Compost sorters in Portland Composter child: Portland, Ore. leads the way when it comes to keeping waste out of the landfill. Photo courtesy of kenudigit via Flickr

We throw away an awful lot of perfectly edible food in this country, not to mention all those past-their-prime, slimy veggies and moldy bread. In fact, the food we discard each year wastes more energy than we extract annually from the oil and gas reserves off the nation’s coastlines, according to New Scientist.

Worse still, less than 3 percent of that food waste gets composted. The rest goes off to the landfill where it generates methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

Wouldn’t you rather convert your kitchen scraps into ‘black gold’? As Darcy Minow Smith noted in Grist’s Composting 101 for Citydwellers, cities all over America are seeking to divert food waste from the landfill and feed it back to the earth instead.

San Francisco set the black gold standard last year when it passed a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance that requires every resident and business to sort their refuse into recyclables, compostables, and trash. The city composts more than 400 tons of food scraps and other organic matter each day.

Single-family households in Seattle are required to pay a monthly fee to have their food and yard waste picked up weekly, unless they opt to compost in their backyards. The city is currently contemplating extending this program to apartment and condo dwellers.

Portland, Ore. began weekly curbside recycling of kitchen waste last May in 2,000 households as part of a food-compost pilot program. If all goes well, the city plans to extend the program to all households, and switch to a biweekly schedule for regular garbage pickup, giving residents a greater incentive to recycle or compost as much of their waste as possible.

Clearly, the West Coast is on the carbon-cutting edge. But other cities have followed suit; Denver, Boulder, Austin, and Minneapolis all have curbside composting programs, some still in the pilot phase. The East Coast’s first municipal organic-waste pickup program began earlier this
year in the Massachusetts towns of Hamilton and Wenham. And as of July 1st, residents of Richmond, Va. are now permitted to add to their designated yard waste bins “anything that is from a plant, tree or animal that can decompose.”

Will San Francisco achieve its goal of becoming a zero waste city by 2020? Will other restaurants follow in Forage’s carbon foodprint and start sourcing their ingredients from neighborhood backyards? Our cities have only just begun to innovate, cultivate, and legislate their way to a more sustainable, locally-based food chain. No one’s seriously claiming that we’ll ever be able to produce all the food we need within our own boundaries.

In fact, skeptics dismiss the current urban mania for all things aggy — be it front-yard farming, backyard gleaning, rooftop gardening, keeping bees, chickens, worms, or canning your own kimchee — as some kind of homesteader-hipster hype. Agribiz apologists ascribe these trends to a plague they call “agrarian nostalgia,” which afflicts predominantly affluent, urban communities and seems to coincide with a high Pollan count.

Seeking self-reliance through sauerkraut may sound silly, but the drive to relocalize our food systems is an imperative, not a passing fad. We can’t even imagine what sorts of unforeseen disasters may be lurking — that’s why they’re called “unforeseen” — but do you really want to get caught with your pantry down?

I’m pretty resourceful when it comes to making a meal out of what’s on hand, but I’m not looking forward to Matt’s sardine/sauerkraut/cat-food patties seasoned with vanilla and topped with room-temperature chili. Better stock up on the kelp bars, just in case.