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VOL. 42 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 23, 2018

Metro Schools a prime target for reducing food waste

By Linda Bryant

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Todd Lawrence, executive director of Urban Green Lab

Urban Green Lab, a Nashville-based non-profit organization, is at the forefront of issues such as food waste, especially when it comes to the educating the public.

Todd Lawrence, executive director of the 9-year-old group, sees the food-waste issue as a part of the overarching issue of living sustainably in Nashville.

“At Urban Green Lab, we want to make sure that we are educating future generations, as well as current generations about how to live sustainably, reduce waste and be healthy at the same time,” Lawrence says. “The definition of sustainability that we adhere to is the saying that the United Nations uses, which is essentially to use what you need today without compromising future generations.”

Sustainability is a buzz word in environmental circles, but what does it mean?

The way Lawrence describes the concept, it’s about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between earth’s two most complex systems – human culture and the living world.

The Ledger recently spoke with Lawrence about specific ways the group is working to raise awareness about sustainability.

Urban Green Lab is at the forefront of many environmental issues here. Can you mention a specific challenge in regards to the ongoing food waste issue in Nashville?

“Metro Nashville Public Schools does not compost their food waste. All of it goes into a trash can. Metro Public Works, Urban Green Lab and a number of different groups are talking to them about how to reduce that waste. Not only is it wasteful but it’s also very heavy to carry. The trucks that carry all of that heavy waste take a lot of that food waste to the landfill. It produces an enormous amount of methane gas.

“We can’t talk about food waste without talking about energy waste or water waste or solid waste. All of those topics are entangled at the roots and they are all interwoven. What we want to do at Urban Green Lab is expose people to the interconnectedness of all those issues, and how, if you pull on one of them, you are actually pulling on another.

We have big problems but many people are trying to rally and do something about them. You are actually writing this article in one of the red-hot moments of the conversation around food waste.’’

Who do you serve at Urban Green Lab?

“We focus our education on three different populations. One is the classroom where we help develop basic sustainable living literacy and trying to empower the next generation of leadership. No. 2 is the household where we not only develop literacy but skills and information that will form their decisions.

“We also promote personal responsibility around sustainable living. The third population we serve is the workplace, which is where we educate staff about sustainable workplace behaviors.

“The reason we focus on classrooms, households and workplaces is because those are places where culture is formed. What we want to do is build a sustainable living culture here in Nashville and urban areas. That’s important because globally more people are moving to cities more than ever before. In fact, by the year 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

“We really need to make sure that our cities and urban areas are sustainable, efficient and healthy. The world’s population is growing dramatically. There are now almost 8 billion people on the earth. And that’s jumped from 4 billion in 1950.

“In that time of 67 years, we have almost doubled the human population, but we didn’t double the size of the earth. Globally, the growth of the human population and movement towards cities is a warning to us that we have to pay attention to how efficient cities are.”

Can you say more about Nashville specifically?

“By the year 2035, we are supposed to have 2.5 million people living in Nashville. Suddenly, it’s a big city and everyone is moving here. So, how do we keep up with that pace and be sustainable at the same time? And how do we promote great stewardship of our natural resources in the state?

Urban areas account for 80 percent of all global emissions of greenhouse gases that warm the earth. They are what is known as heat islands. There is this thing called the heat island effect in which these areas tend to be warmer and generate more heat. They are helping to contribute to the warmer planet.

“The question we ask ourselves is: “What communities need access to sustainable living education the most?” Sometimes it’s wealthier, higher-consuming populations in the city like corporations. Sometimes it’s the least advantaged, lower-income population. We have to choose which community we really feel needs that information the most and get it to them.”

Can you share with us some details about your programs?

“Livable Schools is a partnership with the mayor’s office to educate and mobilize students in their schools. [Former] Mayor Megan Barry created a new program called Livable Nashville. We are mobilizing students in Metro Nashville public schools to educate their own principals and administrations about the mayor’s plan. Their individual schools are accountable for the targets and measures inside that plan.

“Students are leading the charge in terms of raising awareness, educating and holding our community accountable for what we have planned for them. They are creating Livable School councils in their schools to really focus on sustainable living. They have a leadership team, a steering committee and a representative from all the Livable School councils who come together and talk about how to move the entire agenda forward.

“We just received a $419,000 grant to train teachers throughout the state of Tennessee how to integrate sustainable living principles into their classroom. It can be done within the four walls of any classroom and make the classroom an incubator for learning about sustainable living. We are piloting the program here in Nashville over the next two years. We will be expanding to the other core urban areas of Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Memphis after that."

Getting teachers involved seems pretty smart, since, after all, they are the educators.

“Yes, they are very involved. We are creating a Sustainable Living curriculum supplement for teachers that ties into the academic science standards for the state. We are doing that together with our Teacher Advisory Committee made up of teachers who would develop our curriculum. That curriculum includes lessons on energy waste, water waste, solid waste, litter prevention and food waste.

“Students go home and take an audit of their own household waste around these core issues. Students will measure how much food they are wasting in a particular week. How much of that food waste could have been composted or recovered and given to someone in the community who needed it?

“Students will make a list and go to the grocery store so they can be more efficient in cooking and everything else. All of this is designed to provide a lot of great data on household waste and household usage of natural resources. We will also be matching up local community services like Compost Nashville that can come and connect with those households and provide services to that household based on the data that we get from the audit.

“We have master teacher trainers from Peabody College who are training these teachers on how to implement the supplement and all the audits. We are also certifying those teachers essentially as LEED green classroom professionals. [This is a new certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.]”

“The food waste element of the curriculum and audit is going to be wonderful because we are going to get a lot of great real data of what’s really happening in households and in students’ lives. It’s very practical for students to learn and also educate their own families.”

How are businesses and corporations involved with Urban Green Lab?

“We’ve just started a program called the Corporate Sustainability Roundtable of Nashville. It is a partnership between Urban Green Lab, Nissan North America, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Piedmont Natural Gas.

“Corporations are moving to Nashville every day and they have a huge and very deep environmental footprint. We want to reduce that footprint. One of the ways that we want to do that is by educating corporate green teams. These are teams of very passionate staff and colleagues who take it upon themselves to educate their colleagues about sustainability and sustainability workplace behaviors. They’ll address many issues. How can we reduce food waste in the workplace? How can we source from responsible vendors? How can we eliminate paper waste in the workplace?

“We had our first meeting at Nissan earlier in the year and our next meeting is in March at the Country Music Hall of Fame. We rotate where we meet every two months. Kroger is a part of the Roundtable as well as Comcast, DHL, CMT, DaVita Healthcare, Music City Center and Nashville Renaissance Hotel. Each meeting has a different theme. The first one was recycling and the next one is going to be food recovery. We are going to be talking about how companies can recover or share excess food that’s edible with different community groups around the city."

Because of your focus on the next generation and education, it seems like part of your mission is empowering youth.

“That’s right. They represent the next generation of leaders. Youth are the inheritors of all of our plans. They bring an enormous amount of energy and creativity to the picture. And people listen to them because they are not tied by any political motivation, they just really care and they want to help. They are seeing how wasteful humans can be, but they are also seeing how good humans can be – that we are not just the problem but that we are all collectively the solution.”

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