Whole Earth Review

Keeping it out of the dumpster

Keeping it out of the dumpster – collecting discarded food for the hungry

Joseph McConnell

“To die of hunger, to die of boredom… what’s the difference?”

“It’s FOOD, you dumb ass!” –graffiti

IT’S A COLD, BRIGHT MORNING; ice crystals on the windshield, ten o’clock or so; most of the downtown population is inside, off the street. I park the van next to the Del Rio, and my partner goes in to pick up the usual Wednesday donation of tortillas and beans. I load my arms with food we’ve gathered elsewhere and run across Ashley to the Day Shelter, a ratted-out storefront where people hang out, get counseling, and get in out of the cold. William the Cook is there to hold the door. The doughnuts are welcome, the white bread is fine, but then we get to one of the big lexan bins of prepared food. “Man,” says William, “I don’t know what this is.” And neither do I — it seems to be mostly peas and cornflakes. I take William’s expert word for it that his clientele won’t fully appreciate the substance; we dig out some apples instead, and the mysterious casserole goes back in the truck. Forty-five minutes later, after we’ve been to Miller House and a grocery bag drop-in program at the Community Center (“Good mornin’! Got any cakes?”) we’re back at headquarters. We’ve picked up and distributed just shy of a thousand pounds of food (including the peas and cornflakes; another program was happy to get it). It has cost the grocery stores, restaurants, and college dorms that donated the food maybe $10 in employee time — setting the food aside and saying good morning to us. It’s cost the agencies we gave it to exactly nothing. Since my partner and I are volunteers, it has cost our group very little: gas money, insurance, and energy. And it isn’t quite noon yet.

THERE IS, IT TURNS out, such a thing as a free lunch. Or nearly free. All over the country, every day, megatons of edible, attractive food are just pitched, flung in the dumpster. What’s worse, this isn’t food that can solve the world’s big, obvious hunger horrors; most of it is perishable. By the time it got to Somalia or Bosnia, it would be over the hill, no longer a boon but a health hazard. The window of opportunity for all this discarded food is narrow: a lot of it is fine today and maybe tomorrow; by the day after, it’s marginal. And that, of course, is why it’s being thrown out. Its current owners can’t or don’t want to sell it, and they have no channel for getting it to those who’d be happy to have it. So: into the dumpster. The consumer doesn’t see the waste — just an endless flow of cosmetically perfect produce, baked goods, dairy products — all stamped with dates comfortably far into the future. The dumpster is behind the store, out of sight.


We’re wheeling two grocery carts jammed with out-of-date bakery products toward the loading area in a supermarket. A customer stops us, thinking we’re stockers; she wants to buy one of the pizzas on the top of the cart. They look that good. Hell, they are that good. They’re indistinguishable from the pizzas back on the shelf. All that’s wrong is the date on the label.

MEANWHILE, people close at hand are short of food. We all know, intellectually, that there’s Hunger in America. You hear that slightly coy phrase often enough. What amazes you about American hunger when you first encounter it is not that it exists but what a lot of it there is, and how dose it is to plentiful supplies of food. American hunger is not a function of famine or war. It exists because of poverty and urbanization, because millions of people have neither money to buy food nor land and skills to produce it. These people live next door, often enough, to businesses and institutions that throw away edible food.

How much hunger is there? In a country where the hungry aren’t living in refugee camps, it hasn’t been easy to say. The numbers have been subject to inflation and deflation, especially as the federal government began to dial back its involvement in social programs. In the early eighties, as localities were trying to figure out just how much of a job the reds were handing back to them, various groups began trying to define hunger and quantify it. One effort was the Food Research and Action Center’s Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project. FRAC put together a standard survey that “measures hunger by asking a series of questions about the resources available to a household to buy food, the adequacy of the food consumed, food shortages, and the prevalence of hunger.”

