Integrating food systems into Gulf Coast sustainability plan was a novel idea because food was not a topic high up in the minds of the region’s leaders.
IN October 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities awarded a $2 million Regional Sustainability Planning grant to the Constituency for a Sustainable Coast, a consortium of partners in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region. The grant is funding a collaborative planning project — the Plan for Opportunity — intended to guide the economic growth and development of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the region’s goals and strategies for achieving regional sustainability. An underlying strategy includes engaging with everyone from mayors to technical experts to everyday residents to get stakeholders talking to each other about shared interests and promoting collaboration.
The Constituency includes the Gulf Regional Planning Commission, the Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District, the Mississippi Center for Justice, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Mississippi State University’s Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, and the Ohio State University’s City and Regional Planning program. The Plan for Opportunity, a three-year endeavor, will include eight elements — coastal resiliency, air quality, water security, transportation, housing, economic development and food (everything from food access to food waste).
The Mississippi Gulf Coast, with a population of approximately 375,000, has struggled over the past few years. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 50,000 housing units. Just as rebuilding was getting underway, the national recession and financial crisis put a halt to many construction projects. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill grounded tourism as visitors stayed away from what they feared were oil-filled beaches. In spite of, and perhaps even in response to, these challenging conditions, the region was ready to plan for a brighter, more sustainable future. “This is really about our future, about what makes living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast so special and what we need to do collectively to preserve our assets and protect our environment while we strengthen our economy and grow our communities and the region in a way that provides a healthy, productive quality of life for future generations to come,” said Gulf Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Elaine Wilkinson.
Wendy McDonald, who is on the Bay St. Louis City Council and a Plan for Opportunity working committee member, echoed that sentiment. “I think that sustainability is not just great for the environment, I think it’s good for our health and good for our economy. If, for example, food waste diversion can be viable both financially and environmentally, it can be a great benefit to our region.” McDonald serves on the food systems subcommittee, which was charged with examining the region’s food system and developing recommendations for improving its sustainability.
A food waste task force launched by the food systems subcommittee and now facilitated by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ is bringing stakeholders to the table to talk about how the region can work collectively toward positive change. “The energy and enthusiasm of the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast to making organic waste diversion a reality has been remarkable,” says Mark Williams, administrator of the Solid Waste Policy, Planning and Grants Branch of MDEQ. “When I was first invited to participate, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found is a group of key stakeholders willing to do more than just talk; they were willing to act and encourage others to participate.”
Integrating food into the regional sustainability plan was a novel idea because food just wasn’t a topic that was high up in the minds of the region’s leaders. But food is a growing part of the national dialogue, and certainly in Mississippi there had been discussion around public health issues related to food, such as obesity. On the coast, the dialogue started around the connection between where food is available and mechanisms for promoting healthier food choices. The topic of food waste had not been raised in any significant way prior to the start of the Plan for Opportunity. “When I was first invited to participate in this planning process, I was focused on people’s access to food,” said Aletha Burge, director of Community Initiatives with United Way of South Mississippi. “This process has really opened my awareness to the importance of considering the many aspects of the food system, including how it is disposed.”
Williams is the first to admit Mississippi’s solid waste rules do not adequately encourage composting. Under current regulations, a food waste composting operation is treated the same as a landfill. One recommendation from the food systems subcommittee is to streamline state permitting rules for composting and anaerobic digesters. The first step to changing the regulations is to create pilot projects to demonstrate how operations could work effectively. The partners in the Plan for Opportunity helped Williams identify pilot opportunities. As a result, an existing poultry operation and a small-scale organic garden became the first pilot projects that will inform MDEQ about modifications to its composting rules.
Sustainable Poultry Production
Mississippi is one of the leading states in broiler production. Chickens are also an export commodity, with much of the white meat kept for domestic consumption, and the dark meat exported through the Port of Pascagoula to Russia. Given the volume of broiler production, chicken waste is an issue. John Logan of Brinson Farms is an example of a sustainability practitioner.
Logan spent his career working in the business world, but had always dreamed of bringing back his wife’s family farm in Prentiss, Mississippi, which had been abandoned for 17 years. Upon retiring, he took on the challenge with the goal of establishing a state-of-the-art operation, fitted with innovative technologies and sustainable business practices. What emerged is Brinson Farms, a poultry producer for Tyson and a showpiece in poultry production. For example, Logan was able to integrate site design principles that allowed him to actually improve the water quality in the neighboring stream.
