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3/31/23

Food Rescue for the Environment

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More than one-third of food produced in the U.S. is never eaten. With every bad apple, cracked egg, expired can, or package of meat that lands in a dumpster — and later a landfill — the resources spent to grow produce, raise livestock, process that food, and transport it to grocery stores go to waste.

According to the EPA, “food waste is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the U.S., comprising 24 and 22 percent of landfill and combusted municipal solid waste, respectively.” On a global scale, food waste accounts for “eight percent of anthropogenic greenhouse emissions,” while the U.S. wastes more food per person than any other country in the world.

It’s because of those greenhouse gas emissions (driven by the anaerobic decomposition which happens in landfills) that Project Drawdown identified reducing food waste as one of the top three solutions for addressing climate change. The organization estimates that reducing food waste could prevent up to 102.2 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to fight food waste and the harm it is having on our climate, Ali Dunford founded and ran Hole Food Rescue and continues to advise and watch the organization thrive.  After running the organization for ten years, she transitioned away from the day-to-day of the organization to be the founding team member at Walking Softer, catalyzing our vision and mission to become what it is today.

The story of Hole Food Rescue starts with you dumpster diving and realizing how much food grocery stores were throwing out on a daily basis. How did you initially get into dumpster diving?

Ali: In college at the University of Colorado - Boulder, I started dating a dumpster diver. He was an amazing chef — and he would make these extravagant meals out of food exclusively salvaged from dumpsters. He taught me how to dumpster dive. When I moved to Jackson after graduating, I dove in headfirst, pun intended. I was finding so much food every day, it was insane. Literally, anything you can buy in the grocery store, I was finding in the trash. I got my roommates into it, I got my coworkers into it, I got my friends into it. I would go twice a day.

So you were rescuing food from grocery store dumpsters and eating it yourself or sharing it with friends. When did you decide to start your own official food rescue program?

Ali: One day, I opened the dumpster lid and it was overflowing with packaged chicken breast. At the time, I was a vegetarian, so I pulled out all this chicken and gave it to my friend who was a meat eater. All I could surmise was wrong with it was that the date on the package had come to pass. I was looking down at the dumpster overflowing with all this chicken and I thought, ‘Holy crap. This is an incredible environmental travesty that we’ve pumped all of these resources into producing this food product, not to mention an actual animal’s life — and we’re just throwing it away.’ I think because I was a vegetarian and so pro-animal rights (which I still am), it struck me in a way that seeing thrown-away produce or thrown-away boxes of cereal never could have. At that point, I decided to start a food rescue.

The first thing I did was talk to the grocery store where I had primarily been dumpster diving. It was a locally owned health food store. I set up a meeting with the owner and told him, ‘I want to take your surplus food.’ I wasn’t totally forthcoming that I was rummaging through his dumpster every day, but I think he read between the lines and figured it out. I presented him with this plan: ‘We want to take food that you can’t sell but is still good to eat and bring it to organizations that are serving low-income folks.’ It took no convincing at all. I was not thinking that we would be rescuing food the next day, but we were!

Hole Food Rescue partners with a lot of organizations to distribute food to people in the community: the senior center, homeless shelter, free after-school literacy program, women’s shelter, etc. Grocery stores are donating the food — you’re not dumpster diving for it — but how do you make sure it gets to the appropriate organizations?

Ali: Hole Food Rescue has a hub model where we take all the food to a central location where we sort and process it depending on where we’re sending it that day. On a given day, we might be sending food to the after-school literacy program and to the homeless shelter. For the after-school program, we’ll send over kid-friendly fruit and veggie snacks, maybe some muffins or crackers, juice boxes — it depends on what has come in. But then for the homeless shelter, where they’re preparing full meals, we would send onions, mushrooms, potatoes, gallons of milk and things that they can use in a kitchen to make meals. We use the facility to sort the food and make customized boxes for our partners.

What are the main causes of food waste from grocery stores?

Ali: Food gets wasted — or if there’s a rescue program in place, gets donated — for a number of reasons:

One is expiration dates. This would primarily be on packaged foods or dairy and meat. Expiration dates have almost no scientific or safety standard. It’s basically a manufacturer’s best guess at when a product will be at its peak quality. Expiration dates also drive grocery stores to buy more of your product to restock their shelves and cycle out old product.

Another is imperfection. The weird-shaped carrots or the dented apple, the browning bananas. Things that aren’t perfect.

And then just general surplus. At one point, we got hundreds of pounds of bananas because someone put an extra zero on the store’s banana order.

Grocers are trying to predict the supply and demand that is, frankly, unpredictable, especially in a town like Jackson where there’s so much tourism and a lot of grocery stores for as small of a town as it is. Every grocery store wants their shelves to be constantly, consistently stocked with all the variety and all of the abundance, so they over-order.

I’ve heard before that restaurants or stores can’t donate old food because they might get sued. Is that a problem for food rescue?

Ali: There is a misconception from food retailers that they’re not allowed or there’s some liability issue with donating food. But luckily, that’s not true. There was a bill passed in 1996 under Clinton’s administration known as the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, and that protected businesses from liabilities if someone were to get sick from donated food. Since the inception of that legislation, there has never been a court case taken forward of someone trying to sue an entity or business because they got sick from donated food.

If someone wants to start their own food rescue, what advice would you give?

Ali: Reach out to Food Rescue Alliance. They’re an amazing resource. Gather a group of like-minded friends to help you do it, because it is hard work and you’re not going to turn it into a full-time job right away. Look for collaborations and partnerships wherever you can. There are probably people in your community that are doing this work already, so find out how you can supplement and complement the efforts that are already happening to rescue more food and serve more organizations and, therefore, more people.

Thank you Ali for helping divert edible food from landfills to people in need. Your work at Hole Food Rescue, Walking Softer, and beyond is truly admirable. We appreciate your relentless conservation and regeneration efforts and are blessed to work with you. Onward and upward!

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