OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Food Cycle: Tackling a Growing Problem

Solana Center catalyzes local solutions to food waste diversion in the San Diego region, connecting agri-community and urban centers.

Photo of Jessica Toth
5 2

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Solana Center for Environmental Innovation

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Farm associations (San Diego Farm Bureau, CFDA’s Healthy Soils Initiative), large company (Jimbo’s grocers), small NGO (San Diego Food System Alliance, ProduceGood gleaners), large NGO (Feeding San Diego), governments (County of San Diego, CalRecycle)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Encinitas, CA (within San Diego region)

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Agricultural land within the unincorporated areas of San Diego County

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Solana Center has been serving San Diego County with environmental education and solutions for over 35 years. The organization is headquartered in Encinitas, an environmentally-progressive city of 63,000 residents within the San Diego region.

Solana Center’s office is located adjacent to a former burn site and landfill, which has been closed since the 1970s. Our office and the closed landfill are on County land. It is striking to view the off-limits open space, which has cover growth and 50-foot trees, as unredeemable land. This contaminated site makes a compelling connection to our work – converting inedible food scrap into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that has the ability to replenish depleted lands.

There are 5,700 small farms throughout the County, covering 242,000 acres of land in agricultural production. Solana Center provides technical assistance to regional farmers on regenerative agricultural practices across San Diego County.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

San Diego has the largest number of small farms of any county in the US. Because of the size and number of these farms, they are not far from urban centers. The close proximity of agricultural areas with commercial and residential areas results in relatively short distances between points of organic waste generation and growing sites. The region also has the most certified organic growers, each requiring natural fertilizer and soil amendment. In addition, owing to its moderate temperatures, the San Diego area has year-round growing seasons. These characteristics make this an ideal location to establish a closed-loop regional system, taking organic waste from population centers to be composted and land-applied at produce-growing sites.

The community is oriented to nature and outdoor activities. It encompasses surfers, dog-lovers, hiking trails, community-supported agriculture, students learning about watershed pollution’s impact on oceans and incorporating sharing tables in school cafeterias. Grocers source produce locally and organically. People see a clear connection between protecting soil and what they eat.

Food is fresh, often harvested just days before it’s eaten. Food is abundant, locally-grown and inexpensive, relative to other parts of the country.

Meanwhile, there is insufficient processing capacity to properly dispose of the half million tons of food waste generated in the region annually. Local commercial composting and digestion facilities can handle less than 5% of the growing need for organics recycling.

The culture is can-do.

Solana Center established a food waste drop-off program a few years ago. Interest has never ceased. Participants pay for us to compost their scraps and bear the inconvenience of dropping off when they could simply discard for free in their trash. They love being part of a co-operative mid-scale composting initiative that supports the community and the environment. This is the spirit of the place.

In San Diego County, 1 in 7 people are food insecure. Because so much food is grown here, and there is significant waste and need, many partner organizations are available to bridge gaps through gleaning and food rescue as well as alliances and County-led initiatives.

While there is great interest in making positive impact on the environment and social justice, people in this region do not know what to do. The issue of food waste is too big and broad to tackle without a systemic approach that will involve all stakeholders – public and private, large and small.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The features that challenge the food system in our region are interrelated: no one aspect drives the others. The obstacles are addressed below within the context to the six themes identified in the Food System Toolkit.


This region generates a half million tons of food waste annually. Food recovery organizations work to rescue edible foods. The remaining food scrap is largely disposed in the region’s landfills. There are no commercial facilities to handle all of the region’s organic waste. The result is the release of significant greenhouse gases by landfilling.

Another environmental cost to the current system is soil depletion. When produce is harvested, minerals and nutrients are taken from the soil; just as when aluminum is mined from the ground to make a soda can. Discarding food waste in landfills is analogous to throwing away that soda can: the minerals are lost forever.


