How Las Vegas, Food Cowboys and Oshkosh Work Toward Zero-Waste Food

posted in: Nature and Budgets

Do you remember as a kid hearing your parents tell you to clean off your plate, along with “Just think of all those starving children in (you fill in the country)”.  And in the back of your mind you’re thinking “Well then send this food to them, I’m not eating it!”

It's time to seek zero-waste food practices...

The current dinner table conversations may have changed, but the issue of wasted food is still with us.  Wasted food happens to be one of my triggers, especially since it means wasted money. Ask anyone who has totally enjoyed my unique meals made out of some concoction from stray leftovers, produce and whatever else is available in the fridge.  

There's a lot of good tomato on these tomatoes.Did you know that each year 43 billion pounds of America’s food supply rots in garbage piles? Every time I see the produce person at our local grocery store sorting out perfectly good tomatoes or apples because of some tiny imperfection, I keep asking why there can’t be some arrangement where this food is given to the shelters or other hunger relief groups.  Or why can’t there be a bin where these produce waifs have a second change at a discounted rate for consumers who would love to buy them?  Usually I’m told about some regulation that  skips through my mind and still doesn’t compute or make real sense. 

The Food CowboysWhile reading my “Fast Company” magazine stories about the “100 Most Creative People in Business 2014”, I was excited to learn there is now an app for eliminating wasted food!  In 2012, the Gordon Brothers helped found Food Cowboy, a web-based application that matches truckers and shelters. If some food is heading for the dumpster, it can quickly be redirected to appropriate new homes.  Now a simple text will find a home for all those fresh and edible produce orphans, even if it happens to be a grateful composter or farmer. I love it when innovation, technology and reducing waste all come together.

Serving Those In Need...That’s encouraging news about fresh food, but what about all those people who did not clean their plates?  Or all the other wasted food scraps from the restaurants, college dining halls, nursing homes, hotels, or casinos? 

By now you have probably figured out I enjoy quirky stories, so get this. If you happen to frequent Las Vegas a few times a year, the next time you enjoy those tasty strips of bacon at your breakfast buffet, it’s very possible that those bacon strips may actually be “related” to that food you left on your plate during your last trip to Las Vegas.  Huh??

Meet the Nevada HogmanBob Combs, a food recycling visionary and pig farmer, came up with a brilliant win-win recycling plan decades ago with his RC Farms pig farm in northern Las Vegas. Realizing there are thousands of pounds of wasted food scraps each day (estimated at 1 lb per person per day from the casino hotels) and 2500 hungry pigs on his hog farm, he figured why not work out a deal.  The ingenious recycling result was and continues to be the basic recycling of the hotel buffet food scraps as feed for the hogs and then eventually those hogs ending up back on the buffet –  I mean as pork and bacon.  Well, as they say, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”



So, if it’s true that the house always wins, at least in this case it’s a win-win. The commercial savings for the hotels is huge, when you consider the reduced disposal costs, hauling fees, landfill fees, taxes, labor costs and overall convenience.

The UW Oshkosh BiodigesterActually, according to the EPA website, recovering food scraps for animal feed is not a new concept. Nor is this type of food waste recycling a new concept for other uses and innovation.  Take my alma mater, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (UWO), which tends to be on the cutting edge when it comes to sustainability. UW Oshkosh, through a partnership with Sanimax (a pioneer in recycling since 1881), has developed a gigantic state-of-the-art Biodigester.  Isn’t that a wildly vivid term?

Zero WasteYou guessed it, all those food scraps from the university dining halls, grass clippings from the grounds and other agricultural plant waste are fed into this gigantic chamber (the Biodigester), which happens to be the first of its kind in the western hemisphere.  And here’s the recycling beauty of the story. Not only is the released biogas captured and reused for heat and electricity for the campus, but the remainder is reused for compost on local farms. The result?  ZERO WASTE.  Is this brilliant or what??

Check out the video created by the students at UW Oshkosh.


Now if we could only find our way to a zero-waste food budget.

Below, are some ideas, from my clients and workshop participants, for saving money on the grocery bills and meals.

Weekly Menu Planner1)      Everyone’s favorite seems to be having a planned menu for the week. Some base it around coupons, discounts, or sales for the week, others factor in food still available in the freezer, fridge, or cabinets or recent cravings.  Either way, they all walk into the store with a plan.

2)      Let the partner who’s best at staying focused, and doesn’t get easily distracted, do the general food shopping (from the menu generated grocery list).  Usually that person is in and out like a flash.

3)      Know your family (or yourself). If they eat leftovers the rest is easy. If not, modify the portions for the current meal. Some folks also like to make enough for a second (modified portioned) meal and freeze it for later.

4)      Buy only what you need. Many East Coast shoppers, still used to the European style of going to the “market” each day, often buy only enough for the meal that day and possibly the next and then use up the food, especially while it is still fresh. 

Plant an Indoor Herb Garden5)      Even though this may seem more expensive, I’ve seen enough people buy the bulk food quantities from the warehouses, only to throw away piles of wilted celery, slimy cucumbers or oranges hard as a rock and much more.  In the end, the bargain price for that three pack or jumbo size was not a bargain.

6)      Gardening (even if just a small patio style with herb pots) is a great way to have fresh produce. You probably already know about the benefits of good organic mulch from bark and wood chips.  Many municipalities give away mulch (from trimmed trees) for free to the residents if you pick it up.  Mulching is a great way to save on watering, weeding, and fertilizing, plus improving the soil.

Now even if you don’t have an App, a Biodigester or Hogs, and even if we can’t yet achieve the zero-waste food practices we seek, remember there are always lots of sites and suggestions for eliminating wasted food.


About The Author
Judy Lawrence - financial counselor,money coach and best-selling author.Judy Lawrence, M.S. Ed., is a financial counselor and money coach in Albuquerque, NM, the founder of and the author of the best-selling book “The Budget Kit: Common Cents Money Management Workbook 6th Ed,” in print for more than three decades with more than 425,000 copies sold. Judy shares fundamental money management tools, concepts and behavioral psychology developed and gleaned over the past 30 years from sitting at thousands of kitchen tables (physically and virtually) and guiding people toward a healthy relationship with money.


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