Eric Lohela of the Food Scraps Collection Program in Santa Barbara

"Three years ago Lohela asked himself what it would take to get Santa Barbara to the next level of sustainability, and out of that question came the Food Scraps Collection Program."


Eric Lohela, the sage of sustainability. [Photograph: Sarah Fretwell]

"I love frolicking in food scraps," Eric Lohela told me. "I have steel-toed galoshes for it."

Lohela, an environmental services specialist, started the Santa Barbara Food Scraps Collection Program with colleagues three years ago, and it's now under his purview and gaining momentum. While he is partially joking about jumping around in the food scrap compost bin, his excitement for the project is contagious. A five-minute conversation with him almost inspires you to don galoshes and join in the romp with him.

The Food Scraps Collection Program collects food waste from restaurants and schools, trucks it to a composting site, places in it long rows called windrows, and turns it regularly by large machines to introduce oxygen into the pile.

Voila! The waste is now soil used by local farmers to grow more food, or goes to parks. Essentially, this program transforms waste into a community resource.

Lohela is the face of the program, and when he speaks about landfills being the largest source of man-made methane in the United States, he speaks with as much gusto as he does when he talks about loving his bicycle. His passion is evident, and he manages to share his practice and the facts and statistics of his program without making me feel like I'm listening to a lecture.

One such statistic is that around 25,000 tons of foodscraps are put into the local Santa Barbara landfill every year, and Lohela's team is working to put a serious dent in that number. The project is attractive to businesses because composting foodscraps is less expensive than landfilling, and businesses pay less for this service than trash.

So why would Lohela jump into the compost? He checks for contaminators. "The main challenge is keeping the compost 'pure'," he said. Anything that is an organic material can be composted. This includes plants, paper (without plastic coatings), fruit, eggshells, meat, bones, waxed cardboard and compostable tableware. He insists on 100-percent commitment from the restaurants because if they are not dedicated, they're more likely to contaminate the bin.

Among Lohela's successes was implementing this model in an elementary school (among naysayers and skeptics aplenty). The easy conclusion was that young children would contaminate all the bins. On the contrary, Lohela said that once the students were taught what was organic and compostable, they started correcting their teachers! The faculty went one step further to make the program a success and has made everything in its cafeteria compostable.


Lohela at the Santa Barbara Cycle Chic show. [Photograph courtesy of Eric Lohela]

Lohela practices the philosophy of environmental sustainability beyond food scraps, to the food he puts in his body. He is on the "100 Mile Diet," which, he says, is "a lifestyle, not a diet." This "diet" dictates that Lohela only eats food grown within a hundred miles of his house. Why does he do it? For the health of the planet, the prosperity of local farmers, and his health. "I am what I'm made of, and what I'm made of is what I eat," he said.

The hardest part of this lifestyle was chocolate. So after about five months he started eating chocolate again. "Some little things come from the store," he admitted. But even now, several years after he made the decision to "go local," about ninety percent of the food he eats satisfies his 100-mile rule.

"We have to recognize that everything comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. This couldn't be more true than with food." With his Food Scraps Collection Program, he proactively tackles the latter conundrum, and for the former, he uses his buying power to support local farmers.

Lohela now lectures about eating locally. "Are you growing food?" he'll ask. When most people inevitably say they don't, he responds, "If you're not growing food, and I'm not growing food, then we're just kind of hoping that someone else is. That's just crazy!" The industrialized food industry does not sit well with Lohela.

"You can especially taste the difference with tomatoes, strawberries, and carrot," he says of local, organic food. It's the distinction between flavorful and bland.

As Lohela became a regular at the farmers' market, he came to know the farmers better, building relationships and continuing an ongoing weekly dialogue. "All the little purchases that people make at a farmers' market make a difference to the farmer. That is how they support themselves. My meals are no longer just food, but a celebration of my community."

He concedes that living in Santa Barbara makes this lifestyle easier than it may be in other places. Santa Barbara has an agricultural history and culture, and of course the climate makes a huge difference. "It feels like we're cheating," he says of the location. He says that he has a lot of fun with the 100-mile diet. "I think there's a certain creativity [inherent in eating locally]." In other parts of the country, creativity might take the form of more canning and preservation, but he insists that it is still possible.

Three years ago Lohela asked himself what it would take to get Santa Barbara to the next level of sustainability, and out of that question came the Food Scraps Collection Program. Then he asked himself where his food was coming from, was not satisfied with his answer, and started eating locally.

The best thing about Lohela is that he makes sustainability seem not only achievable, but fun. He talks about enjoying his bike ride to and from work—suddenly a car seems cumbersome and boring. He talks about biting into a fresh, juicy strawberry he bought at the farmers' market, and nothing has ever sounded so delicious. He points out how easy and sanitary composting is, and it seems like a no-brainer. With him, "green" is not a guilt-inducing word, it's an opportunity to rise to the occasion.

"Sometimes going in circles is productive. Compost!" reads his email signature. I'm sold.