Austin Roberts, 6, walked over to a 5-gallon plastic bucket, popped the lid, and dumped in leftovers from his after-school meal at the Simpson Recreation Center in Philadelphia’s Frankford section. He placed the plastic and cardboard trash into a separate bin.

All Austin really understands is that he’s following the rules, he confided. But the big picture is that the Northwood Academy Charter School student is helping the environment.

Any uneaten food from the chicken salad, roll, applesauce, and salad served to Austin and 27 other students one day last week during an after-school program is destined to become soil for local community gardens under a new composting program by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Hint: Kids are dumping salad into that compost that will help grow more salad, perhaps for more appreciative diners.

Parks and Recreation serves 2.1 million meals to youth each year through summer camps and 120 after-school programs, and up to 200,000 meals to older adults. Meals range from breakfast and lunch served at the camps to later meals served during the after-school and older-adult programs.

All the waste from discarded food adds up.

Officials estimated each of the city’s 156 rec centers generates nearly a ton of food waste a year. Parks and Recreation launched a program in September to collect food waste from 25 of the centers. The rest will be folded in over the next four years, said Daniel Lawson, the department’s sustainability director.

The waste will eventually be taken to a former Parks and Recreation maintenance yard on the 5600 block of Rising Sun Avenue. There, Bennett Compost, a city-based business, is building a facility that can not only handle vegetable waste but also meat and dairy through an aeration process that ensures compost piles rise to a temperature of 140 degrees for 72 consecutive hours to kill any pathogens. Wood chips and leaves will be added to facilitate breakdown.

Currently, Bennett is taking the waste to one of its existing compost facilities.

“We’ve been looking for a way to deal with our organic wastes,” Lawson said, “specifically our food waste that’s coming out of our recreation centers. It’s just one big footprint of waste that we’ve been able to identify, especially as being the second-largest distributor of meals to youth and then even also the older adults in the city.”

The School District serves the most meals to kids but does not have a food-waste recycling program.

The rec center food recycling program will not cost the city anything, Lawson explained.

Bennett plans to haul the waste weekly from each center to the Rising Sun Avenue facility for composting. The company, chosen through a competitive process, must return 75 cubic yards of the compost back to community gardens or farms within the city. That equates to about 40 tons.

Bennett will keep the remainder for resale as an organic fertilizer.

“It’s meant to be a zero dollar exchange of services and space,” Lawson said. “The city just hasn’t seen before, and I don’t know of a lot of other cities in the region or in the country that have done something like this with their rec departments. We’re hoping that it serves as some inspiration and a model to replicate.”

Parks and Recreation does recycle food at big events, such as the Philadelphia Marathon and Broad Street Run, when the waste is taken to the department’s Fairmount Park Organic Recycling Center. But that facility is not built to process ongoing food waste.

Lawson said Parks and Recreation started auditing how food is wasted at the centers in 2017. The pandemic forced the facilities to shut down in 2020, but as business resumed, Lawson said officials were eager to launch the plan.

He estimates a ton of food is wasted at each center annually that could be recycled. Some of it comes from, when, say, a child takes only a bite of an apple or sandwich, and tosses the rest (any unopened or unused meals get donated).

The department is using two grants, one from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for $50,000 and $90,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to make improvements at the composting facility, pay a sustainability specialist, and hire someone to keep data on the operation.

Lawson said the specialist will help the centers know best how to separate food waste from trash. Children will learn, for example, not to throw the remains of a sandwich into the recycling bin with the plastic wrap still attached.

Accurate data collection is vital to track how much food is being properly composted vs. thrown away with the trash.

Separately, the city’s Office of Sustainability has launched a program to reduce food waste at restaurants through the Philadelphia Food Waste Business Challenge. In the challenge, six initial businesses have agreed to work with the office and Center for EcoTechnology (CET) to further Philadelphia’s goal of achieving zero food waste by 2035. Businesses include Bar Hygge, Birchtree Catering, Earth – Bread + Brewery, Musi BYOB, the Random Tea Room, and Weckerly’s Ice Cream.

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Tim Bennett, a Temple graduate and founder of Bennett Compost, the partner in the Parks and Rec program, said his company has scaled up to tackle food waste since it started 12 years ago and can handle the volume from the recreation centers.

Based in Hunting Park, Bennett Compost picks up 5-gallon buckets of food waste weekly from 5,500 households for a fee. In the spring, customers get 10 gallons of compost for personal use. Bennett has its own composting site in Hunting Park as well as a contract with a compost facility in Montgomery County. It sells a range of compost products online and at farmers markets.

Back at the Simpson Rec Center, supervisor Tammy Harrity looked on approvingly as Skylar Sanchez, 7, and Kole West, 10, got their leftovers in the right place.

“We started the week of Sept. 13,” Harrity said. “It took the first two weeks to get the kids on track. But we now have some who are really trying hard. The majority of them are now getting it.”