Without sufficient commercial processing capacity for inedible foods within the region, local jurisdictions are looking for solutions 150 miles from the source of generation. This is costly to waste generators – retailers, households, and industry alike – as well as to haulers. And an externality of concern is the long-term toll on roads and traffic.

The region has low tipping fees – just $40 to throw ONE TON of waste in the landfill. Meanwhile, the cost to convert a ton of organic material into compost is approximately $90. Clearly the costs of lost resources as well as the deleterious impact on land and air aren’t accounted for.


Today, local and regional government policies discourage recycling organic material. Lengthy processes, high hurdles, and prohibitive permitting fees have prevented many promising projects in recent years. There is little enthusiasm for facilities to be located in politicians’ jurisdictions. Because the true environmental costs aren’t built into disposal, there is little incentive to promote local management of food waste and use of composting and anaerobic digestion by-products.


The single biggest behavioral challenge regarding the linearity of our food system is the culture of single-use disposability of materials. Generators of food waste do not bear the true costs of soil depletion and mineral disposal. Somehow, we have doubled the amount of food we waste since the 1970s.


In our region, technology use for organics exchange is nascent. There is much to be gained still from the sharing of information to connect supply and demand of surplus food. Without such platforms, it is difficult to cultivate circularity and reuse.


Healthy soil begets healthy diets for people. First, we must connect edible foods with people in need. It is unacceptable that 1 in 5 children in San Diego County are food insecure. Just 5% of today’s food waste would end food insecurity. Especially in our region, where healthy food is so plentiful, this situation must be resolved.

Future (2050)

If we remain on our current course, natural resources will be depleted. In 30 years, the impact on air, water, and land will be intractable. In addition, food will be scarce and expensive.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

By approaching the food system as a cycle, many of today’s challenges will be addressed. Most of the current challenges will be ameliorated by building awareness of environmental and social problems associated with food waste. These issues are considered within the context of the six themes.


Food Cycle introduces regenerative thinking into the food system. Instead of discarding food scrap in landfills, in our envisioned world, resources are captured for renewal, restoration, and growth. The more than 270,000 MTCO2e (metric tons of greenhouse gases) that are emitted each year from food waste in San Diego County will be avoided. In addition, the estimated carbon sequestration opportunity on all 242,000 acres of land in agricultural production in the County is over 11M MTCO2e. Overall, our vision would result in major benefits to the natural environment.


When the cost of proper disposal of organic material is double the cost of landfilling, how can we ask businesses to operate against their best economic interests in the absence of other forces? The true environmental costs of exhausting natural resources will need to be built into future systems. Regenerative practices – such as extracting remaining resource value from food waste in the form of compost – are a natural means of renewal and reuse that have value to the community.


Regional government is working on changes to policy and local ordinances to encourage operations that recycle organic material. In addition, California state legislation has enforceable goals for food waste diversion from landfills that requires local jurisdictions to implement programs. Our vision accounts for these new levers to drive change.


There is trending awareness of the deleterious impacts of wasted food. This is increasing positive behavior change and community initiatives. Today, sharing food with those in need is less common than wasting it. But we see this changing in the future as Food Cycle builds understanding of the value inherent in our foods.


Technology is central to the vision of a closed-loop food system. Connecting supply and demand for wasted foods will accelerate change that enables waste prevention. The platforms are being developed and employed today. They will be integral to efficient logistics and communication in the future.


Collaboration among food rescue organizations promoting food donation and healthy diets will continue and escalate as mainstream awareness grows. Our vision results in production of healthy produce within the San Diego region as well as ongoing collaboration with food recovery organizations.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Imagine a region in which local produce is grown in soil nourished with organic nutrients from the community it feeds.

It is our vision to resolve the fractured relationships in the food system. The system has become disconnected in a number of places, caused by differing perspectives, logistics pressures, and incomplete economic models. In the redesigned world, all organic material will be considered a commodity resource with intrinsic value, whether it is nourishing produce directly from farmland, prepared foods from a restaurant, excess edible food for recovery, or remaining nutrient-rich food scrap. To get there, we will need to bridge today’s gaps to succeed in fixing the food system.

