What comes to mind when you hear the word "landfill"? Mountains of food scraps, plastic bottles, and broken childhood relics? Maybe a giant tractor in the background, plowing things along? Not to Joy Youwakim. In the past year, the UT economics senior discovered a way to grow produce on closed landfills that could potentially alleviate hunger and food insecurity. Her innovative approach landed her the title of one of five finalists for the General Mills Feeding Better Futures Program, where she could win the grand prize of $50,000 to further her project.

Here's the Lowdown

Christy Zhu

Last summer, Youwakim was working at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality when a landfill regulator showed her some photos of a landfill located in the suburbs of Austin, TX. Youwakim was struck by how similar the plot of land was to a golf course — smooth, green, and grassy. Having worked on a food and agriculture project in the past with one of her professors, Bill Wolesensky, Youwakim's first thought went straight to growing food on the landfill.

Why would growing food on landfills be a good idea? First off, Austin has a large number of food deserts — areas with fewer grocery stores and less convenient access to food — which result in food insecurity for people living in those areas. These residents often have a hard time accessing food, and might not know where their next meal is coming from. Growing food in unoccupied plots of land — such as landfills — can help feed the hungry and help those who are food insecure. After discussing the idea with Wolesensky, Youwakim set out to make it happen. 

How Does This Work, Exactly?

The process of growing vegetables on a closed landfill isn't what you would expect. To begin, alternating layers of soil and trash build on top of one another until the site is full. Once that happens, a clay liner or fiberglass cover is placed on top, and one last layer of soil is added. This final layer of soil is where produce will grow. Youwakim and her team made sure to select plants with shallow roots — eggplants, onions, calendula flowers, radishes, cantaloupes, and bell peppers — so that the roots won't penetrate the liner of the landfill. 

Once the vegetables were harvested, all were sent to a lab for testing to ensure that no unsafe amounts of salmonella or other contaminants would appear. Though technically none of the produce has yet to be ingested or donated to food banks, this testing process is important in determining whether growing produce in landfills is a feasible initiative. If it proves to be, it could drastically change the way we consume and produce food in the future.

Here's What It Means Down the Road

Approximately 12% of the world struggles with hunger, including 13 million children and teenagers across the U.S. By 2050, experts predict that food production needs to increase by 70% to feed the projected 9.2 billion people living on the planet. If growing food in landfills can feed Austin residents in an innovative, sustainable way, this process could be implemented at a national and international level — meaning more resourceful ways to accommodate rapid population growth and alleviate hunger issues.

Want to help this venture succeed? Vote for Youwakim here and we might see more landfills change the future of food.