their wasteful habits.

So far this year, the Country Music Hall of Fame has donated more than 1,000 large pans of food—some 20,000 to 40,000 meals—to the Nashville Rescue Mission. By doing so, it has diverted seven tons of food from the landfill and composted an average of three tons of scraps per month. The numbers are staggering. And that’s just a single establishment. “All you need is one person to take that step and push for it,” says Ebert, though he does concede that “it did take a while to get everyone on onboard.”

Another local champion for sustainable food service practices who has accepted the mayor’s challenge is Seema Prasad, owner of the restaurant Miel. Prasad recently founded a nonprofit called Resource Capture to build what would be Nashville’s first dry anaerobic digester, a machine that processes food waste into soil, biogas, and fertilizer to help improve local farming. “Ninety-eight percent of what goes in would come out as something usable,” she says.

At the Market and on the Farm

Mayor Barry recently expanded her Food Saver Challenge to grocery stores. Markets commonly donate food from their shelves to food banks, but they rarely compost. The mayor wants them to first prevent food waste, then donate, and then take the next step in composting.

Kroger was the first grocery chain to sign on. Its goal is to eliminate all of its internal waste by 2025. Kroger is the largest contributor to Nashville’s Second Harvest Food Bank, whose trucks pick up the food and drop it off at more than 200 partners, who then get it to people in need. The grocery stores also have composting bins for unusable vegetables and fruit, other unsold products, and food trimmings.

Second Harvest Food bank of middle Tennessee
Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

“There’s a difference between what’s no longer marketable and what’s consumable,” explains Kimberly Molnar, chief operating officer at Second Harvest, which has distributed upwards of seven million meals this year so far. “A steel or tin can could be good for five years or longer past its best-by date.”

Farms also have a role to play in cutting down on food waste. Green Door Gourmet, a 350-acre local organic farm, participates in the mayor’s Challenge. The farm has a “seconds” program, selling delectable yet blemished food to restaurants or consumers at a reduced price. The property also has a kitchen where unsold food gets cooked into soups, casseroles, or sauces and sold at the farm store.

“My background was growing up on a very small farm in North Carolina where we didn’t have food waste because we couldn’t afford it,” says Sylvia Ganier, the owner, president, and CFO (chief farm officer) of Green Door Gourmet. “It simply wasn’t an option.”

At Home

The average Nashvillian wastes 3.5 pounds of food per week, more than two-thirds of which is edible. Food-saving measures are easy to implement and are mostly about smart shopping, keeping ingredients fresh, eating leftovers, using the freezer, and composting what spoils. Nashville now has two sites for residential compost drop off. It’s a start.

And, of course, contributing to holiday food drives helps, too. As Ebert said, “all you need is one person,” but those people add up. The Nashville Rescue Mission is certainly proof of that.

“You can look at a plate of food here and potentially say, OK, well, the potatoes came from Bridgestone; the green beans and cranberry sauce came from the Second Harvest Food Bank; and the rolls, butter, and salad are from the Country Music Hall of Fame,” says Nashville Rescue Mission spokesperson Michelle Sanders Brinson as she lists just a few of the contributors to its Thanksgiving celebration. But for these volunteers, farmers, store owners, organizations, and restaurants, this isn’t just another feel-good holiday story. Food waste piles up all year long, and as Brinson says, “Homelessness doesn’t ever take a vacation.”

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