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Americans waste a lot of usable food – enough to feed a surprising number of people

By Tanya Ishikawa

It’s like a game of Tetris.

Arranging the packages of donated food into a stable matrix on the Boulder Food Rescue bike trailer can be a challenge for volunteer Christina Gosnell. She enjoys the puzzle, and though more donations mean a heavier load for her to pull, she beams with a beatific expression.

“I like to find ways to fit as much as I can on my delivery,” the 2012 University of Colorado graduate reveals. “I don’t have far to go anyway; I have one of the shortest routes. One volunteer has to bike six miles round-trip.”

Gosnell, who works full-time as operations director of the Boulder-based nonprofit Clean Energy Action, is also one of 150 active volunteers delivering food from nearly 20 markets and food retailers around Boulder to more than 30 destinations. The food is an important part of the diets of a wide range of people in need of healthy food, from runaway youth to low-income senior citizens and homeless families.

“Americans waste 40 percent of all the food we produce,” says Hana Dansky, the nonprofit’s executive director, “so we work to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste by gleaning it from a variety of partners, even farmers’ markets.”

Two of the organization’s founders did research at Community Food Share, and discovered the amount of food going to waste each year in Boulder and Broomfield counties was enough to feed all the people in those two counties.  “With that kind of knowledge, we created our model of decentralized, just-in-time delivery to address the issue of food waste,” Dansky explains. “Many food banks rescue food and take it to a warehouse, sort it, and then redistribute it. In the three to four days it takes to do that, many of the soon-to-expire fruits and vegetables have gone bad. We go directly from a grocery store to a recipient organization so that fruits and vegetables can be used that day.”

To avoid climate-changing pollutants in its activities, nearly 90 percent of the organization’s volunteers deliver the food on 80 routes a week by bike. Since 2011, when Boulder Food Rescue was founded, more than 550,000 pounds of edible food was redirected from a path to landfills to feed the hungry in Boulder. A study of deliveries to one client, Bridge House, estimated that rescued food represented 66 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables served at the resource center for the homeless.

“Our clients are basically anybody that needs fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets,” Dansky says. “Hunger is not always how we stereotype it. Oftentimes, people think hunger is only in the homeless population, but in fact, hunger is immense in the working poor, families and the elderly population.”

Working … and Hungry

Suzanne Crawford, the CEO of Sister Carmen Community Center in Lafayette, agrees. “There is no typical person that comes here. Truly, people from all walks of life come to get food. Many people we serve have someone in the household who is working, but the family is still not making enough to survive. We see a wide range of household sizes, from a single person to doubled-up families.”

Crawford says 45 percent of households served by Sister Carmen’s food pantry have at least one person working; the households without a working member include those actively looking for jobs as well as disabled or elderly individuals who cannot hold down jobs. “Recently more people who are considered as middle-class need assistance. People who were not asking for assistance in the past are asking for assistance now,” she says.

The issues of hunger and poverty in Boulder County are exacerbated by the high cost of living and housing prices. Crawford estimates that  to be completely self-sufficient here, a family of four would need to bring in more than $60,000 a year. “It’s hard for many of the families we see to get that type of job,” she says. “Even if they have the right education, and a lot do not, there is a lot of competition for those jobs because there are not enough of them available.”

Sister Carmen serves eastern Boulder County, and has a thrift store as well as support services such as application help for public benefits and English-language and economic-stability classes. Residents of the city of Boulder, Longmont and the mountain towns are served by other food pantries, such as Emergency Family Assistance Association, Harvest of Hope and O.U.R. Center. These nonprofits’ food pantries receive food from a variety of sources, including donors, food drives and larger food banks like Community Food Share.

‘The Kids Come First’

Joseph [not his real name] is a Sister Carmen client and a volunteer in the thrift store. He separates and sizes clothing donations, cleans, and shovels snow to pay back the organization for its support. Though both he and his wife work full time and she goes to school part time as well, they make a Sister Carmen run for groceries a few times a year when they “hit rough patches. If you have children, you have to swallow your pride and go in and get it done,” he admits. “The kids come first.”

They used to have four children in the house, but two are now adults out on their own. Still, feeding their remaining two children can be difficult when big bills empty their bank accounts. “We get down to the nitty-gritty, down to maybe some oatmeal, a couple cans of vegetables and a little vegetable oil,” he says. “We usually run out of meat first. We like to feed our kids right, but it’s not easy or cheap. Milk is huge, especially with teenagers; they just don’t stop drinking it. We could easily go through four to five loaves of bread a week when we had four kids in the house.”

Although he has earned certificates in computer tech support and network engineering, a 20-year-old prison record and past problems with drugs, alcohol and depression make it hard for Joseph to get a better-paying job. His wife has had challenges of her own. In 1995, before she met Joseph, she was left in debt, lost the mobile home she owned and was living in a shelter after her ex-husband went to prison.

The couple went through bankruptcy a few years ago, rents their townhouse and has no credit, so Joseph’s wife budgets their money carefully and clips coupons while he drives a $500 car to make ends meet. Still, health issues or injuries—like an accident that resulted in a $160,000 medical bill—can mean no money is left for food.

“There’s a lot of struggling people in Boulder County. We keep our noses to the grindstone but it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s just not,” Joseph explains. “Boulder County fortunately is one of the more assistance-oriented places I’ve lived. There’s a lot of quality programs.”

While he says the food pantry has always had a good selection of produce, eggs, milk and fresh foods that aren’t typical of food banks, he likes the new system of picking up food. It’s more like regular grocery shopping, a trend in food assistance called client choice. “They used to provide us with a set pack that they would bag up for you. Now you pick out what you want based on a point system for each section. It works better because when they picked it out for you the kids wouldn’t eat a lot of the stuff. We would wind up swapping with other people we met going to the food bank.”

The Shame of It

Joseph’s son and daughter go to Centaurus High School and are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, along with 31 percent of their classmates. But his son is so embarrassed by it that he makes his own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to take to school. Kids can feel stigmatized by hunger, cautions Ann Cooper, the director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District. Though the free- and reduced-lunch program does not publicly identify students, she says, people need to understand that bullying can happen when other students find out.

Beyond the social stigma, hunger causes academic challenges. “Hungry kids can’t learn; malnourished kids can’t think,” Cooper says. “Research also shows that a healthy breakfast has other positive effects like less absenteeism, less tardiness and less behavioral issues.”

Boulder County Housing & Human Services locally oversees the federal food-assistance program called SNAP, which was formerly known as food stamps. It provides clients with electronic pay cards that can be used at supermarkets, including nontraditional ones like Target, Walmart and Whole Foods. Communications director Jim Williams views the system as a win/win for the larger community as well as the clients.

When people and families are healthy and have access to adequate nutrition, they’re much more likely to be able to stabilize themselves in difficult times,” he says. “Children thrive in school, parents are better able to find and maintain employment, and healthcare crises are reduced. More intensive services to help people in times of crisis are more expensive. So,” he concludes, “when our community is more stable, everyone does better.”

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Tanya Ishikawa writes often for Boulder Magazine about humanitarian issues, politics and the arts.