Is It Possible to Fix D.C.’s Food Waste Problem in 24 Hours?

George Washington University hosts D.C. Climathon as part of a global event to develop sustainable solutions.

The members of the Raw Food Rescue team brainstorm during the 24-hour D.C. Climathon, an event held Thursday and Friday at the George Washington University to develop solutions to food waste in D.C. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)
June 22, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

The George Washington University played host Thursday and Friday to the D.C. Climathon, a 24-hour event that tasked 30 students, hackers, policy buffs, nonprofit workers and sustainability activists with answering one question:

How can private and public organizations reduce food waste and loss generated by D.C. residents and businesses?

“Combatting the global issue of climate change starts with simple, creative innovations at the local level,” said Director of the Office of Sustainability Meghan Chapple. “Climathon is an opportunity for D.C. to find new ways to reduce food waste and carbon emissions and protect our communities from the affects of climate change.”

The D.C. Climathon was organized and hosted by GW’s Office of Sustainability, the School of the Business Institute for Corporate Responsibility (GW ICR) and the GWupstart Social Innovation Lab at the Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service in tandem with Climate-KIC’s global effort in 16 cities around the world.

Climate-KIC is the largest European public-private nonprofit association addressing climate change on a global scale and includes 12 European centers.

Armed with caffeine, snacks, laptops and brightly colored post-it notes, eight teams developed proposals during the frenzied brainstorming session with input from experts and professors of business, social enterprise and government.

Their aim was to create viable public private partnerships that would reduce waste and carbon emissions, produce cost savings and identify new sources of revenue by managing food waste.

“We spend a lot of time talking about public private partnerships at GW, and we pride ourselves on educating our students on their importance,” GWSB Dean Linda Livingstone said. “An event like this—creating real solutions around such an important issue—is a perfect opportunity for us.”

Joseff Kolmann, a sophomore and undergraduate researcher at MIT, talks about changes to the presentation of the Raw Food Rescue team during the 24-hour D.C. Climathon held at GW. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)

Judges selected four teams—Healthy Diversion, Lettuce Move, Raw Food Rescue and The Washington ComPost—to work with government, nonprofit and private sector leaders on refining their proposals and implementing at least one winning idea.

The minds behind Healthy Diversion—including GW alumnus Abhijit Khanna, M.B.A. ’12—created a smartphone application to help shoppers keep track of expiring groceries and connect with local food banks.

The Lettuce Move team proposed a year-round mobile produce service that will partner with local grocery stores to bring fruits and vegetables to D.C.’s low-income neighborhoods.

The Raw Food Rescue hopes to create jobs through partnerships with existing warehouses located in low-income neighborhoods to recover 10 percent of locally discarded fruits and vegetables.

The Washington ComPost team members hope to expand their residential composting initiative to universities across D.C. The program was initially launched last academic year as a pilot for 40 GW students living in Hensley Hall.

GW juniors Frank Fritz, III, Celeste Aguzino and senior Sabrina Freeze said that they were initially focused on coming up with a new initiative for the competition.

Luckily after several hours passed, GW Assistant Professor of Strategic Management and Public Policy Sanjay Patnaik, stepped in to suggest that they focus on what worked—the successful pilot program of The Washington ComPost project

“I can’t tell you how many times we threw out our first idea,” Mr. Fritz said. “The Washington ComPost group has been looking for the best way to expand our mission, and this is an amazing opportunity to scale up operations with the support of D.C. government and the university.”

One of the four teams selected Friday will travel to Paris for a global showcase of Climathon initiatives. The showcase will take place in December parallel with the United Nation’s COP21Conference of Parties—Climate Conference. 

According to Annie White, a Climathon judge and sustainable materials management analyst at the D.C. Department of the Environment, the “impressive” presentations were a great start to tackling hidden costs of food waste and finding “real solutions that enhance policy.”

In addition to the environmental affects of food waste, such as rising carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, households also suffer financially.

The average household wastes $1,365 to $2,275 worth of food a year, Ms. White said.

”It’s wonderful to work together with GW, Climate-KIC and cities around the world on developing innovative solutions to climate change,” Ms. White said. “We were looking for unique projects with a defined value that target demographics that produce a lot of waste— these teams delivered.”

 Presentations also were informed by the recommendations of John Forrer, an associate research professor and administrative director of GW ICR, who advised students on building a successful public-private partnership, otherwise known as a “PPP.”

Dr. Forrer told the teams to keep in mind three principles that help the private and public sectors work together harmoniously. A “PPP” should emphasize equal co-creation, shared interests and mutual benefits and sound negotiations that produce results for all partners, he said.

“This Climathon is unique because the emphasis is on coming up with an idea we can take across the finish-line and PPPs are the best way to do that through private engagement, social benefit, management expertise and innovative ideas,” Dr. Forrer said.

Students Shannon Kennedy and Todd McGarvey sift through ideas for their team's final presentation during the recent Climathon. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)