Imagine if food waste was a solution instead of a problem.
Schools lead the way to a regenerative food future by transforming food scraps into renewable energy and natural plant food.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small company (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.
Local school districts, teachers, students, and families;
Sustainable Renton (urban farm + gleaning/free grocery nonprofit);
Waste to Watts (nonprofit working to connect Impact with school districts);
Local farms + farmers
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
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?
King County, Washington
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
We chose King County because it’s our home. And home, for us, is more than just where we live. It’s where our children will forever be from. It’s the air, the water, the food and the soil that eventually make up our bodies. It’s the friends and neighbors that make our lives better. It’s the trees and mountains and lakes that shelter and inspire us. It both creates us and is created by us. And we have the power to shape its future for the better.
On top of that, King County is a place primed to make this vision a reality. Supportive public policies under a County Local Food Initiative have been in place since 2015. Environmental awareness and appreciation for all things local are already part of the culture. There are a good proportion of urban and rural spaces, so balancing the needs of each should be relatively easy.
Lastly, we can’t know what we know and do nothing. And while we can’t change the world, we can change ourselves. And, if we can help other people change, then that might be enough to make a real difference.
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.
King County cares about its natural resources. We prioritize parks, protect salmon, and preserve urban trees and greenbelts. We have a County Green Schools Program that helps students recycle better, conserve water, and reduce food waste. Although the rest of the state rejected it, in 2018, King County overwhelmingly approved a statewide carbon fee.
King County is a place where great ideas happen. We are the birthplace of Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon. We were first in the country to institute a $15 minimum wage and offer carbon credits to protect local forests. We gave the world grunge music, the down-filled jacket and the automatic carwash.
King County is eclectic. We are a mix of densely populated urban communities, tree-heavy suburbs, rural towns, forests, and open spaces. We are home to hipsters, immigrants, students, farmers, engineers, and retirees.
King County is growing. Despite the 2008 Recession, the County has seen steady increases in population for the past 20 years. Seattle and Bellevue are among the fastest growing cities in the country. Our economy is booming, with unemployment hovering around 3%.
King County loves food. We have 28 farmers markets, some of them operating year-round. The local restaurant scene offers everything from Thai, Japanese, and Indian to Northwest seafood, Teriyaki, stone-fired pizza, and Ethiopian. We make wine and microbrews in addition to over 100 different farm products.
King County is hopeful. We certainly have challenges – a lack of affordable housing, rising sea levels, budget shortfalls – but we are optimists. We believe in a future of cooperation and success for all people.
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.
Environment: Climate change is real, and it’s affecting us. Heavy rains are heavier, summers are warmer, floods are more frequent, and snowpack is declining. These trends are likely to continue into the next several decades.
In 2018 in King County, GHG emissions resulting from food consumption were second only to those generated by personal transportation. Food waste going to landfills is a significant factor in climate change and has been stubbornly persistent, despite efforts to reduce it.
Diets: Food insecurity and food deserts are realities for between 12 and 16% of King County households. Even if these families wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables, they might find that task impossible.
In addition to obstacles presented by food access challenges, many people don’t know that they aren’t eating healthy and/or don’t know what a healthy diet is. Many more believe – rightly or not – that they don’t have the time, money or skills to acquire and prepare healthy food.
Economics: Schools and farmers have tight budgets, and King County is an expensive place to live. Many people struggle to afford healthy food, and farms have to stretch dollars to survive through the winter. We have the same issues as other parts of the country with economic inflexibility and dependence on outside entities.
Culture: For many people in King County, their food and their experience of eating are completely divorced from the farmers, environment, soil, and people who produced it.
Although research has shown that a majority of people care about the environmental sustainability of the food they eat, many do not connect that idea with supporting local farmers.
Most people view food that is spoiled or stale as garbage instead of as a resource, both at home and when eating out.
We desperately need to increase our population-wide fruit and vegetable consumption if we hope to stave off the worst impacts of obesity and diet-related health problems.
Technology: King County has not been immune to the effects of agricultural consolidation, and the impact of emerging lab-grown meat technologies could be significant.