They started off with a low-income neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut, then expanded the program to nine other states. Based on the data produced, FRAC estimated that “approximately 12 percent of all families with children under 12 experience hunger.” That works out, again according to FRAC, to about 5 million children. And those were the children who were clearly experiencing hunger; the survey also suggests that as many as 28 percent of families with children are “at risk” of hunger — people who could go hungry at any time, given just a quick shot of bad luck.

American hunger is obviously not the same as Saharan hunger or the hunger in a PLO camp or the hunger in Sarajevo. It doesn’t mean that the hungry people in question don’t eat, but that they don’t eat every day, or very well. It means that the food they can afford is not nourishing. It doesn’t mean that they collapse and die in the street (not often, anyway). It does mean frequent illness, low birth weight, poor attention span. It means that the already appalling urban schools are even less valuable to the children who come without breaklast. It means that homeless adults have even less of a chance to survive and get back off the street. And it’s getting worse.

In 1992, nearly 36 million of us were living below the poverty line — the highest number since 1964. In 1980, United Catholic Charities surveyed groups serving the poor and homeless. At that time, 23 percent of the people they served needed emergency food or shelter; in 1990, the number was 62 percent. In 1992, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that two-thirds of American cities had seen emergency food facilities turning people away because resources weren’t available. The need is there, and it is staggering.

IT’S A BAD MORNING for pickups. Two grocery stores didn’t set anything by; another place canceled — somebody called in sick. The people on the van are trying to figure out how to make what they have go around. It just isn’t going to be enough. So the woman who’s driving takes the van back to one of the supermarkets and buys sixty dollars’ worth of food out of her own pocket. The point isn’t the money or that she tries to keep it a secret; it’s that you come to think of food differently. You think of it as a responsibility.

SO THE STAGE was set: hunger increasing, traditional channels for aid being cut back, and a large but largely invisible surplus of food going to waste. By 1980 or 1981, people with a view into the food wholesale and retail systems or into the more traditional nonperishable food agencies were beginning to see an opportunity. The most common thing you hear from the start-up people, the ones who dug in and got something going, expresses a sense of frustration: there was food and there was hunger and, well, dammit, why don’t we just… and food rescue got underway.

Food rescue is the act of intervening when edible food is about to be discarded, and moving it for short distances to agencies that feed the hungry — sometimes moving it directly to the hungry. Food rescue groups supply a link between sources of food and those who need it, specializing in food that would otherwise be thrown out. Food rescue often {though not exclusively) focuses on perishable food, leaving nonperishables to other groups, typically called food banks. Sometimes the food rescue group is formed by a food bank, sometimes by a church or an aid agency. More rarely, a business will start a food rescue program, either to deal with its own surplus of food or “to give something back to the community.” Regardless of its genesis, any food rescue group has to deal with the same triad: donors, recipients, and labor. Donors are the people with food — distributors, retail stores, restaurants, institutional kitchens. Recipients are the agencies who feed people and the people themselves. And labor is labor: people who get the food from donors to recipients. Some groups work with paid staff, some with volunteers; however you approach it, the process is laborintensive. As one group puts it, “To feed people, you need people.”

A typical food rescue operation is probably one that grew out of a food bank, setting up a program to deal with perishable food that was offered to the parent group. As such, it probably started with a reasonable idea of who the recipients would be — by and large, the same groups receiving the nonperishable food — and a very informal view of the sources. In fact, operations may start out with one source, perhaps a supermarket willing to donate its out-of-date baked goods. They’re likely to begin with paid staff if the parent runs that way, with volunteers if that is the bank’s normal mode. Their area of service is likely to start out small, perhaps substantially smaller than the parent bank. And they’re probably going to operate as a transporter rather than as an enabler — that is, as a group that gets food and moves it rather than as a broker who puts donors and recipients in touch with each other.

