According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one-third of the 1.3 billion tons of food humans consume annually gets wasted or lost. In the U.S. alone, it tallies $610 billion being disposed. Fruits and veggies, roots and tubers are the highest of the waste—something a bit daunting, considering how compostable they are.
Food waste and sustainability is top of mind nowadays for the local nonprofit group 40 EATS, founded by manna owner Billy Mellon in 2016. Mellon rallied together a group of chefs and restaurateurs to upstart a give-back initiative to help fund various needs within the community. To date they have raised more than $22,000 through hosting community dinners, wherein proceeds have helped local nonprofits Nourish NC and OASIS NC, as well as farmer Stefan Hartmann, who saw devastation from Hurricane Matthew to his very own Black River Organics. On Sunday they will hold a seven-course progressive seafood dinner at Watermark Marina for $135 a ticket, with all proceeds benefiting Cape Fear River Watch. The dinner will include items like clam chowder, oysters, catfish, and more, prepared by 40 EATS chefs from manna, Port Land Grille, Pinpoint, Little Pond Catering, Catch, Pine Valley Market, Surf House, and Rx.
Living in a region rich with fresh food sources, from the farms surrounding our coast and seafood from our local waters, means sustainability should be a natural concern for folks, but especially those who work in the restaurant industry. According to the USDA, 133 billion pounds of food from stores, restaurants and homes was wasted in 2010. Add to it chemicals and runoff toxins getting into our waters, and, well, the green footprint we’re leaving behind for future generations digs deeper by the day.
Last year’s daunting realization of the toxic Gen X pulsating through our Cape Fear River continues to inject fear into many, too: Is it safe to drink the water? Are restaurants and breweries installing reverse osmosis systems? How are farmers sidestepping its use on their crops? Over the last year, local bastion of all things environmentally sound, Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW) rose to the occasion to host panels and community town halls, offer Q&A sessions, and even question and demand change from politicians resistant to hold Chemours (the company that allowed Gen X to be dumped at the Sweeney Plant in Fayetteville) accountable for putting citizens’ health in danger.
“The river means so much to our city and those around her,” Mellon says. Aside from its history, Mellon notes its impact, economically via ports and transportation, not to mention its home for wildlife, on top of providing drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. “It is a symbol of Wilmington and it should be at the forefront of everyone’s concern to maintain and respect all that she does for us,” he says.
Mellon says he would consider raising $7,000 during Sunday’s dinner a victory, with funds also coming from beer and wine sales and an auction. The monies will allow CFRW, who also partners with Keep New Hanover Beautiful on environmental protections, to continue its efforts to fight the good fight on the community’s right to clean, safe water.
40 EATS’ overall goal for 2018 remains on being environmentally sound, aware and active. They will be serving clean water and cooking with clean water for Sunday’s dinner. “I’ve really been impressed with the way Sarah [Rushing] has taken the reins on this one,” Mellon tells. “She’s focused and really has a passion for this.”
Rushing, a local artist, handles marketing for Rx, but also gardens, has her own chickens, and recycles and composts. Her leadership at the helm of this edition of 40 EATS has helped ensure Sunday’s dinner will be 93 percent clean. What does that mean? Only 7 percent of waste from the food cooked and served, as well as the trash bred from it, will go to a landfill.
“We will be able to compost 350 gallons of food waste from this one evening alone,” Rushing tells. “Just think about how much could be composted if we could figure out a more permanent system.”
40 EATS is partnering with the New Hanover County Composting Facility, which recently acquired a composting machine. But they haven’t been able to use it because consumer trash and recycables aren’t separated properly from compost. Plus, not enough food waste is coming into the facility to help propel the decomposition process. “Currently, our compost facility is only running at 25 percent capacity,” Rushing says.
Every 40 EATS restaurant was given 50-gallon drums to use and fill with waste in preparation for Sunday’s dinner. The dinner will have a few 50-gallon drums in order to collect waste, too. Someone has been appointed to pick it up and move it to the facility to feed the machine.
Currently, 50 percent of what goes into the New Hanover County landfill is in fact compostable. “We could potentially cut our landfill deposits in half, therefore reducing harmful methane gas emissions significantly,” Rushing adds.
But the real hurdle comes with infrastructure. Getting compost from point A to point B means needing a large dump truck to have routes en masse and run continuously. Plus, they will need more hands to keep up with the routes, much like our current trash and recycling programs are done.
“If we can find a community investor willing to donate $200,000 to get a truck, we would be on the right path,” Mellon tells.
“We want to be part of the solution, in connecting the dots, to make this happen, as well as push for an ultimate goal of county-wide composting,” Rushing adds. “We felt it was important to have this dinner because we know that positive change demands community involvement.”
The involvement of understanding one’s own impact is good; the impact of having the entire restaurant community and individual households is great. “What better way to facilitate and encourage that than over a meal?” Rushing asks.
Though Sunday’s dinner is sold out, Mellon says he wants to do even more to involve people who can’t afford a $135 seven-course dinner to help 40 EATS’ cause. In fact, the real goal is to look within and see what one can personally do as an environmental steward.
“I would love 40 EATS mission to grow toward community involvement and not merely focus on dinners,” he says. But that includes involving more hands — community hands — that are willing to take on responsibility. Maybe that looks like hosting trash pick-ups on the beach or downtown, or doing community panels and town halls on teaching folks how to compost, or helping with local gardens. Mellon is open to ideas and partnerships that help move forward the mission.
“We just want to offer our continued support,” Rushing adds. “We believe in what Cape Fear River Watch and their partner in the environment, Keep New Hanover Beautiful, are doing, and we want to do everything we can to support their important work. They are the stars of this dinner.”