Archive for March, 2011

March 12, 2011

Food (to the) Rescue

These days, everyone talks a lot about food production. Where was it grown? Is it free-range? Organic? Fair trade? How fresh is it? Who owns the genetic material? (Pause for satire.)

In the life span of food, like that of humans, everybody seems to coo and fret over the birthing process, but nobody pays much attention to what happens at the end. No, I’m not talking about poop, although poop is important. I’m talking about the food that doesn’t end up in someone’s stomach. According to the blog Wasted Food, 40% of food produced in America ends up in the landfill. Holy tamales. If you’ve ever visited your local dump, just seeing the endless piles of trash is enough to make you swear to never buy anything again. When you consider how much of that junk was once something edible, and how many people on earth are hungry and undernourished, (around 1 billion, according to the UN), it’s truly depressing.

Ahhh, gloom and doom. Got your attention now, don’t I? Actually, what I’m here to write about today wasn’t how sad it is that we throw so much out, but about the exciting phenomenon of food rescue. Recent experiences have shown me that there are superheroes living amongst us, posing as food bank operators, swooping in and snatching perfectly good food from the brink of the trash bin.

Food For Lane County, the major food bank for the Eugene area, is a hotspot of food rescue activity. Like most food banks, Food for Lane County collects provisions from a variety of sources – canned food drives, government commodities, and local growers, processors and retailers. It all comes first to its central warehouse in west Eugene, a place I’ve recently become very familiar with. Since enjoying a stretch of unemployment that allowed me to keep my need for food assistance below the radar via EBT, I found a job cooking for institutionalized teenagers. They eat a lot, and my employer is a non-profit, so I visit Food For Lane County on a weekly basis, collecting donated and rescued food on the behalf of my captive diners (and breakfast-ers, and lunch-ers, and snack-ers…). I say captive because they don’t have much of a choice but to eat whatever I cook for them, which makes it easy to incorporate the FFLC provisions into the menu.

Like thrift shopping or dumpster diving, “shopping” at the FFLC warehouse requires a finely tuned strategy. First, I arrive early, before they open the doors at 8:30. Trucks are coming in with deliveries all day, but the selection is best first thing in the morning. To picture the scene, imagine coupon day at your local grocery store, except that instead of housewives and pensioners, the people waiting in line to elbow their way to the bargains manage food banks all over the county, or run shelters and assistance centers for our many hungry residents. In other words, they’re on a mission. At precisely 8:30, we file in and scramble for the limited number of shopping carts. The best scores are on meat and produce, the most expensive items on my budget, so I start in the walk-in cooler, pulling my hat down around my ears. Three or four people are already in there, loading up their carts and occasionally notifying each other when they come across the good stuff. I join the friendly competition, starting with the dairy section. The first thing I find is a crate full of whipping cream from a local dairy that expires tomorrow. I throw a few into my cart. My mind wanders momentarily to fruit salad with whipped cream and delicious soup, but then I hear talk of deli meat on the other side of the cooler and scurry over. Packages of roasted turkey slices from Market of Choice, a gourmet grocery chain, join the whipping cream. Then I hit the stacks of organic yogurt, a common item here, and random packaged cheese. After taking everything I can use from the deli side of the cooler (and there’s still a lot left over), I move to the produce side. Here I find cabbage, carrots and root vegetables from the FFLC gardens. Assorted boxes from grocery stores carry grapes, avocados, mangos, lettuce and tomatoes. Because the cases of apples, oranges and bananas are stacked higher than me, I take as much as I think the kids will eat. Some of these specimens are too far gone to consume, but some are just perfectly ripe. I once scored a half-dozen containers of strawberries, each containing one moldy berry for ten good ones.

The incredible part of all of this is that, thanks to a new grant to Food For Lane County, it’s all free (it used to cost organizations like ours 14 cents a pound, which is still pretty amazing). The part that I like best, though, is that it’s also all part of that 40% of food that otherwise would be chucked in the trash heap.

