Food Rescue Organizations: Helping the Hungry and the Environment  

By Mia Zarrella

A large truck pulls up to a nondescript white house with red doors and blue trim. There’s a small sign in the window that says “Refugees Welcome Here.” Two men roll open the back of the commercial vehicle and begin unloading boxes of food onto a dolly. The side of the truck reads: “Food For Free.”

The driver is Simon Walsh, an Englishman with gray hair who has been working at the nonprofit food rescue organization, Food For Free, for 15 years. It will take he and his assistant at least an hour to unload all of the food.

The headquarters is located at 11 Inman St. in Cambridge, around the corner from Central Square’s eclectic coffee shops and vegetarian cafes. Food For Free salvages unwanted food from corporate cafeterias, grocery stores, and other food centers then donates it to low-income people. The salvaged food in Walsh’s truck will eventually find its way into food pantries, shelters, daycares, and school programs. For now, the food is stored in a large outdoor refrigerator until it’s time to be donated later today.

Walsh started working at Food For Free to help those who cannot feed themselves and to feed himself, as well.

“It could so easily be me receiving the food,” said Walsh. “Most of us live at that level where it wouldn’t take much for us to be in need of some help with procuring food. If I didn’t have this job, with the free food that comes with it, I would probably be in line myself sometimes.”

Massachusetts food-rescue organizations, like Food For Free, divert surplus food that would get thrown away and give it to more than 266,000 Massachusetts residents who struggle to put food on the table.

What many people see as waste, food rescuers and environmentalists see as a valuable resource.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), food waste and other organic, compostable materials, make up about a third of commercial waste varying slightly season-to-season. That equates to about 1.5 million tons of waste each year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that 95 percent of food that is thrown away either goes into landfills or combustion facilities. Once in a landfill, food decomposes, releasing methane —a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

MassDEP’s 2010-2020 Solid Waste Master Plan strives to resolve this environmental issue. On Oct. 1, 2014, MassDEP initiated a commercial food waste ban prohibiting commercial cafeterias — hotels, grocery stores, restaurants — from disposing food that could be otherwise composted or donated. The goal is to divert at least 35 percent of food waste — or an additional 350,000 annual tons — by 2020. Boston has its own mission too, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh wants  Boston to be a zero-waste city by 2050.

What started as a composting and waste-prevention initiative, opened the doors to addressing a human issue.

“It’s quite depressing to see whole boxes of produce that have been picked by hard-working field hands, then packed and loaded, then transported across the whole country, then unloaded, then finally thrown in a dumpster because although perfectly edible it won’t last till it gets put on a supermarket shelf,” said Walsh. “It’s great that we can say, we’ll take that and give it to someone who needs it that same day.

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In 2015, Food For Free distributed two million pounds of food and fed over 25,000 hungry people in 11 Greater Boston cities. That is nearly two million pounds of food that would have otherwise contributed to the waste stream.

“The initial emphasis really was just trying to get the food out of the trash and get it composted, which is using it as a material and getting value out of that material,” said John Fischer, the branch chief of commercial waste reduction and waste planning for MassDEP. “But as we did that it became clear to us — and clear to a lot of those businesses and institutions — that some portion of that food that they were throwing out was really perfectly fine.”

So instead of tossing produce that’s at the end of its shelf-life and instead of dumping cooked food that was never served, the food, under the Good Samaritan law, can be donated.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 266,459 of the 2,547,075 census-reported Massachusetts households are food insecure. The agency counts 123,615 households as being “very low food security.” According to Massachusetts food outreach organization, Project Bread, 1 in 10 households in the state struggle to consistently put food on the table.

Food For Free’s director of operations, Ryan Lee, worked at Project Bread from 2007 to 2015. He found that for low-income families, food — as opposed to heating and electricity — often gets reduced.

“Parents skip meals so kids can eat. You start to find ways to stretch a meal, and oftentimes, a way to feed the families for less money is feeding them more starch, which is cheap,” said Lee.

Project Bread says that hunger escalated during the recession. It peaked in 2011, with 11.9 percent of state residents going hungry. That number has decreased, but remained 24 percent higher than what it was prior to the recession, with 9.7 percent of residents living with food insecurity. And the number of very food insecure residents has nearly doubled, increasing from 3 percent a decade ago to 5.4 percent in 2015.

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Maria Infante, director of community outreach at Project Bread, said, “We’re hearing more and more often people who are completely new to the world of looking for food resources. They are previously middle class families or lower middle class and now all of sudden they are not able to have enough food and don’t even know where to start because that’s not something they have been exposed to.”

Founded in 1981, Food For Free donates to over 100 agencies, catering to the specific needs of clients.

“We are coming up with small solutions to help individuals, as opposed to systematic change,” said Lee. “We’re doing our part to do what we can.”

Every year, as part of Food For Free’s Field of Greens program, 50 volunteers harvest 4,000 to 8,000 pounds of vegetables at a quarter-acre farm in Lincoln. This program supplies nutritious produce to the Pine Street Inn in downtown Boston, where the ingredients get incorporated into meals for homeless men.

Then there is the Home Delivery Program, which serves about 100 people who cannot shop independently. Each month, these low-income clients receive about 35 pounds of groceries twice a month. Food For Free receives these groceries from places like the Greater Boston Food Bank, Whole Foods, and Boston Public Market.

Food For Free delivers food to Cambridge schools, which allows busy, low-income parents to pick up free groceries once a month at their child’s school.

The Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program sends food home with elementary and middle school children on Friday afternoons to sustain them for the weekend. And for Cambridge High School students, Food For Free had a different solution.