Policy: Schools lack the time/staff/will/incentive to implement local food policies.
Incentives or outright regulations around organic waste diversion could be strengthened or implemented.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Technology: HORSEs (High-solids Organic-waste Recycling System with Electrical output) are specially designed anaerobic digesters that have been scaled down to allow energy production and onsite food scrap/waste diversion. In short, tons of unused food go into the unit and organic plant food and renewable energy come out.
Culture: There is a paradigm shift from classifying food scraps as garbage to thinking about them as a resource. If schools are diverting and reusing their food waste, parents may be more likely to divert their home food scraps into King County curbside compost. Furthermore, restaurants that are diverting their unused food to the HORSE spread a message of sustainability to their customers, reaching even more people.
The HORSE also provides an opportunity to expose students to a wide variety of topics, including how food is grown and how it impacts their bodies. This helps develop a healthy eating culture that celebrates nutritious foods and debunks preconceived notions about fruits and vegetables.
Diets: These cultural shifts lead to dietary shifts as children become adults and embrace fruits and vegetables in a way that they might not have otherwise.
In this new environment, there are opportunities for school-based farmers’ markets, which could effectively destroy the barrier posed by food deserts and increase fruit and vegetable consumption by the entire community.
Economics: These dietary changes mean reduced health care costs in the long run and more demand for farmers’ products in the short run.
Schools find some financial breathing room through cost savings from producing their own energy and selling plant food to farmers.
Farmers find some financial breathing room by saving money on soil amendments and through partnerships in which they contribute food scraps/spoilage in exchange for plant food. With school-based farmers’ markets and/or increased sourcing of school meals from local farms, farmers also see increased demand for their products during the off season.
In addition to the circular food economy thus created, there are green jobs feeding and servicing the digesters, as well as packaging and transporting the plant food.
Environment: This organic plant food could regenerate soils, increase carbon sequestration and improve crop yields.
With the renewable energy, a school district could meet or offset a significant portion of its energy use. When schools are not in session, a HORSE can still be operated at full capacity, with carbon-neutral energy fed back to the grid.
The system will eliminate trucking waste to a processing plant and reduce the GHGs related to food waste in landfills. A more seasonal and integrated system supplying fresh fruits and vegetables to schools will reduce overall food waste and spoilage.
Policy: With savings from energy creation and energy efficiency upgrades, schools will have financial resources to source more local foods and take advantage of King County’s Local Food Initiative.
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.
In 2050, King County school districts run largely on carbon-neutral energy produced by food waste/scraps from their cafeterias and local restaurants. School breakfasts and lunches are made from food primarily sourced from within Washington.
Students help implement food recycling policies, and they understand how the HORSE operates and where its byproducts go. They take pride in knowing that they are helping their schools and the planet.
King County school districts have virtually eliminated their carbon footprints by investing energy savings and profits from plant food sales into electric buses, solar panels, and trees. Sustainability is central to the culture and the budget.
Children who grew up with HORSEs as a part of their school lives are starting to have their own children. Some of them have stayed in King County. Others have moved to different parts of the country and taken their experiences and regenerative food culture with them and replicated the King County model in their new homes.
King County soils have been rejuvenated by abundant, locally-produced plant food and state and local policies that incentivize regenerative agricultural practices. Local farms are more resilient in the face of variable year-to-year rainfall, and county parks and open spaces act as sponges, mitigating flooding.
Early education about nutrition and early experiences with fruits and vegetables have increased their consumption and lowered health care costs for county residents. Eating locally and in-season has become second nature to people who grew up in this food culture.
Restaurants throughout the county contribute to powering their local schools by collecting food scraps. Instead of being a major source of GHG and food waste, they are drivers of sustainability.
Green jobs have been created feeding and servicing the digesters and transporting plant food. Dollars that would otherwise have been spent on energy are staying local, supporting farmers and public schools.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
Imagine if every restaurant visit was a chance to help power your local school.
Imagine if farmers had access to cost-effective, soil-building, natural plant food.
