People representing every stop in the food supply chain shared ideas Tuesday on how to speed more food to those in urgent need and divert more food from the landfill. The 80 people who gathered at The Mirro Center on the Parkview Regional Medical Center Campus did not resolve every obstacle, but they advanced the conversation. That networking will continue, according to Jodi Leamon, the business technical coordinator for the Allen County Solid Waste Management District, which organized the conference.

“We made a dent,” Leamon said. Tuesday’s conference drew four times the number who attended the initial focus group in October. The dialogue will expand even further, Leamon said. “We try to make the connections.” Educated consumers will not overspend, not overserve, and not send as much material to the landfill, she said.

Panelists detailed progress on on-site composting, how to distribute produce and other groceries in a timely manner, and how to direct excess food from catered events to the agencies that provide hot meals to the needy. The audience will continue researching regulations and efficiencies.

John Wolf, the chief executive officer of Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana, said the Tillman Road food bank strives to ensure that all usable food is distributed instead of wasted. He stressed in-house training; a few bananas with a few spots still are edible and still can be frozen for baking. He stressed public education. “It was great to receive the butternut squash, the acorn squash, the spaghetti squash. The problem is a lot of people don’t know how to prepare it,” he said.

Rob Harmon, director of the host Mirro Center, said the events center has begun exploring ways to direct leftover, prepared food to outlets such as The Associated Churches, The Salvation Army, and the Simply Serving ministry that distributes meals and clothing in downtown Fort Wayne each Saturday. “We were just throwing it away,” Harmon said.

Initial efforts since the October conference have revealed time limitations due to health codes. Participants said they will continue the research and efforts, something of a pilot program. Harmon also raised the question of how to deal with food that has been plated or touched, and how to return the organic material to the soil.

Rebecca Eifert Joniskan, section chief of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management Office of Land Quality, said her agency encourages on-site, small scale composting. The process requires only registration, not a permit. The process ensures attention to issues such as the water table, odor and pests but does not throw up a barrier to composting.

Leamon asked the panel about curbside composting programs. “It can take a lot of capital to get something like this up and running,” said Sean Daley, a sustainability specialist for Waste Management. On the other hand, current operations allow food to be placed in a landfill to decompose and generate gas that can be sold to industry within four weeks. “GM powers the entire plant with it,” he said.

Suzanne Lindsay-Walker, director of corporate sustainability for Kroger, said the company’s 1,400 stores are pursuing a goal of zero waste by 2020. “Waste energy is not considered part of that intent,” she said. Lindsay-Walker noted diversions of unused food to animal feed. “It is absolutely a cost-effective outlet,” she said. She said the corporation is looking for more outlets for organic materials. She called attention to the efforts of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. “If we can work together we can figure this out,” she said.

Kroger and other stores donate unsold produce to Community Harvest. “Kroger, Walmart, Meijer — we pick up food every day,” Wolf said. Holsum Bread delivers bread three times a week, and donated 138,000 pounds of bread last year, he said. Those who need assistance receive vouchers to pick up a set weight of food at the Tillman Road center, which is set up similar to a grocery store. Clients also are allowed to choose produce and bread from the “free weight” shelves of food. “So a person may receive 50 pounds of food and they may get 20 more pounds of food and bread,” he said. Wolf said Community Harvest distributed food to 21,100 clients last year and gives away and average of 250,000 pounds of food each week.

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