Longmont Food Rescue is saving plates

Challenges, opportunities lie ahead for Longmont Food Rescue after first year of helping save the city’s food

Longmont Food Rescue volunteers Becky and Lauren Thelen work together to gather and transport food from Whole Foods to a church in need of assistance.

Every community wastes food. Many just send it to the landfill. More evolved communities connect food suppliers with food banks, and cans of beans and hearts of palm find new homes.

But in truly evolved food communities, you’re likely to find magical food fairies riding on bicycles, trucking a trailer full of fresh food rescued from the trash to people and groups across town.

Nearly one year ago, Longmont became the latest Front Range city to support one such food rescue organization. Kelly Mahoney quit her job as an engineer and founded Longmont Food Rescue to fill in the gaps of what existed in Longmont’s food system and to help bring food to the city’s neediest and to those in its food deserts — neighborhoods where accessing healthy, affordable food is a challenge for its residents.

Despite the proliferation of food waste awareness and of food rescues (like the Food Rescue Alliance, of which Longmont Food Rescue is a member, that provides assistance to groups around the country), Mahoney says education is the first step in reducing food waste.

“We’re coming to a realization that the food system right now currently is not sustainable and even though there are so many services out there, the need [to reduce food waste] has grown year after year, so something is not quite matching up,” Mahoney says.

Mahoney and the other Front Range food rescues are hosting the annual Forward Food Summit on April 28, and they’ll be concentrating on the intersection of gentrification and food scarcity — how pricing lower income people out of their longtime neighborhoods pushes them into areas that have less access to healthy, affordable food. Panels at the summit will seek solutions for this issue, which no doubt affects plenty of Front Range communities, but Mahoney says it’s a complicated problem that will require people to plunge deep into how their food choices, however innocuous seeming, affect people.

“One example is community gardens can actually be like gentrifying a neighborhood because it takes up land or it makes the property surrounding it a lot more expensive,” Mahoney says.

Longmont represents a unique testing ground for the concepts espoused by the Longmont Food Rescue. On the one hand, Mahoney says “people are involved here, they really are,” and recounts all the advocates for political, environmental, animal rights and other causes she’s come across in her year in the city’s nonprofit space. On the other hand, only one grocery store in Longmont currently donates food seven days a week. Restaurants still produce thousands of pounds of wasted food every year. And, Mahoney says, there are challenges presented by the community itself.

“It might be one of those issues, you know Boulder County seems like they might be attuned to it or they’re all about composting or sustainability, but when you dig down to it, they’re really not,” Mahoney says.

That’s not meant as a slight; it’s validation of the quest to educate people in the community about what it really means to be part of a food system. Mahoney says there are other food rescues that have easier times navigating their communities; it might be that because Longmont and Boulder County are so big, and so relatively wealthy, that there is a disconnection between food producers and those in need.

But Longmont Food Rescue is finding creative ways to get their message before community members, to hasten their education. Once a month, the group hosts a “produce in the park” event, where food is procured from a local farm or store, and people can come to their stand at a rotating park and take food for free, no questions asked. 

“It’s just a great gathering of different people from all walks of life,” Mahoney says. “It’s homeless individuals, homeless families that are showing up, to people that pick up for their neighbor because they know their neighbor is housebound. … And then you have the folks who maybe are just walking through the park, and we start up a conversation with them and they say, ‘Oh no, I don’t need that food.’ But it’s a good conversation-starter to be like, ‘When you say that, you’re perpetuating the notion that you’re above someone who quote-unquote needs that food.’”

Mahoney encourages everyone, of all means, to visit and take food from the park events, because it’s meant to be a wholly communal experience — though Longmont Food Rescue does direct most of their regular deliveries of rescued food to people of lesser means.

One benefit of a food system that still hasn’t embraced salvaging as much food as possible is that there’s plenty of room to grow. Mahoney says her goal is to get every grocery store in Longmont to shift to seven-day-a-week donations; currently only Whole Foods manages to do that. Mahoney says, “We don’t really care who they donate to either,” because it could ultimately mean thousands of pounds of saved food annually.

“I mean, if you go behind grocery sites and you see the dumpsters, they’re still overflowing,” Mahoney says. “They really rely on the falsehood of their liabilities. But there’s really great national and state laws that protect any kind of donor, including the grocery stores.”

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects people who donate food they believe to be in good condition from liability should the food turn out to be bad. In the 22 years since its creation, Mahoney says there have been no challenges to it, indicating liability is an excuse for many potential donors.

Too, Mahoney says, grocery stores are escaping the liability issue while also touting their greenness by composting wasted food. “A lot of businesses are picking up the idea of composting as the new thing, but through that whole movement, people have forgotten that before composting comes the really important step of donating that food,” Mahoney says. “So when they compost, they think they’re doing really good, and they’re promoting their business as being sustainable, but they’re really missing the point. We’re trying … to say, ‘Hey, composting is great, but if you’re composting, you’re missing one really important step before that, which is donating.”

But change starts at the individual level, and Longmont Food Rescue is practicing that principle through the Fresh Food Connect program. People can sign up at freshfoodconnect.org, and a member of the team will pick up excess produce from home gardens via an electric tricycle and trailer.

And to ensure that community members who are not turned onto these issues are aware of their work, Longtucky Spirits, Left Hand Brewing and St. Vrain Cidery are hosting the Food Truck Pair-Up on Saturday, April 21 from 4-9 p.m. at St. Vrain Cidery. It’s a part of Longmont Restaurant Week, and 100 percent of proceeds from drink sales will benefit Longmont Food Rescue.

It’s the ideal marriage of a burgeoning food scene and a nonprofit dedicated to getting food into the hands of those less fortunate. And for Longmont, it’s a sign of good things to come. 

For more information and event info, visit longmontfoodrescue.org.