There’s a lot of talk these days about reducing food waste, but Portland resident Susan Webster wants to help Mainers tackle the problem with real practical steps. “The statistics around wasted food are crazy,” she said. “Like the fact that more than a third and some sources say it could be as much as half of all food produced in this country is wasted or lost in one way or another. This is at the same time that one in six Americans is facing food insecurity.” (A recent study found that nearly 16 percent of Maine households are unable to afford enough food, making it rank third among the states for food insecurity.)

On June 29, Webster will lead a workshop at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie Center on Food Waste Reduction and Recovery, aimed at schools, restaurants and institutions. We called her up to talk about the workshop and how having two sons in the Portland school system led to unexpected activism nearly a decade ago, which has blossomed into consulting, and educating, on an issue she’s passionate about. We also learned about her poetic past.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM: The daylong workshop (which costs $225) aims to help groups set up and operate data-driven food waste reduction and recovery programs. Translation: keep foods that are still edible out of the dumpster in the first place and make sure discarded food ends up in a compost heap or at a digester. The program will help participants connect with gleaning services and tell them where to donate leftovers. Panelists so far include Jonathan Gibbons, who is a sustainability engagement and data coordinator for Unity College; Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability coordinator; Kasey Harris, who works with Hannaford Supermarkets sustainability programs; and Hannah Semler, gleaning and farm drop manager for Healthy Acadia. Webster will facilitate the workshop. But she doesn’t consider herself an expert: “I am a small part of this huge initiative. I am just one piece of it.” Her day job is as a freelance technical writer, working with area engineering companies on proposals and reports, “things like that.” So how did she get to be a kinda-sorta, super modest, semi-expert on food waste?

Susan Webster will lead a June 29 workshop at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie Center on Food Waste Reduction and Recovery. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

IN THE BEGINNING: Around 2009, when her two sons were in elementary and middle school (they’re both in college now), Webster was helping to organize one of those parent fundraisers that involves collecting beverage bottles and cans for the deposit. She found out that the Portland school system had no coordinated recycling program. Webster had done some work, years before, for Resource Conservation Services, the company that started the Hawk Ridge composting facility now run by Casella Organics; she’d assumed Maine schools were on that kind of a recycling track. “It seemed astonishing that we were in the 21st century and this was still happening, that we were still dumping everything in the trash.” Well not everything; some schools were trying, but someone needed to pull their efforts together. Webster and another parent started working on a coalition that eventually grew to include members from public works and the city council. “We had some really good partners around the table.” But she was aware that schools are understaffed, often by overworked people. They had to devise a plan that was workable. “We wrote a lot of manuals to show that this would not add to custodians’ burdens.”

SECOND HAND ROSE: That recycling effort, which was implemented beginning in 2012 and is frequently pointed to as a role model for other school systems, made Webster more aware of the issue of food waste. She and her husband, a hydrogeologist, had long practiced a re-use philosophy at home, composting, buying nothing but used cars (they love Saabs), shopping at thrift stores. Where did that come from? She grew up the daughter of a teacher. “We just didn’t have a lot of money or resources to buy everything new.” When her dad got a job teaching mechanical engineering at the University of Maine in Orono, she discovered Goodwill. She’s still a fan. “Their marketing is brilliant,” she said. “People shop it like a department store.”

THE WRITE STUFF: Webster went to the University of New Hampshire, and studied there with future Pulitzer Prize winning poet Charles Simic. She enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia in New York. “I set out to be a poet.” But she couldn’t afford to stay in the program and needing income, talked herself into a copy editing job at Science Digest. “They sometimes took a somewhat sensationalistic approach to science writing. I remember editing stories on things like spontaneous human combustion.” But it gave her an entree into science and technical writing, and landed her her first job in Portland, at E.C. Jordan Co., an engineering and environmental management firm, where she was a technical writer and the head of the marketing department. Webster still considers herself a generalist, despite all the time she has spent on writing that butts up against environmental issues. She worked on the proposal for the Environmental Protection Agency grant that is funding her Muskie School workshop.

SCHOOL LUNCH: Another project she’s working on is a joint effort with a doctoral candidate at the University of Maine. They’ll be surveying the roughly 730 K-12 schools in Maine to find out what cafeterias are doing – or not – to reduce their trash. Are they recycling? If not, what are the barriers? Webster said they aim to survey the schools in the fall and have results in 2018. “Data really helps.” Like the statistics that showed how powerfully the shift in Portland schools reduced the amount of trash (cutting it by between 70 and 80 percent). Webster sees what other New England states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont) have done to ban food waste going into incinerators when it could be used to build soil in composting facilities and thinks, that could be Maine’s future.

POETRY FOUNDATION: Webster still writes poetry on the side, but even when she’s not, the influence persists. “When you start out as a poet, it never really leaves you. What you come away from, starting out there, is an understanding of the power of words, whether you are talking about sustainability or writing a training manual for separating out food into a big blue (composting) bucket.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols