It’s high time you met Edwin Marty, Austin’s first ever Sustainable Food Policy Manager.
Edwin’s job is complicated, to say the least. He’s spearheading an effort to bring diverse city departments, neighborhoods, and food system stakeholders together to plant policies that make healthy food in Austin accessible, affordable, and safe for all Austinites. As you can imagine, this is no small feat. In fact, there are at least 18 entities within the City of Austin working with food in some capacity, not to mention the countless food service businesses, growers, and people to feed. But Edwin is taking it all in stride, and has hit the ground running in his new role by helping to publish Austin’s first State of the Food System Report to get a lay of Austin’s food landscape before improving upon.
The beautifully designed 22 page report opens with a simple question: “What does a sustainable food system look like?” It goes on to examine the four components of Austin’s food system (growing, selling, eating, and recovering) and highlights city & private efforts currently in action. The report is chock-full of cool food stats and marks the culmination of a collaborative effort of over 50 individuals and organizations. It’s truly a must-read for anyone attempting to navigate Austin’s complex food system.
Charting a Path Forward
With the light of the Food System report to guide the way, Austin’s food system challenges seem a bit less murky. It’s clear that we need to increase local agricultural production, decrease food waste, create a more just and equitable food system, find a way to feed hungry people, and motivate folks to eat healthier. No big deal right?
Edwin stops here to acknowledge that perhaps the greatest challenge ahead will be to do each of these things in ways that cater to Austin’s diverse population. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for our food system’s problems, and Edwin is wary of parachuting solutions to perceived problems into communities that may need something else entirely.
That’s why the Office of Sustainability is piloting what Edwin calls “neighborhood food system planning,” a hyper-localized method of mapping out the best food route forward for each distinct part of the city. Inspired by Vancouver’s Neighborhood Food Networks, Edwin and his team (including a squad of graduate students from The University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs) plan to lay out each neighborhood’s food assets and conduct interviews and forums in order to develop priorities that can be broken up into context-appropriate plans with manageable timelines, starting in the Rundberg area. Edwin emphasizes that the first and most important step here is listening- reaching out to community members to find out what their real needs and wants are, rather than simply dropping a community garden on the corner and calling it a day.
grow, share, prepare, recover.
In a healthy food system, no resources go to waste, and keeping organic scraps out of the landfill goes hand-in-hand with getting healthy food to hungry people. To this end, Edwin is on a mission to help local restaurants and other food service businesses develop their organics diversion plans as Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance organics diversion deadlines start kicking in. Since these businesses will have to compost soon why not get started now?
Edwin is working on ways to minimize the potential speed bumps that will come with universal commercial composting and make the process as easy as possible for food service operations. Top ideas include bringing in compost pulpers to make the process cleaner, establishing shared composting systems for food service businesses located close together, and fostering symbiotic partnerships between grocery stores and restaurants so that certain unsellable (but perfectly edible) produce can be used by chefs.
The fact that every foodservice operation in Austin will be mandated to composting by the end of 2018 begs another important question: where will all that scrapple go? Although centralized composting (you know, where organics are trucked to remote facilities for high-volume processing) will be a big part of the solution, Edwin hopes that we will take major steps to grow Austin’s community composting infrastructure within the city limits to keep a significant amount of those food scraps close to home. He notes the fact that the city has already eased regulations on urban farms and offers financial incentives for backyard composters, making it easier for folks to create compost where they live.
The next frontier? Edwin says he wants to explore the possibility of using vacant city lots as sites for compost windrows. Of course, this would require employing appropriate technology to minimize smell and pests. Edwin mentions the possibility of investing in large compost turners, like the Earth Tub, for these sites. He also hopes to initiate a study to determine just how much compost Austin’s existing urban growing spaces could create and use- a key question for building up our community composting systems.
During our interview I learned that Edwin is seriously passionate about compost- he even wrote a play about it in grad school! He laments the lack of education about home composting and the high rates of contamination often seen in small compost systems. In his words, a compost pile is like a crop on a farm- it must be carefully tended to and can fail if not looked after properly. To beef up our city’s local composting chops, Edwin envisions a subscription service where home composters can rent both compost sensors and thermometers to track carbon, nitrogen, water and temperature in a pile. He’s also a huge fan of chickens, and encourages residents with backyard space to adopt a few of these feathery composting machines. There may even be a rebate program for chicken owners coming soon. Furthermore, Edwin wants to expand educational initiatives (like the compost classes offered by Austin Resource Recovery) and continue getting folks excited about composting. I vote that we dust off his old grad school compost play and put it to good use!
We want to hear what you think about these efforts to map and improve the way we grow, share, prepare, and recover food in Austin. What have you seen work in other cities like Vancouver? How are you getting involved?
You can learn more about what Edwin and The Office of Sustainability is up to here.