There are other patterns of development. Churches and universities have spawned food rescue efforts, and restaurant owners like Katharine Kagel in Santa Fe and Paul Saginaw in Ann Arbor have set up, funded, or otherwise encouraged fledgling programs. And to help out, to work with national corporations, and to provide standards of practice, there’s a national association: Foodchain. Foodchain was established in 1992 by a group of food rescue organizations interested in boosting the visibility and credibility of the process. Their membership grew quickly; they now list the majority of US food rescue programs. A national organization may seem incongruous for groups that operate on such local levels, but because the field was expanding so quickly and serving so many people, there was beginning to be a need for standards. For example, food rescue deals with perishable food, just as food stores, restaurants, and wholesalers do. Those people have to operate under health and sanitation regulations; do food rescuers? What happens if people become ill after eating rescued food? Who is liable? Who screwed up? Is there a need for special standards for donated food, or is that just creating another bureaucracy? Part of Foodchain’s purpose is to help member groups answer questions like those. They’ve made a start by requiring that affiliated groups operate under their own state and local health department rules, just as the food donors do. {Incidentally, the health record of food rescue is outstanding. No cases of serious illness related to rescued food have been reported.)

Another area in which national cooperation is becoming important is that of national donors. A local program with, say, three employees and a dozen volunteers is not going to have much luck approaching a national restaurant chain. They may even have trouble getting the local franchise to donate, especially if headquarters has concerns about liability. Foodchain, on the other hand, can approach companies on the national level; they’ve already been able to help Pizza Hut expand an existing donation policy. And the group is beginning to use the food industry’s media to advantage. This year, Foodchain made presentations at the National Restaurant Association’s trade show, and a Washington PR firm has donated time and space for an ad campaign that will run in restaurant trade journals. Food rescue depends on individual donors making small changes in the way they run their business: “Set it aside and call us, don’t throw it out.” To make that happen, the idea has to be planted, and Foodchain’s argument is that a national group is best able to do that.

Not everyone agrees. U.S.A. Harvest is a network of aggressively individualistic food rescue programs, started by a man named Stan Curtis and modeled after his Kentucky Harvest operation. Curtis comes across as a booster, the classic Middle American businessman with what reporters like to call “boundless energy.” His view of the food rescue process is an allvolunteer vision, with no paid staff and no fundraising activities; they just move food. He begins by telling you that “nobody gets paid, nobody gets a big executive job… we are nothing more than a group that wants to have a positive effect.” Nevertheless, U.S.A. Harvest won’t participate in Foodchain; in fact, Curtis told me that he doesn’t know “what Foodchain is.” For their part, while the mainstream food rescue groups acknowledge the contribution that U.S.A. Harvest chapters make — where they operate in the same areas, they may cooperate to a certain extent — the wish is expressed again and again: it would be better if they brought their energy and enthusiasm to the common table; it would be better if they came in from the cold.

TWO VOLUNTEERS ARE standing outside a dormitory cafeteria, button-holing undergraduates as they go in to dinner, asking them to “give up a meal a month, feed the hungry right here in Ypsilanti.” It’s the third year we’ve run the program: students agree to skip certain meals, the university donates the equivalent savings in food, university staff donate their time to prepare it, and we take it to feeding agencies. The first two years, we had to explain that over and over again. This year, we seem to have reached critical mass; they’re coming to us, saying, “Where do I sign up? …. I did this last year, too.” “Come on, Fred, sign it. It’s good for you.” In two hours, we get nearly 200 names.

FOOD GATHERERS is a food rescue program located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1988, Paul Saginaw, co-owner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, decided to put some ideas on food rescue into practice. Saginaw says that a good business takes care of its customers, its employees, and its community; Zingerman’s had been wildly successful, and it was time to “give something back.” An employee, Lisa De Young, was ready for a change and interested in the challenge; the deli paid her a salary and provided a tiny office, freezer and cooler space, the loan of vehicles, clerical support, phones. The initial pool of volunteers drew heavily on the Zmgerman’s staff.

Lisa De Young started out doing it all — running food, writing grant proposals, lining up donors and agencies. Things went pretty well; today, Food Gatherers has eight people on staff, runs two refrigerated trucks, and moves forty to sixty thousand pounds of food a month. Food Gatherers is a transporter model, working with seventy to eighty volunteers, most of whom do food runs. Staff include an associate director (essentially an operating officer), a donor and agency coordinator, an outreach coordinator (a term that nonprofits seem to use when they mean “public relations”), a part time funding development person, a much-needed administrative coordinator, and two part-time paid food runners. Together with the area’s long-established Huron Harvest Food Bank, the group just purchased a defunct meatpacking plant, tuming it into a centralized food distribution point for the county.

