The first time Ashley Stanley walked into the back room of her local grocery store in search of discarded food, she found towers of eggplants, tomatoes, and potatoes rising up around her. The produce was not spoiled or rotten; it simply no longer fit on the display shelves and had been moved off the floor to make room for fresher shipments. Dumbfounded, she asked if she could have the food. She loaded up her car with as many vegetables as she could and drove to Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in Boston.
A week earlier, Stanley had been out for lunch with her mother. She had no idea that a new career would be on the menu. “I guess you could call it an‘aha moment,’ although I hate that term,” Stanley said, recalling how she came to start Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a food rescue program based in Brookline. It was December 2009.
“Everything you hear around the holidays is such a concentrated message around hunger. ‘There’s not enough to go around.’ ‘Give what you can give.’ We were being inundated with it,” she said. “But there we were at lunch, with all this food that I knew we weren’t going to be able to finish. I just had this moment with a little bit of electricity that said, ‘We can’t be the only ones looking at [leftover] plates of food.’ I thought, ‘Maybe the message that there’s not enough isn’t the right message.’ ”
A recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council lends credibility to Stanley’s suspicion that the country is not experiencing a lack of food. Nearly half of the food produced in the United States never makes it to the table, according to the study released in August 2012. Food goes to waste at every link in the food chain. Farmers plow unharvested crops into the ground, grocers discard unsold food by the caseload, and restaurants pour mountains of leftovers into dumpsters. In total, Americans throw away $165 billion worth of food every year, 40 percent of all the food produced in the nation.
At the same time, 1 in 5 Americans was unable to pay for food at some point in the last year, according to a recent Gallup poll. Forty-seven million Americans participate in the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). In Massachusetts, more than 870,000 people relied on SNAP benefits to purchase groceries in 2011. Many SNAP recipients count on food pantries, soup kitchens, and school lunch programs to make those benefits last through the month.
When Stanley first showed up at the door to Pine Street Inn with her arms full of vegetables, she said the staff seemed shocked to see her. “They looked at me like, ‘Where did you get all that food?’ I just blurted out, ‘There is enough food out there. We have to go get it,’ ” Stanley recalled.
Since then, the former corporate luxury retailer has redistributed more than 150,000 pounds of food to area homeless shelters, domestic abuse safe houses, and food pantries. She started out delivering food in her own car while seeking donations and grants. Today, she has three employees, two trucks, and a waiting list on both sides of the equation.
Lovin’ Spoonfuls is just one of a handful of food rescue organizations in the Boston area. While Lovin’ Spoonfuls focuses on diverting the stream of food waste at the retail level, Boston Area Gleaners in Waltham has found a bounty waiting to be picked in the fields.
Farmers rely on a fair amount of guesswork when planning their crops, explains Laurie “Duck” Caldwell, executive director of Boston Area Gleaners, a nonprofit organization based in Waltham that started gathering crops left in the fields after primary harvest in 2004 and incorporated in 2001. Farmers often plant more than they need in case they lose a portion of the crop, and then they end up with more produce than they can move. Farmers also try to lengthen the harvest season of a crop by planting rows two weeks apart in succession. A particularly hot summer, however, could cause the entire crop to ripen simultaneously. That is exactly what happened with much of the area’s corn crop this summer, Caldwell says, making it a boon season for gleaning.
In addition to surplus crops, farmers often pass over crops that do not fit the homogenous shape or color that grocery stores demand. Caldwell says that while some of the fruits and vegetables they pick do not look as perfect as what is found in the store, they have the same nutritional value. She adds that she tells her volunteer gleaners only to pick what they would eat themselves. “People who utilize the emergency food system have enough going on in their lives. They don’t need to have the fact that they are getting leftovers thrown in their face.”
Last year, Boston Area Gleaners collected 45,000 pounds of produce. It distributes about half of what it gathered to food pantries in Boston-area towns, including Lexington, Waltham, Medford, Arlington, and Belmont. The other half of the gleaned produce goes to Food For Free in Cambridge, which distributes it to 80 shelters, pantries, and meal programs in Boston, Cambridge, Medford, Peabody, Chelsea, and Somerville.
Food For Free has been a fixture of the local emergency food system in the Boston area for more than 30 years. In addition to food donated by the Boston Area Gleaners, Food For Free’s produce rescue program collects leftover produce from local grocery stores, the Chelsea Produce Market, and 10 area farmers’ markets.
Recently appointed director Sasha Purpura explains that Food For Free aims not only to bridge the gap between waste and want but also to help bring healthy choices to those in need.
“The people eating from pantries are just like everybody else,” she notes. “They want the same food. These are normal people that often just a few weeks ago shopped at the same grocery stores you and I do.” Through donations from farmers’ markets and Boston Area Gleaners, Food For Free is able to provide extremely fresh and healthy food. She says that much of the produce makes it from farm to pantry shelf within 48 hours.
Sarah and Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farms welcome gleaners onto their diversified organic farm in Granby to pick what the farm cannot use. The company also donates leftover produce from its community supported agriculture (CSA) program to Food Not Bombs, a meal program run by volunteers. Sarah Voiland says that they have donated $95,000 worth of produce simply because they do not want the food to go to waste. “We need somewhere to send this produce to. We do not want it to be going to a dumpster; we want it to be going somewhere we can use it. We put a lot of energy into growing the food. Having it go to waste would be very sad.”
Every Sunday, volunteers from Food Not Bombs pick up fresh produce from the Voilands when they come into Jamaica Plain to deliver food to their (CSA) members. They cook up a simple hot meal in a donated kitchen in Allston, strap it to a bike-cart that resembles a ladder with training wheels, and ride it across the river into Central Square, where they set up on the Carl Barron Plaza. They pop up a table, pull on disposable gloves, and start serving meals to whoever comes by until they run out of food, usually for about two hours.
Lily Sturman of Allston signs up to cook and serve meals for Food Not Bombs whenever she can. “It’s really important to help feed who we can, but also to give some degree of visibility to the problems of food waste and hunger.”
The people that pick up a bowl of food do not know that they are eating organic vegetables that were just picked the day before. What they do know is that they will not go hungry that night.