Integral to Brinson Farm’s nutrient management strategy is the biodigester, which was patented in 2004. It processes chicken manure from all of the chicken houses, producing enough energy to meet all the onsite needs, and sometimes produces a surplus sold back to the grid. Both liquid and solid by-products of the biodigester are incorporated into a new 20-acre composting site. Logan recently started receiving multiple truckloads of food waste from Walmart each week. One snag he encountered was Mississippi’s composting regulations, which, as noted above, classify his operation as a landfill requiring extensive permitting. Being involved with MDEQ as a pilot project is addressing that situation.
Best Food for Plants
The slogan “Heavn’s Best Compost, God’s Best Food for Plants” is stenciled on the sides of Del Banowetz’s delivery truck, conveying his philosophy that food production should be modeled after Mother Nature’s perfected methods of recycling organic nutrients. Heavn’s Best Compost began in Iowa, where Banowetz ran a successful landscaping and composting business for many years. Following Hurricane Katrina, Banowetz and his wife, Betty, decided to spend the off-season volunteering on the Gulf Coast. For five years they spent the winter months on the coast procuring food donations, managing soup kitchens, teaching composting and gardening at schools and helping establish a few community gardens. Eventually the Banowetzs decided to retire and moved fulltime to the coast, where they started a 1-acre garden in which they grow a variety of produce that is sold at the local farmers’ market. That is where the Plan for Opportunity first caught up with them.
What began as a conversation around their produce sold at the market turned to composting. Banowetz had brought along all his composting facility equipment to Mississippi, which was used occasionally to manage a relatively small windrow of garden waste and a few loads of horse bedding. By connecting with the other stakeholders and Mark Williams, Heavn’s Best Compost became the second food waste composting pilot project and gained access to more feedstocks.
The facility is experimenting to find the right mix for composting shrimp processing waste. Being able to manage this waste while controlling odors will help determine how large the facility can grow and still be manageable. A typical shrimp processing facility can produce up to 30 tons/week of waste during the shrimping season. A composting facility can be a relatively low-investment solution for a waste that is seasonally produced. The result of this outreach is creating a product that is needed in the region as well as creating new jobs (and helping to guide MDEQ on its rules). Currently, many organic farmers in the region import their compost from out of state.
On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, military bases are a major institutional consumer of food, and a generator of food waste. Zero Waste Solutions/Mark Dunning Industries has been contracted by Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi to help increase diversion. When the program started in 2010, on-base diversion was at 14 percent. By October 2011, diversion had increased to 56 percent, well above the original goal of 40 percent (the result of a federal mandate for all military bases). Zero Waste Solutions project manager Doug Smith is focused on monitoring, keeping employees well-informed and capturing waste at the point of generation. While Keesler already has a high rate of cardboard recycling, Smith sees a significant opportunity to increase diversion of other materials such as paper, plastic and food. “Our goal is to increase waste diversion to 75 percent by the end of 2012,” he says. “We want to do that through a variety of measures.”
Three dining halls on the base, serving thousands of meals a day, present a substantial opportunity to improve recycling and diversion. Smith collaborated with the concession company managing the dining halls to separate preconsumer and postconsumer food scraps. Use of reusable serviceware and biodegradable paper napkins facilitates collection of postconsumer waste. Other products, such as straws made of compostable plastics, are being considered and should make separation even easier. The challenge encountered was where to send the separated material. With no one to haul the food waste, close to 26 tons of perfectly source separated food scraps were being landfilled each month.
In March 2011, the Constituency for a Sustainable Coast held a food scraps stakeholders meeting to bring together different institutional consumers, waste management agencies, haulers and food banks. Smith met a representative from Viridiun, a waste hauling company specializing in collection of organic wastes. Viridiun is also the regional contractor collecting Walmart’s food scraps on the Gulf Coast. As it turned out, the hauler drove by Keesler at least once a week on its way to a nearby Walmart . As a result of that meeting, a month later the Keesler Air Force Base started diverting 26 tons of food scraps a month. Currently the material is being transported for composting at a farm in Franklinton, Louisiana, about 100 miles away.
The Seabee Naval base (formally called Naval Construction Battalion Center or NCBC) in Gulfport, Mississippi, thought that if Keesler could divert food waste, it could as well. A few months later, the naval base began a source separation program with Viridiun, diverting 8 tons/month. The amount is expected to increase as other areas of the base join the program. The naval base is also responsible for coordinating recycling at NASA Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, and is currently in talks with the Center about adding food waste diversion. According to Jerry Davis, service contract manager and recycling coordinator for NCBC Gulfport, “if we add several buildings at Stennis, we could divert enough food scraps to provide the route density needed by an organic waste hauler and hopefully lower transportation costs.”