If you ask De Young how that was accomplished, she’ll talk about methodology and philosophy. She’ll tell you to have fun. She’ll say keep it feasible, start with one donor and one recipient, and see if there’s anywhere to go. She’ll tell you to find out who else is doing hunger relief work; don’t compete, try to complement what they’re doing. But you get another insight when you work with her, namely that you have to have a fearless leader. You won’t get the volunteers you want — the hardworking, skillful ones — to give up a couple of days a month out of their lives unless they see the staff living the program. And the staff won’t live it unless the leader does. Unless there’s a mission ethic — Us Against Hunger! Run Food, Speak the Truth! We’ll Stop When We’ve Fed Everybody! — you’ll lose people, and you’ll lose momentum. Unless everybody in the triad is treated with respect and relentless egalitarianism, you’ll lose their attention. The people you’re feeding can’t be patronized. The food runners need their esprit de corps nurtured and their faults corrected with love and concern. And the donors have to feel rewarded for what they’re doing; it’s so easy to go back to the dumpster.

And then, when you have fed everybody, you can looking around for the next hurdle. Some food rescue groups are starting to work on the causes of hunger as well as hunger itself. For example, there’s Robert Egger’s DC Central Kitchen program. Besides feeding people, the Kitchen offers a twelve-week training program in food preparation. People from the agencies that Egger serves can sign up for the training, working under a professional chef and learning entrylevel skills. They also get exposure to first aid and CPR. Of the seventy-two people Egger’s group has trained so far, forty have gotten and kept jobs in the DC area. Egger says that food rescue is logical, but that he sees training — fighting hunger by fighting poverty — as “the future of the process.”

Another approach is to target specific needs in specific parts of the community. The Twelve Baskets food rescue program in Montgomery, Alabama, is starting a new effort, Children’s Table. Basing its food supply on planned overages — donations from restaurants that agree to deliberately prepare extra quantities of certain items — Children’s Table will supply an afternoon meal at a specific housing project, selected because 85 percent of the families are both low-income and single-parent. The meal, obviously, attempts to deal with nutrition problemss after the meal, officers from local air bases have volunteered to offer the children tutoring in basic subjects — expanding the scope to include issues of educational opportunity.

What these groups are doing seems to be a logical expansion of the food rescue idea: find a need, find an availability, get the two together safely and with a reasonable degree of efficiency. It’s interesting to fantasize about carrying the idea further. If education is going to hell in a handcart, form Skill Gatherers. Find disaffected or underemployed teachers and get them together with people who can’t read or weld or type. If public transportation is inadequate, or public housing is in poor repair, there could be ways to rescue wasted resources in those areas. The same kinds of organizations that rescue food can take on other shortages, too. To every waste, there is a gatherer — or there could be.

LATE AFTERNOON, OUR LAST drop-off. We’re taking five or six hundred pounds of miscellaneous groceries out to a low-income housing project. One resident has volunteered to run the distribution, we pile the food in her kitchen and living room, and the neighbors come with bags. We unload the truck, record the volume of food we brought, and start to drive out. On this run, my partner is the director; suddenly she points and says, “Oh God, why don’t we have a camera?” Three little kids — five, six, seven years old and perfectly selected for ethnic diversity — are skipping gaily down the sidewalk, each with a shopping bag, waving to us as we drive away in our big bright van with the orange carrots painted on the side.

Hours later, I’m still grinning.


Foodchain (The Association of Prepared and Perishable Food Rescue Programs): Christina Martin, Executive Director. 970 Jefferson Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30318; 800/845-3008.

Food Research and Action Center (An Anti-Hunger Research Organization): 1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, #540, Washington, DC 20009; 2021986-2200.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group