Hungry for a smarter food system

Organizations strive to alleviate food waste, hungry families

Patrons of the Community Food Share

At 8:30 a.m. on a chilly December morning outside of Community Food Share, a local food bank just off of Highway 119, people of all shapes, sizes and colors line up with shopping carts waiting for the doors to open so they can acquire the groceries needed to feed their families for the week. Moms comfort still-sleepy children, an older gentleman shifts side to side, trying to shield himself from the early morning wind, and a few singles shuffle their feet and look up at the mountain view. As the doors open, people pull out a card to show at the front. They’re not pulling out ATM or credit cards, but, rather, their IDs. Many of these people visit this location weekly and belong to some of the 1,300 families that Feeding Families, a program run by Community Food Share that focuses on families with children in their schools’ free lunch programs, will help feed this year.

Forty percent of all the food produced in the U.S. goes uneaten, resulting in $165 billion a year in waste, according to an August 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council. The current model for food production and delivery in the U.S. accounts for 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, 50 percent of U.S. land and 80 percent of all freshwater consumption, according to that same report. But while all these resources are consumed, 50.1 million Americans are going hungry annually, and nearly half of the food produced in the U.S. is going to waste in landfills, where it produces almost 25 percent of the methane emissions in the U.S.

A patron of Community Food Share | Photo courtesy of Community Food Share

One in six Americans are food insecure, meaning they do not know where or when they will have their next meal, according to the National Resources Defense Council. Boulder and Broomfield counties are not faring much better than the national average. Locally, one in six people in Boulder and Broomfield counties live at 130 percent of the poverty line, where money for food is oftentimes swapped for rent or utilities costs, according to Community Food Share. The 60,000 people, including 13,000 children, who fall below this line would overflow University of Colorado’s Folsom Field.

“In communities like ours, poverty is invisible, especially when most of these people are working,” says Terry Tedeschi, development director for Community Food Share, one of Feeding America’s 200 regional food banks around the country, serving Boulder and Broomfield counties. “They are people we see every day, at the gas station, painting our homes. They do not wear a sign saying, ‘I’m poor.’ They are mainly hard-working people with families.”

In an effort to mitigate food waste and redistribute food to those in need before it spoils, food banks, food pantries and other nonprofit organizations are working in tandem with national and local grocery stores, restaurants and farms. Locally, organizations like Community Food Share, Emergency Family Assistance Association and Boulder Food Rescue, a nonprofit that was started in 2011 by CU-Boulder students and alumni, work daily to close the food waste gap and get food to the people who need it rather than allow it to go to a landfill.

Community Food Share reports redistributing nearly 8 million pounds of food to more than 35,000 individuals each year. Their staff estimates that there are 4,000 local families in need and has plans to move into a larger location in Louisville in early 2013 to increase distribution and add clients. Their capital campaign to finance the new location has been sponsored almost exclusively by independent donors, including an anonymous donation of $2.5 million.

Community Food Share acquires food from Feeding America and major retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods and food corporations like WhiteWave Foods, and distributes it to more than 50 other local basic-needs agencies, including the Emergency Family Assistance Association, which also receives the majority of its funding from in-kind — non-food — and individual donations, along with food stuffs gathered at food drives often run by faith organizations, schools and groups like the Girl Scouts.

“All these donations, big and small, are so important,” says Liz Rowland, Emergency Family Assistance Association’s food bank manager. “They all add up and make such a difference in many people’s lives.”

In 2012, the Emergency Family Assistance Association estimated supporting 4,540 families and distributing more than 746,547 pounds of food valued at $1,261,664 out of its Boulder Food Bank.

While Community Food Share and Emergency Family Assistance Association mainly distribute canned foods and dairy products, along with whatever produce and meat they can source, Boulder Food Rescue is working with local grocery stores and restaurants to distribute fruits and vegetables that are nearing expiration. Rather than having this food travel to a third-party warehouse, like Community Food Share’s, one of their 175 volunteers picks food up on bicycle and pedals it over to recipients who will be able to eat the food immediately.

“We started Boulder Food Rescue in order the fill the niche — to help close the gap left by organizations like Community Food Share,” explains Hana Dansky, Boulder Food Rescue’s executive director. “Warehouse systems like those can’t handle soon-to-expire foods. We take the food directly from the donor to the recipient, which expedites the process in order to save the food, like fruits and vegetables that are close to perishing.”

Boulder Food Rescue is operated almost entirely by bicycle power, and because food is thrown away just blocks from people who need it, she says, there is little need for cars.

A bicycle used by Boulder Food Rescue

“I’m just so grateful,” says Cindy, a 48-year-old newly single mother of two young children and the recipient of food redistributed by the Emergency Family Assistance Association and Community Food Share, who asked that her last name be withheld. “It’s a life transition for me, and I don’t want to feel ashamed, but they’ve given me an opportunity to start over and provide for my children. I can now go to bed at night knowing that my children are not hungry.”

Cindy says she left her husband of 13 years last year after he began locking the family’s food in the basement. While he was making roughly $150,000 annually, she says, she was given an allowance of just $250 per month to purchase food and other necessities for herself and her two children. Cindy learned of Emergency Family Assistance Association through the Boulder Valley School District, which has added her children to the free school lunch program.

But it’s not just single parents who are in need.

“Food needs must be viewed in a larger context,” says Terry Benjamin, Emergency Family Assistance Association’s executive director. “Food needs squeeze people with low income and, increasingly, the middle class. More people need to be calling their representatives and telling them not to cut back on government programs like food stamps. Nonprofits like ours and others just can’t make up the gap.”

Community engagement, education and volunteers are also important in making the local food distribution process efficient and effective.

“Kids are taking on projects in schools and learning, and people in our community are very generous with their time and resources,” Benjamin says.

“These organizations and the volunteers and staff who work at them make such a difference in people’s lives,” says Cindy. “They provide people with the ability to make their lives better, and they do it civilly and graciously. “Because of these organizations, we eat better than we did on $150,000 a year because no food is locked up,” continues Cindy. “I’m treated kindly and respectfully and my kids can go to the fridge and eat whatever they want, whenever they’re hungry.”

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