Downtown lifestyle leads to less waste

As entrepreneurs launch new ventures and northeast Indiana charts its roadmap to 1 million residents, part of the challenge is reducing waste in local businesses and households.

It's a challenge that Downtown Fort Wayne resident Jodi Leamon knows well.

There is only one landfill in Allen County, and to avoid running out of space in it or making it toxic with hazardous chemicals, the Allen County Solid Waste Management District (ACSWMD), where Leamon works, was formed in the early 1990s.

Its primary goal is reducing how much food and product waste people and businesses create in the first place.

As a Waste Reduction Consultant for Businesses, Leamon has been working with local leaders to cut waste and costs for companies at the same time. But her philosophy isn't confined to the working sphere; it's something she practices daily in her routine as a West Central Neighborhood resident.

Living and working downtown, Leamon and her husband walk and bike for many of their transportation needs. She buys local food at the Fort Wayne Farmers Market on Saturdays. And as Fort Wayne grows, she's working to unite citizens around effectively managing food waste, too.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Leamon to learn more about her downtown lifestyle and how her waste reduction efforts are shaping the future of northeast Indiana.

IFW: How long have you lived in Fort Wayne?

I am from Fort Wayne. I got my undergrad in biology at the University of North Carolina, and my graduate degree in environmental sciences at the University of Chicago.

I’ve moved all around the country and done different stuff. But about 7-8 years ago, I moved back to Fort Wayne, and I think it was the perfect time. It was a great time to take everything I learned everywhere else and apply it here.

I always say that in some of the other places I’ve been—the east coast and west coast—I’m preaching to the choir. Here, it was the perfect time to be sort of a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and make more of a difference.

I love what’s going on here now and being able to contribute to growing the community and improving all of our lives however I can.

IFW: When you moved back, did you immediately choose West Central?

JL: I moved first just off downtown, up in the Edgewater and Columbia area. Then I met my husband. So, as soon as we got married, we got an apartment in West Central, and then we bought a home there just about three years ago.

We’re on Nelson Street between Washington and Jefferson.

West Central is a historic, communal neighborhood in walking distance of all the amenities downtown.

IFW: What’s living in West Central like?

JL: It’s such a fun community. We have porch parties every Friday. People take care of each other. If somebody’s sick, or if somebody needs something, there’s a network and a community that helps each other, which is nice.

I think coming from Chicago especially opened me up to be interested in an urban setting. We also did a lot of urban ecology in grad school, and it’s actually a way of living that creates a smaller footprint, contrary to what you might think.

My husband and I both work downtown. We can walk and bike to work, and we can walk to basically all the establishments that we frequent, except for shopping. But I can get almost everything I need at the farmers market now on Saturdays.

We live really small, and we don’t have to drive as much. We don’t have to expend a whole lot of resources. We do everything we need to do down here.

IFW: Tell us more about what you do at the Allen County Solid Waste Management District.

Our mission is really reducing waste first, and then educating people and businesses on ways that they can minimize the amount of waste that they send to the landfill, whether that’s reusing or recycling.

You can recycle some of the simpler things at your curbside, and that’s not us. But a lot of people don’t have access to curbside recycling if they’re in apartments or trailer homes or other municipalities that are not within the city, so we operate six drop off sites for community recycling where people can take those items.

We also operate drop off sites for some of the less common items like electronics, used oil and petroleum products, lightbulbs, and batteries. And we operate a Tox Away Day once a year where people can bring their household hazardous materials.

We also do a lot of outreach and education on how to avoid creating that waste in the first place. What you can do year-round to keep those things out of the waste stream?

I specifically advise businesses on how to reduce their waste. Businesses pay for their trash, and pay for their recycling, so the less of those materials that they’re producing, the more money they’re saving. A lot of people don’t automatically think of it that way. They think of it as another expense, but it’s not necessarily.

I can go in and do a waste audit or look at the material going out of a business, and see how that can be reduced or done in a landfill diversion manner and a safer manner, too.

IFW: You’ve also worked on programs specifically for food waste. Tell us about those.

Food waste has been a focus for us for the last couple of years. It was something we wanted to work with, but didn’t have a lot of infrastructure for it here at the time. But we decided to go ahead and start using our same philosophy for everything else, which is reduce. That’s the first step.

In October of 2016, we had our first food forum. It was just an open meeting for anyone and everyone involved in the food industry, from producers, to restaurants, to consumers and families. Anyone who has anything to do with food.

We really didn’t know what to expect. But we had a huge turnout. It basically got us going.

IFW: What are some of the challenges to food waste reduction in Allen County, and how is the County overcoming those?

JL: We don’t have a curbside food pickup place in Allen County. We don’t even have a drop-off place for food waste right now. So we are still approaching it from the standpoint of reduce, and then we are encouraging home composting on the far end of the spectrum.

We’re working with local charities, too.

We helped the Community Harvest Food Bank connect with farmers, and now they’re doing a gleaning program, so that’s going out into the fields and collecting produce after the harvest when it’s no longer cost-effective for the farmer to go get those last few things. But it makes a big difference to people who rely on the food bank.

The other thing that synergistically came together the same time we started working on food waste was the EPA released some new studies and some new tips they had been working on for several years. Pretty simple stuff. Just tips for recipes and food storage and avoiding overbuying. We have some simple tools for food waste reduction that we hand out for families, and we do lunch and learns, too.

We did a collaboration with Cinema Center and Bravas a couple months ago for an Anthony Bourdain documentary about food waste. That got a really good response. Bravas served some awesome food that was made with excess items that didn’t end up getting served other places.

Leamon works at the City/County building at 1 E. Main St.

IFW: That’s cool. What are some of the simple ways that people can reduce food waste in their homes?

JL: People tend to buy routine and overbuy. So planning meals. Freezing stuff. Cutting the loaf of bread in half, and sticking half of it in the freezer. Simple stuff like that.

We also have little stickers that go on boxes, bins, or shelves in your fridge for “eat this first” stuff, so your leftovers and your produce. It’s great for people with kids, and it’s just me and my husband at home. But when you see that sticker, you’re like, “Oh, that yogurt expires in a couple days. I need to eat that.”

People sometimes think reducing food waste is too hard or too overwhelming, like, “I can’t be perfect and do all of this.” But we really try to focus on the small simple changes that add up to make a big difference.

IFW: It sounds like the ideas are catching on, too. The County's first food forum in 2016 was so successful that you had a second food forum in January 2017. Tell us about that.

JL: We did an expanded version of the original meeting. We had a panel discussion. We had Kroger, the EPA, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and Waste Management. Just different representatives of the big picture and what they are doing in other places that give a glimpse of what we could be doing here if we got together and made these connections.

So we just had a huge networking session. The synergy was almost too easy. Once people heard about the ideas to reduce food waste and got together, it just spread.

IFW: The County's next public meeting about food waste will be at a breakout session during a March 12 conference for the newly created Northeast Indiana Local Food Network. In addition to attending that, how else can people get involved?

JL: We post tips on our social media, and we have a page of resources on our website. Get in touch with us if you want someone to come out and talk to any kind of group about food waste, too.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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