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Waste Not
Food Rescuers Shouldn't Fight Over Limited Supply; Instead, Diversify

I’ve always been frustrated by infighting between food-rescue organizations working together to distribute scarce food donations — mostly from retailers. So, here’s my list of untapped sectors of the food system — where food is almost always genuinely going to waste.

It’s time to talk about an unfortunate reality in the food rescue industry: fighting over sources of donated food. 

During my seven years as executive director of Denver Food Rescue, I witnessed many inspiring examples of communities coming together with limited resources to solve problems such as food insecurity and food waste. A small food-rescue outfit might have zero staff and near-zero budget — but still manages to rescue thousands of pounds of otherwise-wasted food from a local grocer and deliver it to hundreds of low-income families. Just down the street, another organization is doing the same thing with a different set of volunteers, picking up food from a different grocery store. 

As the two organizations grow, it’s only natural that they decide to expand their operations into adjacent neighborhoods: the turf of yet another food-rescue group. Conflict arises when multiple groups are all courting a single grocery store, all competing for attention from aloof grocery store employees, and all cutting into one another’s donations. If the food-rescue organizations are collaborative, you might end up with a situation resembling divorced parents trading off children: Food Rescuer A gets to pick up food on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and every other weekend; Food Rescuer B gets the rest. If they are not collaborative, the situation can get quite nasty...

I’ve always been fascinated, and a little appalled, by this competition between food-rescue organizations. In a given city, there might be two or three food rescuers who downright hate each other because of how one group “stole” the food donation source from the other. These are the organizations working together to fix our broken food system and feed food-insecure families, and they’re fighting each other? It’s an odd picture to those outside the food-rescue universe, but anyone from within this world knows exactly what I’m talking about. I’d love to see some research on this done. Everything I’m saying here is anecdotal, but I’ve heard it time and time again from organizations all over the world. 

Can’t we all just get along?

What is the real culprit keeping these organizations from kumbaya? What is it about these organizations that causes the infighting? The answer to that is complex and multifaceted. It has to do with the very nature of our nonprofit industrial complex, where charities are under immense pressure from their donors to perform. Short of revolutionizing the whole nonprofit system, I argue there’s a straightforward first step to moving towards a more peaceful and collaborative food-rescue environment. Why fight over the scarce resource of donated food from just one sector of the food system (mainly grocery retail), when there are massive sources of healthy food just waiting out there to be rescued?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, less than 20 percent of food waste comes from the retail and distribution sectors; yet, 74 percent of food donations come from these sectors. If food-rescue organizations diversified where they got their food, it would prevent more food waste — and reduce bad blood within the food-rescue industry because there would be more food to go around. So, here’s my list of untapped sectors of the food system, where food is almost always genuinely going to waste.

1. Gardens

Image credit: Fresh Food Connect/Facebook

In the US alone, more than 70 million households participate in some type of backyard gardening. That’s a great deal of food; and where there’s a lot of food, there’s a lot of waste. We’ve all been victims of the “zucchini problem,” either on the giving or receiving end. On the receiving end, you might find a paper bag of footlong zucchinis on your front porch, abandoned there by your desperate neighbor. On the giving end, you might have spent a whole week in late August baking zucchini bread, only making a small dent in your homegrown abundance. Food rescuers should tap into this ultra-quality food source to provide more fresh produce to their participants. 

Fresh Food Connect is a nonprofit focused on solving the “zucchini problem” by providing a convenient way to “share your backyard bounty.” By downloading the Fresh Food Connect app, backyard gardeners can help prevent waste of the highest quality type of food there is: homegrown. Food rescue organizations around the country are now using the Fresh Food Connect app to coordinate weekly pickups of donated home-grown food from gardeners in their area. “One unforeseen benefit,” says Fresh Food Connect CEO Helen Katich, “is that the food-rescue operators tend to make better relationships with gardeners, who might end up making financial contributions, or volunteering.” In the past year, Fresh Food Connect has grown from operating in 119 zip codes, to more than 480 in 2021 (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of Fresh Food Connect). 