“The high schoolers just don’t have the same schedule, so what we decided was instead of that sort of passive way of getting food, there should be a more active way of getting food,” said Alanna Mallon, director of programs. Mallon helped start an on-site food pantry at the high school. The pantry opened April 1, 2016. Food For Free, along with other donors, bring fresh food to the school every Monday.

At Cambridge Community College, Food For Free offers similar support. The Rev. Cheng Imm Tan is the community manager for student support at Cambridge College, where she says 40 percent of students, who are an average age of 35, make $25,000 or less.

“It became clear that food insecurity is an issue to deal with for our population given the income level,” Tan said.

About a year ago, Tan collaborated with Food For Free to create several food events such as Coffee Hour, offering fruit cups, yogurts, salads, sandwiches, and pastries, and Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, which involves a 40-minute lecture about healthy eating and then a free produce market in the last 20 minutes. About 80 to 100 students attend these monthly events.  

“I think people just really feel very supported and excited.” said Tan. “I like doing it because I always get really great feedback from students about how they feel.”

Food for Free also has a Family Meals program which caters to clients who face a barrier in the kitchen, whether they are disabled, elderly, or do not have access to a stove or oven. Like frozen TV dinners, these meals are already prepared and just need to be microwaved.

Just walk through the side entrance of the Christ Church Cambridge, up the two flights of stairs, and follow the clanking and banging sounds. That’s where Fiona Crimmins, program director of family meals, and Amy Starzec, program coordinator, work with volunteers to put these meals together.

Wearing a Fat Tire Ale cap, blue hygienic gloves, and an olive-colored apron, Crimmins walks into the kitchen carrying a large cardboard box. This is one of several boxes of surplus food that Harvard University has donated to Food For Free. Today’s morning delivery has an assortment of frozen foods: rice, potatoes, chicken, corn, string beans, peas, haddock, and turkey paninis.

Once Crimmins and Starzec take inventory of the delivery, two kitchen volunteers begin sorting and preparing the food. There are two other volunteers banging a mallet onto a crowbar that’s stuck in a block of frozen haddock. To keep from spoiling, it’s imperative that once Food For Free receives a frozen shipment, it is portioned and packaged quickly.

The food is then distributed into plastic trays. The small left compartment of the tray is for colorful veggies and the large right cubby is to be filled with a bed of starches with a serving of protein on top. Another volunteer, Jesse Feiman, places the food proportionately into the assembly line of trays on the counter, carefully inspecting that all the food is in perfect condition for eating.

Feiman tosses an unappetizing piece of chicken into the trash, saying to the others, “I would be upset if that showed up on my plate.”

Once the trays are filled, volunteer Demi Ayres packages them. Ayres started volunteering with Food For Free after the presidential election.

“I wanted to contribute in a positive way to helping those in need,” said Ayres. “What can be more important than feeding those who are in need of help? How can they possibly sustain their own lives without good nutrition?”

Ayres uses a pressing machine to seal the trays airtight, then she sticks a label on the top, and places the trays into a white cooler to await their new home.

“They are not just a mish-mash of leftovers from last night,” said Crimmins. “They are beautifully presented and the labels are printed nicely. We aren’t just giving food, we are giving dignity. I don’t care if you’re food insecure or not, good food breeds dignity.”

These prepared meals will be delivered to agencies that will disburse them to those in need. Some will end up in motel rooms, others in college dorms or low-income housing.

“A big portion about why our program got off the ground is entirely because of the food waste ban, because all of a sudden, university dining halls were faced with this ban,” said Crimmins.

Harvard University was the first campus cafeteria to donate to Food For Free and remains one of their largest donors of prepared foods. In the 2014-2015 school year, the first year Harvard was a donor, it donated over 45,000 meals.

“Initially we were donating a lot of things that we could’ve wrapped up and put into a cooler for the next day,” said David Davidson, managing director of dining services. “We had to make sure we weren’t giving up shop.”

In December 2016, MassDEP revealed that the commercial waste ban, only two years old, created 900 jobs in food waste hauling and processing. In 2015, Massachusetts diverted over 1 million tons of waste disposal. The state is halfway to achieving the 2020 goal of reducing waste by 2 million tons.

“What if every university dining program found a partner like Food For Free and did this?” asked Christa Martin, director for strategic initiatives and communications at Harvard University. “We could go a long way to addressing some of the hunger issues in this country.”

The truckload of food that Walsh and his assistant are unloading is from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which donates a total of about 30,000 pounds of surplus perishables to Food For Free weekly.

“We are an essential and established part of how the community gets fed now,” said Walsh. “I don’t see us as a charity (although of course we rely on a lot of donations), I see us as more of an agency doing a service for the city, helping to make sure that the substantial segment of the population who are food insecure get good nutrition.”

Once the Food For Free truck is unloaded, and all the food is sorted into the freezer and dry goods pantry, employees select what produce they need for their programs and pantries. Then the delivery vans are loaded and head out to deliver the food around the city, ensuring that the right food is being brought to the right people at the right time.

“It’s an anti-hunger mission,” said Lee.

With all of this leftover food finding new homes, it is as reassuring as it is disconcerting to food rescuers. There is a culture of excess and a culture of shortage living next door to each other in Massachusetts.

“I feel this is an incredibly important endeavor, not just about eliminating waste, but making the next step and making sure that waste isn’t waste anymore because it goes to somebody who needs it,” said Crimmins. “It turns surplus into usable food.”

Crimmins then said, “Our business is booming.”  

Click here to see food rescuing in action.

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