Between Walmart, Keesler and Seabee, more than 1,300 tons of food waste will be composted this year instead of being disposed. Opportunities exist to divert more organics from the seafood industry and the casinos.
Edible Food Donations
The next step is to increase the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s edible food donations. One of the key issues for United Way’s Aletha Burge is ensuring that the region’s hungry have access to healthy food. In discussions with the military, it became clear that the bases in the region were disposing of significant volumes of edible food. Restrictions on the military bases prevented them from donating excess food near expiration to charitable organizations. While Doug Smith of Zero Waste Solutions/Mark Dunning Industries understands the restrictions, he was willing to think creatively to find opportunities. “We were able to allow church groups to come onto the base to collect the food and then deliver it to food pantries,” he says. “I am confident that we will be able to move forward with this, and we have had strong support for making this happen.”
Mary Beth Van Pelt, organics diversion coordinator for USEPA Region 4, attended stakeholders’ meetings to assist participants by sharing regional/national resources and available tools. Her interests are not only professional. Van Pelt lived in coastal Bay Saint Louis and worked at Stennis Space Center prior to moving to Atlanta to work with USEPA. Additionally, she hopes to return to the area within the next few years to be closer to family. “When I was approached to help with the Plan for Opportunity I was excited but secretly questioned whether our Gulf Coast region was completely ready to take this step,” she explains. “Learning about all the efforts that were already going on, seeing the enthusiasm of everyone involved and most of all seeing how quickly they went into action has been amazing. I no longer have any doubts and believe the Mississippi Gulf Coast can become regional and national leaders in food scraps diversion.”
Hurricane Katrina destroyed most food stores and although some have rebuilt, accessibility to food stores remains challenging. Some residents reported having to travel to another county to get to a grocery store or food pantry. Consumers living far from a grocery store reported challenges of time and distance, as well as rising food prices and gas prices. Those that rely on public transportation raised concerns about the lack of shelters at bus stops to protect them from rain or the hot sun and difficulties in keeping their refrigerated and frozen foods fresh. Convenience stores in rural locations have increased the variety of food items available, but even for them stocking fresh food is a challenge as they might not have the appropriate equipment to maintain fresh items.
The increasing popularity of farmers’ markets in the Mississippi Gulf Coast during the past couple years is easy to understand. At first, they provided access to food, but now they have become a social activity. At the Biloxi market we met a young father shopping during his lunch hour, chatting with the vendors and finding new items to try each week with his family. Overwhelmingly, consumers in the Mississippi Gulf Coast reported a desire to know where their food came from and a preference for food produced locally and in a sustainable manner.
Several strategies were recommended for increasing access to fresh foods produced locally and sustainably. Using vacant lots for community gardens and vacant buildings for year-round urban agriculture and aquaculture provide an opportunity for increasing local food production while utilizing existing infrastructure and otherwise vacant buildings and lots. Composting on-site would encourage food waste recovery and provide access to organic soil amendments. However, this requires other strategies such as amending zoning codes to allow community gardens, urban farms, composting and smaller scale anaerobic digesters with energy recovery.
In addition, School Food Demonstration Projects would expand upon existing school-based community gardens to create a network of gardens. To provide education about the interconnectedness of the food system, these demonstration projects would include food waste diversion and composting projects that utilize food waste from the schools.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast food system is complex, including land-based agriculture, as well as aquaculture and the marine seafood industry. As the food system assessment and planning progressed, it became evident that a diversity of food scraps are generated at every step in the food system and that managing them required equally careful planning to make the food system truly sustainable. The strategies are spelled out in the food system subcommittee’s strategic food system plan, “Savor the Coast: A Recipe for a Sustainable Coast.” The food scraps regional task force, composting pilot projects, revision of statewide composting regulations and start of the new Compost Mississippi Program to promote education on commercial and residential composting all combine to make the Mississippi Gulf Coast a living laboratory poised to provide organics diversion examples and models applicable in other regions.
Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP is an Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning in the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University. Angel Arroyo-Rodriguez is an environmental planner and public health practitioner with the State of Ohio, and a doctoral student in City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University. To learn more, visit www.gulfcoastplan.org/food-subcommittee.