The numbers are staggering. Nearly two billion tons of food, worth about $1 trillion, is wasted globally each year at all levels: production, distribution, and consumption. Food waste in the United States accounts for about 40% of all food produced, and the amount of food wasted in this country has been steadily increasing. In 1980 Americans threw out roughly 107lbs of edible food per person, which surprisingly represented a 15% decline from 1960. In 2012 we each threw away more than 220lbs, and estimates place that figure closer to 250lbs today.
In recent years many new and innovative enterprises have launched to reduce food waste at all levels of scale. Imperfect Produce is an app-based, affordable csa program that sources "ugly" fruits and vegetables from local farms. Full Circle Feed makes dog treats from food recovered from a casino buffet. Students at the University of Maryland, College Park, started the Food Recovery Network to direct unused foods from campus to local nonprofits fighting hunger. In just five years they have expanded to over 229 chapters in 44 states. These efforts have joined established organizations like Feeding America, a nationwide network representing 200 food banks, including CK members TCK-Providence, Second Harvest of Central Florida, Vermont Food Bank, Philabundance, and new member Maryland Food Bank. Feeding America reported rescuing 1.4 million tons of food in 2016.
vegetables gleaned by Vermont Food Bank
In the Catalyst Kitchens network, Michelle Wallace, Director of Community Health and Fresh Food Initiatives at member Vermont Food Bank, believes awareness surrounding food waste is on the rise. “One of the stories that has really captured people's imagination recently is reducing food waste,” Wallace says, pointing to a state law in Vermont, which will phase out organic material in landfills by 2020, as having focused attention in their area on the issue.
Vermont Food Bank’s training program, Community Kitchen Academy (CKA), primarily uses rescued food in its production. “We purchase such a small amount of food it almost doesn't show up on a budget.” Some of the food used by the CKA comes from the food bank’s large scale gleaning program, where two fulltime staff work with about 600 volunteers on 80 farms to harvest and deliver almost 250,000 pounds of produce a year.
Having a training program is also an asset which helps Vermont Food Bank accomplish its mission, “to make sure food does not go to waste and gets to the people who need it.” The CKA can frequently use donated product that would otherwise be turned away, according to Wallace. “Highly perishable foods, product that is close to date, gleaned product from farms which might not go so well on the shelf of the food pantry, the kitchen can handle that product.”
Many food banks lack this ability to upcycle marginal produce into distributable foods. Wallace believes that this is where a Catalyst Kitchens member wanting to start their own recovery program can partner with food banks who are already doing a lot of food rescue work. “I think there is a real opportunity for CK members to build a relationship with their local food banks, to be a real resource for the utilization of donated food. I think the members have a lot to offer in being able to utilize that food and turn it into something that can increase someone's access to healthy food. I would be really excited see more of those types partnerships.”
Dani Knapstad, Community Meals Kitchen Manager at CK member FareStart, began a project to revitalize their food recovery program in the summer of 2016. As part of that effort, she applied for a grant from Americorps, bringing in VISTA Ashley Propes to assist in creating sustainable systems. "Above all else in food recovery, food safety is top priority, so having the right policies and procedures in place is of the utmost importance,” Knapstad explains. Second to that is training value. "Knowing what your mission is and what is going to work well for you is very important. What you are going to get out of your food recovery effort is dependent on your resources." When FareStart received a donation of milk - “a lot of milk, cases and cases of milk” - the kitchen seized the opportunity for training by making cheese with the students.
Knapstad emphasizes how crucial consistency is when starting a food recovery operation. Key to this approach are not turning down a donation and showing the donor that you will be a reliable partner. “When we reached back out to former partners like the WA Sate Convention Center, we just made a point of not turning down anything. Now we've shown them for a full year that we will consistently come, we have more leeway, and they are more willing coordinate with us. You have to be flexible. You might get way more stuff than you've made room for in your cooler, like when you get 15 cases of beef bones instead of two.”
Like Vermont Food Bank, FareStart is also working further upstream to reduce waste at the point of production, and gleaning is becoming an important part of the revamped food recovery program. They have partnered with an innovative new organization, Farms for Life, who work to help area farmers Farms for Life recognized that it is not only imperfections that lead to crops wasting in the fields, rather many small growers simply do not have the funds or resources to harvest and package the produce they would like to donate. Farms for Life purchases these crops at a reduced price to help offset the cost of harvesting this surplus crop and then donates it to partner organizations like FareStart, who can get this high-quality produce to people with limited access to fresh, local foods.
Catalyst Kitchens members have a wealth of experience in food recovery and the potential for more fruitful discussions is ripe (sorry!). Look for the CK Working Group on Food Recovery to begin later this year.
Sources and Resources
Americans throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal, and glass (Washington Post)
Produced but never eaten: a visual guide to food waste (The Guardian)