Rethinking food disposal with Baldor Food’s Thomas McQuillan

Peppers

If you’ve spent time in any major city in the northeast, chances are you’ve eaten something that has passed through the hands of Baldor Foods. Baldor is one of the largest privately held produce and specialty food distributor on the east coast.

Zero food to landfills

Delivering fresh food to thousands of restaurants, grocery stores, and wholesalers, however, isn’t the company’s greatest feat. In 2016, Baldor became a national leader in the movement to minimize food waste when it began using 100 percent of its produce, sending no food to landfills. Thomas McQuillan, Baldor’s vice president of corporate strategy, culture, and sustainability, believes you have the tools to eliminate your waste too.

“I’d like to challenge you to think that we can live in a world where we send zero food to landfills,” he began.

McQuillan speaking to a classroom
McQuillan speaks to students as part of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise’s weekly speaker series

In the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise’s weekly speaker series, McQuillan discussed Baldor’s food disposal philosophy and how it should motivate us to implement our own changes at home to turn uneaten food into assets, not trash.

Food waste is dangerous for the environment

The first landfill began operations in 1938 in Fresno, California. Since then, these facilities have been increasingly used as depositories for our food scraps and unfinished meals. Now, about a third of the food we produce ends up in a landfill.

We haven’t always used landfills to this extent, McQuillan explains. A few decades ago, “we used to feed most unwanted food to animals.”

The rising amount of food thrown away poses a problem because the decomposition process of organic matter in these facilities generates methane in large quantities. Significantly more dangerous for the environment than CO2, methane emissions make food waste a major contributor to America’s carbon footprint.

The solution? New initiatives for retailers, farms, and households. Because of the strides made by Baldor, McQuillan has become a key voice in advocating for these initiatives. His major recommendations are to reuse produce scraps in the creation of new foods and drinks, feed what humans cannot eat to animals, and compost half-eaten or spoiled food.

According to McQuillan, these initiatives are all pages in Baldor’s playbook. For example, the company resells food scraps generated from processing fruits and vegetables (rebranded as SparCs — scraps spelled backwards) to restaurants to be used for a variety of unique dishes and to farmers for animal feed.

Mcquillan presenting in front of a class

Changing cultural norms

The SparCs program, one of their major success stories, regularly diverts tons of produce from landfills. This is largely because so many arbitrary standards and cultural norms exist that necessitate that some portion of almost every piece of produce is removed before sale.

Celery sticks, for example, are expected to be cut to a specific length, so distributors without resale programs cut what they can from a given stalk and throw the rest out. Similar culture-driven disposal patterns occur at the farm level too. “Carrots need to be this long and that thin, and anything shorter, anything fatter will be discarded,” noted McQuillan.

Carrots

In McQuillan’s eyes, although it is critical that farms, retailers, restaurants, and other players improve their operations to keep food out of trash bins, significant change starts with consumers. For starters, consumers must start to demand “ugly” produce so farms and retailers don’t feel the need to throw it away. Additionally, consumers should start to reuse their own household scraps. With little time and effort, they can reuse carrot tops in soups, candy lime peels for desserts, or dehydrate and pulverize vegetable scraps to make blends to flavor other dishes.

These efforts won’t just help decrease our carbon footprint, McQuillan adds, but they’ll taste great too.

—Paul Russell ’19 is a writer for the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise

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