Food Cycle will demonstrate a systemic approach to returning the minerals in inedible food scrap to regional farmlands. Food scrap from restaurants and grocers will be composted at agricultural properties with soils needing to be amended through the application of naturally nutrient-rich compost.

We see a day when the half a million tons of food being landfilled in San Diego County each year will be recognized as containing valuable minerals from the earth that are of limited supply. Surplus food presents an opportunity to feed people in need and to feed the soil; it is not a by-product of business to discard. And everyone in the community will be part of the change to realize the vision.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Today, the food system is linear from production to disposal. This way of thinking breaks with nature’s model of eco-systems and regeneration. In the future, the end of the process must link with the start of the process.


Food Cycle will model a system that returns large quantities of inedible food scrap to local agricultural lands. In addition to keeping valuable nutrients from being landfilled, Food Cycle will impact upstream decision-making driving greater food waste prevention and surplus food donation.

San Diego’s community is largely fed by food from local farms. Produce sold at grocery stores and served at restaurants is sourced locally whenever possible. We love farm-to-table. Now is the time for table-to-farm to become a reality. We believe that by 2050 this will be a necessity. And San Diego County is a great region to demonstrate the potential impact on environmental factors and pricing frameworks. Others of the six identified themes will influence Food Cycle’s outcomes, such as policy change, cultural acceptance, and technology adoption. By its nature, a closed-loop food system, such as Food Cycle, will drive improvement in healthy food availability.

By implementing regenerative practices and providing nourishing food, the most significant outcomes for the region will be to the environment and social justice.


California state requirements stipulate that San Diego County will need to prevent over 350,000 tons of food waste from being landfilled by 2025 in order to be in compliance. Prevention and recovery must be a big part of the solution to achieve this mandate; however, there is no question that food waste recycling, through composting and digestion, also need to step up.

The San Diego area is the largest California population center without commercial facilities to manage organic waste properly. The silver lining in our unenviable situation is that an initial focus on prevention and reduction of waste must happen. The community can no longer feel that discarding food waste in the trash is an acceptable means of disposal. The solution of trucking material hundreds of miles away carries too much cost, which the jurisdictions and constituents will have to bear.

So, state policy will drive local policy to look for solutions to surplus food.

Food Cycle: Tackling a Growing Problem

Food Cycle will take food scrap from food-generating businesses to be composted at agricultural properties with soils needing to be amended through the application of naturally nutrient-rich compost. In addition to avoided greenhouse gas emissions through diversion, this system will capitalize on the ability of land-applied compost to sequester carbon. The San Diego region is the perfect place to demonstrate the potential of Food Cycle, given the adjacency of commercial and agricultural sectors in this region. Throughout the food system, focus will remain on building awareness and education around the value of food scrap and importance of landfill diversion. To be successful, all stakeholders will need to work in concert – farmers, food generators, food rescuers, consumers, haulers, and jurisdictions.

We know this is possible. Five years ago, a large quick-service restaurant asked Solana Center to find a place to dispose its food waste from its Encinitas store. We created a program in which the inedible food scrap was transported by the local waste hauler to a 67-acre agricultural site with severely depleted soil less than one mile away. We taught the farm to create compost, which was found to be five times more nutrient-rich than the finished soil amendments they had been trucking in from 25 miles out-of-town. Such a program could not have been established without all stakeholders embracing the concept. It was a truly innovative approach. For this program, Solana Center was recognized by the California governor’s office with the highest environmental honor.

Scope and Environmental Impact

Our broader goal is to replicate the successful elements of this vision on the County’s 5,700 small farms, which grow over 450 million pounds of produce annually. All half a million tons of annual food waste can eventually be kept from our landfills. The estimated carbon sequestration opportunity on all 242,000 acres of land in agricultural production in the County is over 11M MTCO2e.

