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Waste Not, Want Not: Food Recovery Addresses Both Hunger and Food Waste Problems

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It's a shame to know that 40% of food in America is wasted (4). The USDA estimates that 2/3 of food waste occurs in homes and 1/3 occurs in grocery stores. This figure doesn't even consider the food that doesn't make it from the field to the store. Fruits and vegetables make up close to 30% of waste at the retailer level (2). Like the produce in the slideshow above, many of these fruits and veggies are rejected due to minor blemishes even though they remain safely edible. Cash at the register is far from the only loss: farmland, water, fossil fuels for transportation, and labor hours are wasted alongside a blemished apple or carrot. The loss doesn't stop there; food waste is the top US landfill input, making up about 40% of landfill mass, and landfills are the third largest generator of methane in the US (3), a more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, food insecurity is a reality for nearly 50 million Americans, around 15%, and in Arkansas, the figures are much worse. 570,000 people, roughly 19% of Arkansans, cannot rely on a steady food supply (5). In Tri Cycle Farms' neighborhood, between the University of Arkansas main campus and its agricultural extension campus, over 7,000, 37.5%, of residents live below the poverty level (9). Food insecurity and inadequate nutrition during early childhood have lifelong effects: undernourished children are at risk of falling behind peers in brain development (7). Among the last parts of the brain to develop, the frontal and parietal lobes develop throughout childhood and are "particularly vulnerable to environmental factors" (7). Slower development of these regions due to undernourishment "may impede children's ability to learn and affect school readiness even before children enter kindergarten" (7). Food is being wasted at the same time as children are missing out on the building blocks of their future. Click on the chart below to view the American Community Survey estimates for poverty in our neighborhood.

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The graph above shows 2010-2014 poverty rates from the American Community Survey (ACS) for the three census tracts, 106, 107.01, and 107.02, that make up the neighborhood around Tri Cycle Farms (9).

The United States has two significant food problems: food insecurity and food waste. Together we can address both of these problems through food recovery teams, like Tri Cycle Farms' Food Recovery and Compost Crew, which focuses specifically on organic produce retailers. Fresh food recovery takes produce that is blemished or near its sell-by date and redirects it from grocery stores to agencies that can process and serve or distribute it quickly. By taking recovered produce the extra mile from retailer write-off to part of a nutritious meal, we can increase food security and reduce greenhouse gas producing food waste.

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Representatives from Whole Foods, Seeds That Feed, Tri Cycle Farms, and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church work together to reduce food waste and increase the availability of healthy, organic produce to community organizations.

The federal government recognizes both the need for and the potential liabilities associated with food recovery. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 protects food donors, like grocery stores, farmers, and individuals, as well as receiving organizations, like non-profits and other community organizations, from liability in relation to food donated in "good faith", meaning food donated with all reasonable expectations of safety. While there are limitations for "gross negligence," such as donating or distributing food that an individual or organization knows is unsafe, this law protects all reasonable actors from lawsuits. This act releases retailers from fear and opens up the possibility of meals for millions of Americans (8).

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Don Bennett, Tri Cycle Farms director, distributes recovered food to The Salvation Army.

We can reduce food waste and increase the availability of fruits and veggies to food-insecure Arkansans if we work together. For the past two years, Tri Cycle Farms' food recovery program has partnered with many local businesses, including Ozark Natural Foods, Native Nectar, and Puritan Coffee & Beer to recover almost 30,000 lbs of food that was headed for the landfill. In our pilot 2015 program, we shared 3,870 lbs of food and saved 8,069 lbs of compostable materials from the landfill. With two weeks of pickups left in 2016, we have already shared over 7,500 lbs of safe, edible, organic produce with volunteers, neighbors, and community organizations, and we composted the rest, saving an additional 13,770 lbs of food from local landfills. In total, 468 volunteers have given 503 hours to make this happen. By working together one day a week, we shared 7,300 lbs of healthy food with our neighbors, saved nearly 22,000 lbs of food from landfills, and generated compost to help our gardens grow into the future!

Because of our pilot program's success and enthusiasm from community organizations like The Dwelling Place, Seeds That Feed, The Salvation Army, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, and Sunday Supper, we are expanding our Food Recovery and Compost Crew to include Whole Foods pickups three times a week. In the first few weeks since we began this partnership in November 2016, we have averaged 545 lbs per day. That's over 1,600 lbs per week! By recovering food three times a week from Whole Foods, we can redirect an additional 42.5 tons per year of food toward our community partners and away from the landfill. We have recovered food from Whole Foods previously on a limited basis. Recovered food from Whole Foods supported two chef-made recovered meals that were served outdoors at Tri Cycle Farms, the 2016 FoodCorps Service Awards Dinner in June 2016 and the Fayetteville Roots Festival Brunch and Farm Tour at Tri Cycle Farms in August 2016.

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Festival-goers enjoy the Roots Fest Sunday Brunch at Tri Cycle Farms prepared from recovered food by chefs from The Farmers' Table. Photo: Michael Crow, Crowinfocus.com

By coordinating businesses, community organizations, and some serious volunteer muscle, we have been able to share thousands of pounds of chemical-free food and make tens of thousands of pounds of compost. Contact Delilah Clark, AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer Coordinator at Tri Cycle Farms, or fill out the online Volunteer Interest Form if you would like to volunteer in Tri Cycle Farms' food recovery program. This is a replicable model. Talk to us about how to build relationships with retailers and community organizations, and then go out and save some food! Let's redirect this valuable nutrition to people and plants and away from the landfill!

 

 

Sources:

1    -- USDA Economic Research Service. "Food Security in the US." Amber Waves. Oct. 12, 2016.

2    --   Jean Buzby, Hodan Farah Wells, and Jaspreet Aulakh. "Food Loss--Question about the Amount and Causes Still Remain." Amber Waves. June 2, 2014.

3    -- Food Waste Challenge FAQ. Office of Chief Economist, USDA.

4    -- "The Waste Problem." FoodShift.net.

5    -- "Mapping the Meal Gap: Arkansas." Map. FeedingAmerica.org.

6    -- Gunders, Dana. "Wasted: How America Is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill." National Resources Defense Council. August 2012.

7    -- Damron, Neil. "Poverty Fact Sheet: Brain Drain: A Child's Brain on Poverty." Institute for Research on Poverty. Morgridge Center for Public Service, University of Wisconsin- Madison. March 2015.

8    -- Emerson/Good Samaritan Act of 1996.

9    -- "Poverty Status in the Past 12 Months." U.S. Census Bureau, 2010-2014 American Community Survey Estimates. Link to table.

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