Dumpster-diving for the poor

Group pokes around local restaurants for unwanted food

photo by Andrew Purtell

Every year, the U.S. produces about 34 million tons of food waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But are local businesses in Boulder, a county that has the goal of producing “zero waste — or darn near” by 2025, really taking the steps needed to achieve this by 2025?

Not all of them are, according to Boulder Food Not Bombs (FNB) coordinators Hana Dansky and Caleb Phillips.

Food Not Bombs (http://www.boulderfnb.org) is a national and international grassroots movement that was founded by anti-nuclear activists in Cambridge, Mass. Since its creation in 1980, FNB groups have worked to end hunger across the world.

The Boulder chapter of FNB has waxed and waned in activity, but it recently gained momentum in mid-February when Dansky and Phillips began hosting dinner parties for the hungry.

“She [Dansky] started having these dinner parties and fed them food that we had rescued from area Dumpsters,” says Phillips. “We were teaching them that there is all of this food that was going to waste that you could eat.”

Dansky and Phillips figured out which local businesses threw away excess food each evening just by glancing in their Dumpsters each week. Unsettled by the amount of food that was being thrown away, the two began rescuing it, washing it multiple times with soap and water, then preparing it and serving it to the hungry at their dinner parties.

The dinner parties grew in size until Dansky and Phillips decided to recreate a chapter of FNB in Boulder and organize public feeds at the band shell in Boulder’s Central Park. The FNB coordinators went around to businesses that they knew were throwing out food and asked them to save their leftover produce, pastries and bagels so that one of them could pick them up.

“We’re an all-vegetarian organization and mostly vegan,” explains Dansky. “Part of that is for ethical issues and part of that is for health issues — we don’t want to get anyone sick.”

If a business agreed to donate its leftovers, Dansky or Phillips would pick them up on the evening before a meal. The two also spent the evening before each meal Dumpster-diving at those businesses that wouldn’t save and donate their excess food to FNB for one reason or another.

Unfortunately, digging through Dumpsters to rescue food isn’t a thing of the past for Dansky and Phillips. Many Boulder businesses are still turning them down when it comes to saving their leftover food for the hungry.

“In ’94 under the Good Samaritan Act, part of that was that unless it’s a case of utter neglect, you won’t get sued for donating food,” says Dansky.

Although she isn’t quite sure why some businesses won’t donate their excess food, Dansky thinks they might be hesitant because they don’t want to go through the extra work of setting the food aside to save it for donation.

Like Dansky, Phillips isn’t sure why many businesses won’t donate their food, but he thinks it could have to do with concerns about hurting their brand.

“Maybe they think having stale baguettes with the brand name on them would be harmful to them in some way, or perhaps they don’t want their brand associated with homelessness and hunger,” says Phillips. “Certainly there’s no legal reason why they couldn’t do it, so I could only assume it’s a marketing reason, but I’m not in a position to say.”

Phillips says they have asked Whole Foods and Alfalfa’s Market to donate their excess produce in the past, but both said they were unable to do so. Whole Foods told Phillips and Dansky that “it was hard to do because we have to get a lot of people on board,” and so FNB was added to a list of groups to work with in the future, says Phillips.

Mara Maxwell, a marketing director for Whole Foods, says the store is considering working with FNB.

“Alfalfa’s says they donate their food to Community Food Share or Emergency Family Assistance,” says Phillips. “I can tell it’s not all of their food, though, by just taking a peek in their compactor and seeing how much food they throw away.”

Alfalfa’s manager Mike Jackman says they donate packaged food to Community Food Share Monday through Friday, with a little produce.

“They [CFS] distribute to a lot of organizations,” says Jackman. “So when we partner with them, we can help a larger group of people than we could do on our own.”

Jackman says that CFS doesn’t have the resources to pick up food donations each weekend, so Alfalfa’s donates that produce to the Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA), which uses the leftovers to prepare meals.

Jackman said that although the store already donates its food to CFS and EFAA right now, it doesn’t mean Alfalfa’s might not give its leftovers to other organizations in the future.

When summer began, FNB started working with Friends Encouraging Eating Daily (FEED), another local organization that feeds the hungry. FEED is led by Chris Mitchell, manager of operations for Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow (BOHO), says Phillips. Since BOHO usually helps feed the homeless during the winter months, FEED takes over during the summer, says Phillips.

Earlier in the year, FNB would distribute its food on Sunday afternoons, but since many churches provide free food to the hungry on Sundays, FNB started distributing its meals with FEED on Saturdays at noon, Phillips says. FNB and FEED volunteers distribute meals to about 80 people every weekend on the south side of Boulder Creek, near the Boulder Public Library, Dansky says.

As of now, FNB prepares meals using leftovers that employees at Espresso Roma, Saxy’s Café, and Illegal Pete’s put aside for donation. Local Share, an online marketplace where people can advertise what they’re looking for and gift, loan, rent or sell items to the community, is also in the process figuring out how to work with FNB. Phillips says that it’s usually easier to get employees to put food aside for FNB because sometimes managers are worried about liability and brand image.

Anna Nord, an Illegal Pete’s employee, says that she got involved with FNB when a friend who had previously been apart of the Boulder chapter put her in touch with Dansky. On Saturday nights, Nord would bring home leftover rice and vegetables from Illegal Pete’s, then go over to Dansky’s the next morning to cook the food before they distributed it.

Nord says that she thinks employees at local businesses, grocery stores and farms should get involved in FNB.

“They [employees] should be concerned with food that’s wasted and perfectly good but is slightly damaged and could still feed people,” says Nord.

Nord argues that slightly bruised produce could be donated to FNB, which would in turn use the healthy part of the produce to create meals for the hungry.

“I think people should be more engaged in helping out not only the homeless, but there are also a lot of low-income families who need food,” Nord says. “It’s a waste of energy to throw away perfectly good food when it could be retransformed into a meal for somebody.”

Phillips says that in the future, FNB hopes to be the “short-term middle man” that will help distribute healthier food, such as produce, to local homeless shelters.

“There’s Community Food Share, and they get a bunch of food but can’t deal with perishables. They don’t have the ability to get fresh fruits and vegetables unless it’s a mass amount, so shelters aren’t getting the nutritious and healthy foods,” explains Phillips.

Aside from wanting to feed as many of the hungry as possible and getting more businesses to donate leftovers, Dansky says the Boulder FNB chapter also hopes to make it more sustainable.

“We’re just trying to build something that’s more sustainable in Boulder, and taking the food that’s going to waste to feed our homeless,” Dansky says. “We’re trying to raise awareness about food waste while still using food that’s being thrown out.”

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