Let’s look a little closer at that number. Unless you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or stocked the shelves at a grocery store, it might be a little hard to believe. If you have first-hand experience with the food industry, 40% might even seem low. Even when customers take home what they don’t finish, restaurant kitchens throw out a lot of what they cook, because they always have to make a little extra to avoid running out. Federal food-safety laws dictate how often food can be kept at certain temperatures, how many times it can be reheated, and how long prepared food can be stored before it has to be discarded (usually no longer than a week). When pre-packaged products hit their expiration dates in restaurants or in stores, they also get thrown out. Cafeterias and buffets are notorious for wasting more food than they serve. Kids are the worst food wasters (think about all those elementary school food fights), and they are the ones most often served in cafeterias. Excess food – and therefore wasted food – is also built right into our cultural sense of security. It’s not good enough, in this age of prosperity, to simply have enough. If we don’t have more than enough, we feel somehow cheated or even deprived. We all feel a right to not only eat good food, but to have as much of it as we can pay for.

But enough sociology. One of the coolest things about Food For Lane County is their Food Rescue Express program (sporting the best acronym in the food assistance world – FREX). FREX actually drives to various institutions – hospitals, the university, delis – in the city to pick up food that has been prepared but not served. It all makes its way to the warehouse, where I’ve found tubs of salad dressing, gallons of soup, baggies of peeled and halved bananas, even pre-assembled hot dogs fresh off the FREX trucks (see how they did that?). FREX is a unique model; the FFLC person I talked to said theirs is the only program like it she knows of. Since it’s excess food that they’re rescuing, it isn’t even close to being old or expired (it’s FREX! Ok, I’ll stop.)

FREX gleans a small part of the food that goes into FFLC’s warehouse. The rest comes from USDA commodities and donations from local growers and processors. Actually, three-quarters of he food donated to FFLC is locally grown or processed. That means the 63,000 county residents who received emergency food from FFLC last year ate more local food than the average American. And since this is Oregon, many of those local processors and growers are also organic. On my food budget, I can’t always afford to buy Nancy’s yogurt, Toby’s Tofu Pate, Fern Ridge Dairy goat cheese, and bread from Metropol Bakery, but the “underprivileged” kids I serve in my job eat this stuff on a regular basis. The donated products were either packaged wrong or just a little too close to the “sell-by” date (which seems more and more arbitrary to me all the time).

In a way, the work that FFLC does creates a silver lining to the modern world’s inequitable, appearance-obsessed, wasteful food system. If the average shopper wasn’t afraid of buying bruised apples or expired milk at the grocery store, there wouldn’t be much excess to flow over to food banks and those in need of food assistance. The annoying food-contaminant-paranoid FDA rules that make it difficult for small, local food processors to operate also forces a lot of food to be abandoned before it can even be served. The hungry aren’t so picky.

Rescued food not only keeps our landfills slightly more manageable, it also brings an element of variety and dignity to standard emergency food box or soup-kitchen fare. Most US food banks get by on government cheese, dented cans of peaches and stale bread. If you’re Lane County’s one in three who are eligible for food assistance, you may get to try an avocado for the first time, or even be faced with the enviable problem of using up a pound of locally made chevre.

Maybe “rescued” can be the new food label, like “local”, “natural”, and “organic” that everyone swoons for. After all, the food is here anyway, and if it’s going to the landfill, does it really matter if first came from Chile or New Zealand? Shouldn’t we try to eat that food first, before we worry about producing even more to feed our growing population? Better yet, maybe we can stop the problem at its source by avoiding places that tempt us to buy too much – like Costco and Trader Joe’s (I’m talking specifically about produce. Go ahead and buy container-loads of non-perishables if that’s what you like.) I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to facing the science projects in the back of the refrigerator, but ever since my roommates discovered a free leftover pickup service, our fridge has stayed nice and clean. It works like this: Pretend you’re getting rid of some old junk by placing it in a free box on the curb. Instead of ugly clothes or the Twilight series, just stick your (labeled and meat-free) leftovers out there. Because we live close to a park that homeless people frequent, the food is usually gone within hours. This isn’t a strategy that everyone will feel comfortable with, but all I’m saying is to be creative.


Organizations like Food For Lane County are putting a big dent in that 40% of wasted food, but they can’t rescue all the food. To be sure, some waste is inevitable, but hey – compost happens. The next time you’re out shopping, though, just try to think a little bit less about where your food came from, and pay attention to where it might be going, too. When the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is applied to the food system, we all eat a little bit better.

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