Monday, May 2, 2011

Feed People, Not Dumpsters: Food Recovery and Gleaning

Okay, we Americans toss lots of food.  Why is this a big deal?  Jonathan Bloom’s thorough description of the issue, from field to landfill, in American Wasteland lays out a case that food waste is idiotic, avoidable, and squanders an astounding amount of resources, not just the food itself.  Embedded in the food is water, fertilizer [ie petroleum], and labor for its growth, plus all the resources used in processing, packaging, and moving the resulting product. Last month I outlined some of the factors that result in wasting food; this column will explore efforts to capture quality food on its way to the dumpster and redistribute it.

Perhaps the most shocking statistic in the book is that 97% of food waste winds up in landfill.  This includes food from farms, distribution venues (supermarkets, but NOT Weaver’s Way!), restaurants, institutions, public events, and homes.  A huge amount of crops and prepared foods that never reach a final consumer can be rescued.  This classic practice of gleaning goes back to biblical times.  The book of Ruth vividly describes how the poor collected what was left after the fields were harvested; by biblical mandate, the corners of the fields were left for the poor to harvest, as well.

The problems with gleaning our modern American fields are that they are distant from hungry populations, and monoculture in nature. Even the rural poor would be hard-pressed to make good use of 40 acres of oversized sugar beets, an example in Bloom’s book.  The Society of St. Andrew was founded in 1979 to address this problem – read more about them at  While their work has expanded to food recovery all along the production chain, they still gather volunteer crews to harvest the season’s leftovers, or even whole fields, if market forces have made itdiseconomic for a farmer to pay for harvesting. 

The United States has an extensive system of food recovery, from harvest through end points like restaurants and supermarkets.  Typically a manufacturer contacts a food recovery group, or maintains an ongoing relationship with it, and defective packaging, damaged pallets, and the like are routinely picked up and warehoused.  This food is then shared with food pantries, food distribution programs at senior centers and homeless shelters, and soup kitchens.  It is a complicated enterprise, since supply and demand are often not in synch.   In our cheap, high carb food production system, empty calories far outweighs nourishing, healthy protein or perishable produce, for example.  Funding is an obvious challenge for all such programs, since even with volunteer labor and donated food, they require enormous overhead.

In the Philadelphia region, Philabundance has specialized in large quantity pick-up and delivery, housing the food in two area warehouses.  Their Share the Harvest program invites home gardeners to share their surplus (zucchini, anyone?) by dropping it off at their designated sites. While most produce is directly donated, a portion is utilized in Philabundance’s Community Kitchen (PCK) program, which trains low-income adults for jobs in the food-service industry. Their students prepare meals, which are provided to children and families in emergency shelters in Philadelphia.  The local drop-off site is Laurel Hill Gardens, 8125 Germantown Avenue, on Saturday mornings from 10-12, July 9 through September 24th.

What about end use food, the leftovers from events and parties, power outages, or other single time food surpluses?  Philabundance doesn’t handle these types of individual requests anymore, but Weaver’s Way Chestnut Hill food recovery ace, Kim Spellman-Hall, put me in touch with Mr. Carl Boyd, a hero in our local war against food waste.  A member of the St. Vincent’s team in Germantown, Mr. Boyd spends much of his time shuttling around the Northwest picking up edible food to be redistributed through St. Vincent’s soup kitchen, or delivered to shelters and senior centers. 

Mr. Boyd bemoans that despite frequent offers to pick up the food, virtually none of the Northwest’s grocery stores donate their unsold products, including rotisserie chickens – they trash it all, despite the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act which removes donor liability questions.  A shining local exception is our own Weavers Way, which has a zero waste policy and gives Mr. Boyd a call when there is leftover prepared food which cannot be sold.  If you have leftover food to donate, call Mr. Boyd at 302 359-0662. Just be sure it is appropriately wrapped.

Check out Bloom’s book or site for a more in depth look at this whole issue.  Of course, the ideal is to waste less at every step of the food chain, the focus of next month’s Part III column.  

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