Fertile Soil: Growing the Movement for Zero Food Waste in Boston
The word “cero” in spanish means “zero,” and that’s the focus of this composting cooperative in Boston: moving the city towards zero food waste, and building stronger, more equitable communities in the process. The seeds of CERO were first planted at a meeting where local community members gathered to discuss how to improve recycling rates and create good jobs for marginalized communities. At the time Boston had an abysmal recycling and waste diversion rate of under 25%, and according to a 2015 study by the federal reserve bank of boston, white households had a median wealth of $247,500, and Dominicans and U.S. blacks had a median wealth of close to zero. CERO sought to combat that economic injustice head on by creating a diverse, bi-langual worker co-op connected with Boston’s working class and communities of color.
As worker-owner Josefina Luna says, “We started to think about green economy. The media talk[ed] all the time about green economy but we didn’t see any green jobs in our community… The first idea [was to] create jobs for the community, create better social development for the minority people, for the people who didn’t have the opportunities.” When the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection enacted a ban in 2014 that prohibits over 1,700 food businesses in the state from disposing of organic material with their trash, CERO was there to provide the solution.
The beauty of CERO is that it creates local “closed loop” systems for food, so that instead of disposing of food waste in dirty landfills that people have to live next to, they ensure that food is recycled back into soil that grows nourishing food for the community. And the model is working. So far the cooperative has prevented 11,867,122 lbs of food waste from going to landfills, and saved their customers $407,570 in trash hauling expenses!
A day in the life of a CERO worker-owner starts early. At 7am, Jonny Santos pulls up to his first customer.
Jonny is originally from the Dominican Republic and primarily speaks spanish. Of his work with CERO, Jonny explains, “It’s been 1 year and 5 months since I’ve been with CERO and since I joined the company my life—both personally and economically— has changed. At CERO I feel important and useful.”
The first stop for Santos is Mei Mei, a stylish Chinese-American restaurant that uses fresh local ingredients and is dedicated to being a good employer for the Boston community, and preventing as much food waste as possible.
Mei Mei is a family business. Meaning “Little Sister,” in Chinese, it is now run by the youngest in the family, Irene Li. From the beginning, the restaurant was on a mission. “For me, I figured that if we were going to be in this tough challenging industry, it would have to be because we were trying to make a difference,” said Li. “We didn’t want to be another average restaurant. A lot of them contribute to a lot of social problems. Can we instead use restaurants as an engine for change?” In order to live up to those values, Mei Mei serves farm-to-table food at a reasonable cost, provides employee education and empowerment trainings, and thanks to their partnership with CERO, they are doubling-down on food waste.
“When I got my first restaurant job I was pretty horrified by what I saw on a more commercial scale– recycling wasn’t happening, composting definitely wasn’t happening.” So at Mei Mei they make sure to repurpose food scraps (kale stems too tough for salad become a pesto or a perogi filling), donate what they can’t use, provide free or cheap food to employees through a wholesale program, and then whatever is left over goes into CERO’s compost bin.
Mei Mei and CERO’s partnership represents a perfect food loop– Mei Mei sources some of its produce directly from the very same local farms that use compost from its food waste. CERO makes sure that all those onion peels, carrot tops and apple cores that Mei Mei puts in the bin don’t go to waste, but turn into a rich compost to help grow the next crop of local fresh food that land on Mei Mei customers’ plates.
Mei Mei’s partnership with CERO not only helps grow a local food economy, but it’s helped them keep their costs down. “Not only is that good from a financial perspective, helps us show that you can buy ingredients selectively and still have manageable costs,” says Li. Not only does it make sense financially, it just feels right. It makes Mei Mei a place where people are proud to work,” says Li. “The world makes it very hard to live in alignment with our values, so if we can offer that in any small number of ways to our team that’s providing them some kind of harmony in their lives.”
After picking up food scraps at Mei Mei it’s time to head to Green City Growers. Founded in 2008, Green City Growers is an edible landscaping and urban farming company converting unused spaces to places where food is grown, revitalizing city landscapes and inspiring self-sufficiency. They install gardens in people’s homes, at restaurants, corporate offices, and grocery stores, and other–sometimes unexpected–urban spaces, like the top of Fenway park!
The company was founded by Jessie Banhazl. Banhazl wasn’t always an urban farming extraordinaire– before she founded Green City Growers she worked in reality TV, working behind-the-scenes of shows like “Wife Swap”, “Throwdown with Bobby Flay”, and “The Hills.” But Banhazl wanted a more meaningful career, and she realized that to have a sustainable and resilient cities, they need to, quite literally, go green. As Banhazl puts it, “[Green City Growers] creat[es] opportunities to see food growing in spaces where there wasn’t. It’s proven that it’s important for human beings to be around nature, and cities have moved away from that as a priority. We want to get that back into how cities are developed and built.” Green City Growers has a goal to create a regenerative, local food system throughout the country, and their partnership with CERO is an essential part of that system. Not only does CERO collect plant waste from over 100 Green City Growers locations, it also delivers the compost made from that waste for Green City Growers to enrich their soil with. Through its partnership with CERO, GCG has been able to compost 50,000 pounds of plant waste per year.
Green City Growers has a bit of an unusual service model. Banhazl calls it “edible landscaping.” GCG takes care of the maintenance, and their clients get to use the fruit of that labor however they like, whether for their cafeteria, restaurant, or corporate donations. Banhazl estimates that 5,000 pounds of produce a year is donated to food banks. They also provide education programs for both students and seniors, exposing city dwellers of all walks of life to the joys of growing your own food. As Banhazl states, “The intention [of Green City Growers] is to build a business model around sustainable and regenerative agriculture.” They want to change the business culture in the region, so that sustainability “is a priority for how business takes place.”
Next stop is the Daily Table, a non-for-profit grocery store aimed to provide affordable food options to underserved communities in Boston.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. wastes 30-40% of its food supply, and 31% of that food waste comes from retailers and consumers, who cumulatively waste a whopping 133 billion pounds of food per year (as of most recent data from 2010). This wastefulness is all the more shocking when paired with the fact that 11% of households across the United States are food insecure. The Daily Table is out to solve the problem of food waste and food insecurity in the Boston area in one elegant solution– collect donated food from growers, manufacturers and retailers, and offer them at discounted prices to lower income communities.
However, Daily Table is sometimes not able to distribute all the fresh food before it goes bad. That’s where CERO comes in. CERO collects the leftover food and composts it so that nothing goes to waste.
Waste-conscious businesses like Mei Mei, Green City Growers, and Daily Table show the promise of local, sustainable food systems rooted in social justice and equity. CERO’s role is to connect these efforts together in a loop that prevents waste while creating green jobs, healthy soil, and more vibrant communities. As the city of Boston unveils its Zero Waste Plan– to get the city to 80 percent diversion by 2035 and 90 percent diversion by 2050 from recycling and composting– organizations like CERO are the key not only to reaching these ambitious goals, but transforming Boston into a place where its workers and all its residents can thrive.