2. “Wild” food

Image credit: Falling Fruit/Facebook

Ever wondered where the apples from the tree in the public park by your house go? Chances are, they fall on the ground to become squirrel food. What if all the delicious raspberries hanging over your neighbor’s fence and cherries from the tree down the block could help to reduce food insecurity of your other neighbors? This is the opportunity presented to anyone willing to take the time to harvest the “wild food” already growing in their area. Food-rescue organizations could increase the supply of healthy food they distribute to their participants by tapping into this free and overlooked food source. (and the Falling Fruit app) helps turn anyone into an urban harvest forager. The site is totally addicting — as someone who loves maps, I find myself scrolling through my area endlessly, looking for what goodies might be right around the corner. Wild food is a great reminder that there is a thin line between a “food desert” and a food sanctuary. Oftentimes, the food that can help reduce food insecurity in a low-income area can be hiding in plain sight in the form of fruits grown on public trees. I think food rescuers could be the force to popularize the utilization of this type of food. 

3. Farm surplus

Image credit: Uproot Colorado/Facebook

The reason there’s a difference between food “waste” and food “loss” is because in many cases, farmers are basically cornered into letting perfectly good food rot in the field due to unfavorable market conditions. For example, let’s say a tomato farmer in Colorado has an average production year; but her competitor in California has an unseasonably wet growing season, flooding the market with ripe California tomatoes. The California farmer can sell for less, so a portion of the Colorado farmer’s crop isn’t able to be sold. Another example could be a simple labor shortage, or problems down the supply chain (as we saw in 2020 with COVID disrupting grocery stores). In all of these cases, it’s no fault of the farmer, who fully intended to be able to sell all her crops. That’s why we call it food loss, because its food that the market is inadvertently missing out on (now’s a good time for a reminder that one in seven Americans is food insecure). 

Nonprofit food-rescue organizations can fly in the face of these capitalistic market shortcomings, and use community power to unlock the bounty to help farmers and food-insecure populations alike. One great example of this type of organization is Uproot Colorado, which organizes groups of volunteers to glean otherwise-lost food from rural farms around Colorado. Farmers can schedule gleans on the website, and a group of volunteers will arrive to harvest and transport all the excess food to a nearby food pantry or food bank. It’s a great way to tap into more food, and if you’re an urban food-rescue organization, it’s a great way for urban kids and volunteers to get their hands dirty and reconnect with their agrarian counterparts. 

4. Nutritious byproducts 

Image credit: Untapped

Pick a food manufacturing operation and there’s bound to be a nutritious byproduct going to waste. In beer brewing, it’s spent grain; in chocolate manufacturing, it’s cacao fruit; in juicing, it’s pulp. The list goes on and on. These nutrient-dense byproducts often go to waste because there’s not an established market for them yet. Food rescuers have a massive opportunity to prevent this waste while earning revenue by upcycling these byproducts into new products. 

When I was at Denver Food Rescue, we had way too much bread. Any food rescuer will agree — there is Always too much bread being donated; and the starchy, high-carb stuff doesn’t feel great to donate to populations that already experience disproportionately high rates of diet-related illness. Studies show that food pantry participants want more dairy, protein and products — not bread. And if you’re forcing your participants to take home five loaves of bread just so you can get rid of it, you’re basically just offloading the responsibility to throw this bread away. 

So, what does a thrifty nonprofit do with too much bread? We made beer! Following the Toast Ale model, we partnered up with a local brewery — who brewed the sugar within the excess bread from a local bakery into a delicious pale ale. The beer was called Penny Loafer — because, in addition to helping reduce food waste, it raised money for Denver Food Rescue and our partner organization. For every pint sold, a dollar was donated; and a substantial amount of money was raised through this philanthropy-independent program. The beer was sold at local restaurants, which became great venues for impressing prospective financial supporters. 

The radical message of the upcycled food movement is that all food has a higher-value use waiting to be unlocked. Instead of paying to have that bread hauled away, food-rescue organizations should be capitalizing on it, increasing financial sustainability and reducing reliance on grants and donations. Mix this concept with any other I've listed, and you have a special opportunity: Make cherry jam from the wild cherries you collect and auction it off at your next fundraiser, or make a garden-to-table dinner for your volunteers using the homegrown food you rescue with the Fresh Food Connect app. 

Prevalence of upcycled foods is growing, thanks in part to the work of Upcycled Food Association (UFA — full disclosure: I’m the CEO). Future Market Insights predicts a five percent growth of the upcycled industry, and the UFA wants to at least double that growth rate. There’s no reason food-rescue organizations shouldn’t be at the forefront of this booming opportunity. 

Of course, diversifying food-donation sources won't address the root causes of food-rescue infighting, but it can alleviate the immediate strain that organizations feel from one another. The food-rescue industry, and the rest of the food-waste industry, is new. The more we know about the industry and the more we diligently study its inner workings, the more we can improve it.