Following regional implementation of a closed loop system from local farms to local grocers and back to farms, a model can be developed for other regions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report estimates that increased soil organic carbon content can mitigate 3+ Gt CO2e/year globally!

Impact on People and Place

Creating a truly circular food system will not only pay dividends for the environment, but in the process promote awareness of the value of our food. Education and awareness are the most self-reinforcing and irreversible means of making systemic change. All stakeholders must see the vision and possibilities in order to embrace change. To achieve change in the food system, each of the six interrelated aspects will play a role and be impacted. Food Cycle will test the feasibility and quantify the impact of this vision.

Why Now and Here?

Today we know that agricultural land is being depleted of nutrients without replenishment. Meanwhile, landfilling food waste causes environmental damage through the release of potent greenhouse gases as well as the loss of minerals that had been harvested from the soil. Recent reports and food waste campaigns are bringing these issues to mainstream consciousness. With awareness can come behavior change. Enthusiasm for our food waste drop-off program by early adopters has shown us that the confluence of messaging and our particular regional features makes this a good time and place to actualize the vision of Food Cycle. Regenerative agriculture practices are widely recognized as key to climate change reversal. San Diego County, with year-round growing seasons and the largest number of farms in any U.S. county, is the perfect place to prove the potential of a closed-loop regional ecosystem.

Designed to Scale and Replicate

By composting landfill-bound food waste on farmlands, this project will address two significant climate change triggers that have escalated in the last 20 years. First, poor soil management practices, which cause the loss of carbon content in soil, will be reversed with the application of nutrient-rich compost. Secondly, rather than landfilling food waste, nutrients that remain in the materials will be returned to the soil and potent greenhouse gas emissions will be avoided.

To address scalability, in the coming years, outside investment will be required. Until true environmental costs of the resources used for production and disposal are built into products, most natural climate solutions will need to be subsidized in some form. With Food Cycle, the use of compost as a natural fertilizer will allow farms to command higher prices for organically-certified products. And, we may find that the deferred cost of disposal from large food-generating businesses will help pay to scale the program. The entire community will also benefit from healthy local foods.

A network of partnerships in the community and extensive communication channels will be important to disseminating information about Food Cycle. Using these mechanisms, additional farm sites and food generators will join the program. A closed-loop regional food system will provide huge rewards for those who embrace it. By contrast, incremental change in individual sectors would not result in the same level of achievement for the community as our vision predicts.

We have witnessed the impact of successful outcomes to leverage our ability to affect policy change. Elected officials will be important for supporting and driving Food Cycle. They can influence many of the policies and fee structures if they want to incentivize future widespread adoption.

Food Cycle has the potential to become widely adopted and have large scale impact. It can provide a viable means for addressing the problems of climate change and food insecurity caused by food waste.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
View more

Attachments (7)

OpEd Food Waste (Union-Tribune, 2016).pdf

Opinion-Editorial piece in Union-Tribune (2016) about California state legislation and diverting food waste from our landfills

Managing Food Waste Booklet (Jan 2019).pdf

Solana Center booklet about food waste management programs in San Diego County

Edible & Nonedible Food Exchange article (BioCycle, 2015).pdf

Article in BioCycle magazine (2015) about composting pre- and post-consumer food scraps

Composting at Special-Needs Residential Home article (BioCycle, 2016).pdf

Article in BioCycle magazine (2016) about composting program at a special-needs residential home

Compost County article (San Diego Reader, 2015).pdf

Article in San Diego Reader (2015) about the need for composting operations in San Diego County

Closing Food System Loop article (BioCycle, 2019).pdf

Article in BioCycle magazine (2019) about closing the food system loop

Solana Ctr - Farmers with Finished Compost.jpg

Farmers with finished compost made with food waste from a local restaurant


Join the conversation:

Photo of Giok P Chua

Waste Food Recycling is GOOD
Let followup soon

Photo of Jessica Toth

Thank you for your input, Giok!

View all comments