Photo by Urban Sprouts, via Flickr

Any responsible food consumer knows you shouldn’t simply toss your unused produce into the Jones Falls. Those old tomatoes (or whatever else) could become potent soil for future tomatoes, and other unused items that are often thrown out could still be edible and useful to those going hungry.

This is the ethos behind the city’s newly announced pilot initiative, the Baltimore Food Waste Recovery Strategy, which commits to reducing food waste, rescuing edible food for the hungry and creating a more robust market for composting in Baltimore.

That first piece will come through a public education campaign called “Save the Food.” Anne Draddy, the city’s sustainability coordinator, said at a press conference at City Hall this morning that a couple billboards with that slogan are already up, but the campaign, a partnership with The Ad Council, will expand over the next few months.

“That will be educating residents on what they can do around food waste and what their role is in that,” she said.

For recovery, the city will expand its ongoing work with restaurants, grocery stores, hotels and markets to avoid tossing edible food that could be donated to communities in need. That will also include engaging public health inspectors and stakeholders to help with the effort. Around 24 percent of Baltimoreans live in impoverished areas without access to healthy food, according to research by the city and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; collecting edible food to serve those places is one of the goals of the announced strategy.

And for composting, Baltimore plans to expand the practice by testing pilots and incentive programs with neighborhoods, businesses, farmer’s markets and others to collect more tossed food that can be converted into nutrient-rich soil for gardens. The city could sell the so-called black gold or distribute it to its growing urban farming community, Draddy suggested.

At present, much of that food goes to landfills and eventually to the infamous BRESCO trash incinerator off of I-95, with food accounting for 20 percent of Baltimore’s trash each year, according to the National Resources Defense Council. Draddy said the Office of Sustainability hopes to site a designated food-composting facility in the city within the next two years.

More broadly, the strategy aims to cut the city’s commercial food waste in half and reduce residential food waste by 80 percent by 2040.

“This takes a long view,” said Andy Cook, an environmental planner with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability. He later added: “We recognize that we’re not gonna solve this problem overnight, but there’s a lot of things that we can do in the short term.”

The deep-pocketed Rockefeller Foundation is funding the effort in partnership with the NRDC, which is helping to implement the plan and providing technical assistance. They’ve chosen Baltimore as one of two pilot cities, the other being Denver. Draddy said Baltimore is getting $200,000 in grant funding, which will help pay a dedicated city employee to run the program for two years, and will fund smaller grants to disburse to area organizations working on food waste and recovery.

Cook noted a handful of existing private food composters are already serving Baltimore, including Waste Neutral, Veteran Compost, Compost Cab and Compost Crew. (Read our guide to some of the options here.) The model is usually a monthly fee for someone to come pick up your food scraps and convert them into compost for you.

And while Draddy said it would be ideal to emulate municipal food-composting models, such as the mandatory one implemented by San Francisco, Mayor Catherine Pugh echoed a familiar endorsement of public-private partnerships, saying business could still handle that task. Pugh said it’s not the city’s goal to “go public” (as one reporter phrased it) with the service.

“We want to make this program available. We have private folks who are in this business, and we want to expand it. But part of that is how to educate our public as to these possibilities,” the mayor said. She echoed Cook’s point that there are “four or five haulers that are in this business,” and added, “We’ve got communities that are composting and being able to earn as they continue to do this work.”

The announcement at City Hall brought out some of the folks running the Filbert Street Garden, a thriving community agricultural space that’s operated in Curtis Bay since 2010, and the broader Baltimore Compost Collective, a youth-led effort that collects food scraps from Riverside, Federal Hill and Locust Point to turn into rich soil for the Filbert Street Garden.

Rodette Jones, manager of the garden and the collective, said she previously traveled to composting conferences in Los Angeles and Florida and saw evidence that citywide composting programs could work.

It’s been her dream, she said, for her hometown to develop the same dedication to composting and recycling food. With the pilot announced today, she said, “the vision is coming to light in Baltimore City.”

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...