Special to the Swellesley Report from Wellesley High School Senior Natalie Gubbay, who writes on what she learned about food waste while working on her senior project. She heads off to Colorado College after she graduates from WHS.
It’s a late April afternoon, and the gardens on Weston Road are stirring into motion after a long winter. Signs of green are welcome after months of desolate brown, and on a warm day like this one, there are dozens of gardeners tilling, weeding, and planting, preparing for the bright and colorful season to come.
In just a few months, these six acres– part of the North 40– will be laden with tomatoes, carrots, kale, and chard. And just to the left of the entrance will be several coolers and a hand-painted sign that reads “Food Pantry Drop, 8am Tuesday”.
Each week, gardeners here at the Weston Road Community Gardens are invited to fill the empty coolers with some of their homegrown produce. Volunteers pick the donations up and drive them to the Wellesley food pantry, where they are distributed to local families in need.
The food pantry drop serves a dual purpose: it gets fresh, healthy food to local residents who need it and makes use of food we grow but cannot eat. It’s a conundrum that’s all too familiar: we wait months for the taste of a late summer tomato, only to be left mid-August with far more than we could ever imagine eating. Donating this excess only makes sense; it’s top-quality produce with zero “food miles” and is far too valuable to be tossed in the compost, or worse, in the garbage after sitting a few days too long in the fridge.
Nationwide, though, this is far too common a fate. About 40% of all food in the U.S. is wasted– enough to fill the Rose Bowl stadium every single day. Not all of this occurs at such an individual level; waste accrues throughout the food supply chain, from fields left unharvested due to labor shortages and vegetables rejected because they don’t meet standards of uniformity. Reducing that total loss by just 30% would be enough food to feed the estimated 50 million hungry people in America.
I’m walking with Judith Boland, who’s gardened at the Weston Road plots for fifteen years and who founded the food pantry drop program back in 2004. She credits Michelle Obama’s famous White House garden for the positive reception to her idea.
“Suddenly there was a greater awareness, that came out of nowhere”, she remembers. At the same time, there was a much greater emphasis placed on being healthy, which fed perfectly into the concept of food recovery.
“Usually, food pantries are disher-outers of things like boxes of macaroni,” Boland tells me. But the food pantry drop sends a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables to families that enjoy them the very same day, not only reducing waste but also increasing equity in access to healthy foods. In this way, food recovery serves as a purveyor of social justice as well as just surplus produce.
That’s the vision behind the food rescue movement, led in the Boston area by organizations such as Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Food for Free. The apt term “food rescue” refers to the same process of redistribution exemplified by the Weston Road program, but applies it to grocery stores, farms, and even restaurants– it offers a convenient way to make use of food that is edible but for some reason unsellable, like food close to its expiry date or produce with a few minor blemishes. It’s hugely helpful to recipient organizations; for example, Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston, benefits from the equivalent of about $3000-4000/month of food distributed by Lovin’ Spoonfuls. Not all of it can or should be used; all those I talked to, from Pine Street Inn as well as from organizations on the donating end, emphasized the importance of dignity in food rescue. They all wanted to ensure the recipients of rescued food never feel they’re being given someone else’s waste, but the same high quality products they could buy in the supermarket. Most of the time, though, that’s exactly what they’re getting.
Organizations like Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Food for Free incentivize not wasting by making it easier for a business to donate extra food than to throw it out. Businesses can combine it with other waste-reducing practices to make the most of surplus food as well as minimize their own expenses. The EPA food recovery hierarchy rates uses for surplus food on a scale from most to least preferred. Ideally, a business would only resort to a less preferred use for surplus food when all options above it are unfeasible. At Volante Farms in Needham, for example, food that can’t be used moves first to the kitchen, where it is repurposed and sold as prepared food (there, it’s easier to cut the bruises out of an apple or use only half a damaged tomato). What the kitchen can’t use or what has a “sell by” date on that given day is pulled off the shelves and collected, and is picked up by several recipients and distributors, some on a weekly basis and others at more last-minute notice. Vegetable trimmings and other scraps are composted, keeping inedible food waste out of landfills where it would produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Whole Foods, while much larger than the family-owned Volante Farms, has also incorporated waste reduction into its mission, which was framed to me as nothing short of “doing everything we can to save the planet.” The grocery chain composts and recycles at all its locations, and all leftover food from the hot bar as well as bread and bakery items are shipped to food pantries each day. Some locations in Massachusetts also use what’s referred to as an “insinkerator” to produce energy from decomposing food waste. The device grinds food scraps and pumps the remaining substance into a tank outside the store, where it’s collected and transported to an anaerobic digester. The anaerobic digester captures the methane produced by the rotting food and converts it into electricity. Additionally, Whole Foods has chain-wide “zero waste days”, where all stores try to create as little trash as possible– some have come within fifty pounds of the target. The store’s efforts are particularly noteworthy because the chain is so large and so visible, making it a leader in all its endeavors; as it was put to me, “other grocery stores mimic us.” Its waste reduction initiatives can be expected to be emulated across the nation– although it’s only fair to point out that Whole Foods is also responsible for creating an expectation of perfect produce, which induces waste before fruits and vegetables ever reach the store by tightening controls on product aesthetic.
But what if a store ends up with surplus food when a rescue organization isn’t scheduled to pick it up? After all, food rescue is hugely time-sensitive; a day or two makes a big difference when we’re talking about, say, berries. As it turns out, there’s an app for that. Called Spoiler Alert, it functions almost like Uber or a food-specific Craigslist: anyone who signs up can post when they have food to donate or sell, and other nearby users can volunteer to pick it up. Pine Street Inn is connected through Spoiler Alert, and regularly receives postings on available food. The app’s approach is more piecemeal than a once-daily pick-up, but it still keeps from the landfill more random quantities of food that it otherwise would have been difficult to find a use for. As Jack Nolan, the acquisition and coordinating manager at Pine Street Inn, put it, “I don’t see why you wouldn’t do that. I just hate to see food wasted.”
I asked Nolan whether he thought people were aware of food rescue today. “It’s a valid question”, he replied, but added that, at least within the community of food pantries and shelters, the practice has become pretty universally known in the past few years. The same could be said for the sheer amount of waste produced by our food system; when I surveyed my classmates and asked them to guess the amount of food wasted in the U.S., they were significantly more likely to overestimate than underestimate it. They overestimated hunger, too, guessing an average of 25% for the food insecurity rate in Massachusetts, which is actually closer to 10%.
Given these results along with the mutually beneficial nature of food recovery (for businesses, their customers, the recipients of rescued food, and for the environment), it strikes me as odd that it hasn’t been implemented to a greater extent. The work done by individual organizations is incredible, but where’s the presidential debate question on government-sponsored food redistribution? The front page headlines featuring statistics of the month’s food rescue efforts? If Nolan’s and Boland’s observations are accurate, and if my classmates are to be trusted, then the problem isn’t that people don’t know there’s a problem. There aren’t many people who truly believe the U.S. doesn’t waste a lot of food. What the fact that food waste is overlooked and underreported suggests instead is that people just don’t see the problem as a problem, or at least, as one with a solution.
But we need only look as far as the intersection of Central and Rice or a few minutes up Forest Street to know that food waste to the degree we see it today isn’t an inevitability. It’s true that some food will always be thrown away, but even within a five-mile radius of Wellesley High there are many and multifaceted ways to minimize the amount of food entering landfills, while promoting positive social change at the same time. As anyone who’s picked a tomato off a late summer vine can tell you, access to fresh food is imperative to both physical and emotional well-being- – and so in reducing waste we can not only fight hunger, but foster health.