Imagine if public schools sourced a significant amount of their breakfast and lunch ingredients from local sources.
Imagine if these schools were powered by carbon-neutral renewable energy.
Imagine if dollars that are currently exiting the local economy to enrich international utility corporations instead stayed here and were invested in community sustainability projects.
Imagine if students could have frequent hands-on experiences with small business, agriculture, ecology, and microbiology.
Imagine if soils were rejuvenated so that they sequestered carbon, filtered polluted water, absorbed heavy rainfall, and increased agricultural yields.
Imagine if there was a cycle of fruits and vegetables moving into urban and suburban areas and natural soil inputs and money moving into rural ones.
Imagine if no food was ever sent to a landfill.
Imagine if food waste was a solution instead of a problem.
This is our vision: local access to healthy, affordable organic food for all people by engaging farmers, schools, businesses, communities and governments to build a resilient, interdependent food ecosystem.
We get there by putting HORSEs at public school sites around King County and connecting restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries and school cafeterias to those digesters.
We connect public schools to farmers and farmers to soil-building plant food generated at those schools.
We provide students applied experiences in STEM, entrepreneurship, agriculture, and nutrition.
We add our voice to those already advocating for healthier food options for students.
We empower schools with the financial breathing room to make the energy efficiency upgrades and sustainability investments that they already want to do.
We show restaurant patrons their role in a sustainable food system.
We invest in a future powered by carbon-neutral energy.
We build ties and community, break down assumptions and excuses, and reconnect several generations at once to real food grown and prepared by real people.
With this vision realized, we’ll see transformative changes across our food system.
- Carbon-neutral energy generation via anaerobic digestion of unused food eliminates multiple sources of greenhouse gas and provides a rare alternative to fossil natural gas.
- Rejuvenated soils and more affordable regenerative agriculture create greater resilience to weather variability by decreasing water runoff.
- Local foods consumed locally means less fuel required for transport.
- Energy cost savings are instead used to plant trees, save water, buy electric school buses and increase school building energy efficiency, creating a virtuous cycle that reduces schools’ carbon footprints and saves even more money.
- Public schools have money to invest in sustainability initiatives and student services.
- Local dollars stay local, increasing their economic impact and the area’s resilience to economic shock or downturn.
- Farmers have more stable income year-round since schools are a consistent source of demand in the off-season.
- The health system is less burdened by chronic diseases linked to poor nutrition.
- Jobs, both entry-level and higher, are created in a burgeoning green economy.
- A circular food economy creates jobs, saves money, reduces dependence on imported materials, and reduces overall environmental footprint.
- HORSEs build community and employment opportunities instead of sacrificing them to automation.
- People are empowered at the grassroots level to pursue sustainability independent of government entities or major corporations.
- Students have opportunities to interact with advanced technology in ways that could lead them to becoming green entrepreneurs or inventors in their own right.
- King County’s support for connecting farmers and schools is bolstered and rewarded with success.
- Washington has long incentivized regenerative farming practices, which have created a stable demand for school-generated plant food.
- Districts have emulated Chicago's public schools and offer school-based farmers’ markets that match SNAP funds with King County “Farm Bucks.”
- Carbon taxes/fees and/or markets have made HORSEs even more economical and profitable across the state.
- There is a paradigm shift from seeing waste as trash to seeing it as a renewable resource.
- Community connection has been built through a network of consumers, restaurants, stores and schools working towards sustainable thriving for all residents.
- Eating local food in-season is the norm, and food is regarded as fuel for both our bodies and our grids.
- Foods are eaten with an understanding of and appreciation for the people and land that produced them.
- Increased access to fruit and vegetables at affordable, on-school farmers’ markets and in locally-sourced school meals has improved the diets of both schoolchildren and the broader community.
- Food knowledge and nutrition education have expanded palates and healthy food expectations for all King County residents.
This is the food future we want to create in the next 30 years. With the courage to imagine it, the persistence to make it a reality, and the passion to inspire others along the way, we will.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?