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FOOD RECOVERY: Reclaiming food for those who need it

Sophia Babb / Red Dirt Report
Joey Abbo, CEO of the Needs Foundation, holds a bag of recovered salad.
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OKLAHOMA CITY — Food waste can be found all around us: at the grocery stores where we shop, in the restaurants we frequent, and in the kitchens where we cook. Each year, Americans waste 126 billion pounds of food.

This misfortune is emphasized by the fact that 16.8 percent of Oklahomans are food insecure, which is higher than the national average. In simple terms, food insecurity is defined as a limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

The 345 million pounds of food wasted daily in the U.S. translates to approximately 288 million potential meals being discarded every single day. (* The USDA defines a standard meal as 1.2 pounds of food).

Every hungry person in America could be fed a breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert – with snacks in-between – solely from the amount of edible food that is discarded.

This is where food recovery steps in.

Food recovery is finding a new use for food that would otherwise be sent to a landfill. This could be feeding humans, animals, or fertilizing vegetables. Local restaurants, grocery stores, and distribution centers are some of the ripest areas for practicing food recovery.

Food recovery: the tip of the iceberg

Businesses that do not participate in food recovery efforts are understandably concerned about liability. If a business or corporation donates their surplus food and somebody gets sick from eating the donated food, is the donor liable?

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act and the Josephine Meade Anti-Hunger Act protect Oklahoma food donors from any liability from donations made in good faith.

Joey Abbo, the CEO of the Needs Foundation, says that he hasn’t met an owner of a restaurant or grocery store that wasn’t willing to donate after learning they would not be liable.

The Needs Foundation collects surplus perishable foods from restaurants and grocery stores in the Oklahoma City metro area, then distributes the collected food to those who need it.

The foundation averages 78 pounds of food a day from the restaurants that donate, and more than 1000 pounds a day from the grocery stores and distribution centers from which they recover food.

“We haven’t even tipped the iceberg. This is only from four grocery stores, one distribution center, and 20 restaurants,” Abbo said.

The Needs Foundation was founded in 2011 after Abbo, a former math teacher, grew increasingly convinced something needed to be done when his students couldn’t focus because they were hungry.

Abbo would go to the cafeteria and grab what was on the way to the trash, usually leftover fruit and milk cartons, and give them to his students as snacks.

We met up with Abbo by the loading dock of A.T. Mexican Specialties, a local business that doubles as a distribution center for some of the larger donations the foundation receives.

 A volunteer with the Needs Foundation carts recovered food off a truck. (Joel McGuire / Red Dirt Report)

Abbo and employees at the center unloaded a truckload of food they’d brought from a grocery store distribution center in Pauls Valley.

Pallets stacked with fresh berries, avocados, plantains, and pears were that were destined to find a plate in the Capitol Hill area. The tape read “QC quality pull” and a notice warned, “OUTDATED PRODUCTS - DO NOT SHIP”.

“I’d feed my kids these,” Abbo said, while looking at a box of perfect strawberries.

‘We don’t turn anyone away’

The second distribution point we visited, the Northeast Resource Center (NERC), was on Northeast 23rd Street, a few miles from the State Capitol. NERC is in an impoverished area that hasn’t experienced the development and renovations that have transformed much of Northwest 23rd Street.

The center is run by a Marilyn Long, a woman overflowing with passion for her community.

Depending on the day, Long may receive an array of meat, fresh vegetables, fruit, milk, cheese, or juice from the Needs Foundation. The food is then put into boxes for those who come into the storefront.

“A lot of people over here can’t get downtown to the Rescue Mission or Salvation Army so I opened this up,” she said.

 Marilyn Long at the Northeast Resource Center. Long receives recovered food from the Needs Foundation, then distributes it to OKC's east side. (Sophia Babb / Red Dirt Report) 

Long is adamant about giving her customers nutritious meals, with her main goal being to give the community access to healthy food. “We can always use the surplus food because a lot of people don’t make enough money to make ends meet. It’s not just the ones getting food stamps, we have seniors coming in that are just barely making it.”

Long also runs an eatery down the street where they “feed anyone, no questions asked, a good hot meal.”

“We don’t turn anyone away, if someone comes in we think God brought them in and we’re going to help them,” she said.

‘...donating surplus food is a redirection of labor.’

Jim Larson is the program developer for an international organization called Food Donation Connection (FDC). Any restaurant can contact FDC and be connected with a nearby charity that will accept their surplus food.

Larson said food safety is the first thing his organization cares about, so they train donors how to properly store, transport, and handle the food they donate.

He continued: “We love that there is a liability protection out there, but we think of it like a guardrail on a boat. We love that the guardrail is there, but we never want to have to use it.”

Larson said it’s easier and more cost effective for a business to donate food than they may initially believe.

“We like to say that donating surplus food is a redirection of labor. Sometimes a restaurant says ‘I don’t have the time or labor to donate’, so we say that if you wrap and cool your surplus hot foods and put them in the freezer, that’s about the same amount of effort as taking the food to the dumpster, give or take a couple minutes.”

On the financial end of things, there’s a cash incentive for restaurants to donate their food.

Restaurants and grocery stores can always write off their food costs, but if they properly donate and document it, they can write off an additional amount.

“In essence, when they write a check to the government at tax time, the check they’re writing is much smaller, which means money in their pockets,” Larson said.

Larson said his organization sends Oklahoma donors in the direction of the Regional Food Bank.

The iceberg

What the Needs Foundation does on a small scale, the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma does across the western part of the state. The Regional Food Bank is a known community leader when it comes to fighting hunger, but little thought is given to where they get their food.

Steven Moran, the senior director of infrastructure and food procurement at the Regional Food Bank, explained that out of the 52 millions pounds of food they served last year, a large amount of it was recovered food.

“Everything that wouldn’t be recovered food would be the little bit we purchase and the commodities we distribute. Everything else is recovered. That’s what a food bank does,” Moran said.

Covering a smaller area, the Needs Foundation receives donations from over a dozen restaurants in the OKC metro area, including restaurants like Deep Fork Grill and The Wedge.

For the Regional Food Bank, it may take visiting 200 restaurants to pick up the same amount as from a distribution center.

Surprisingly, the Regional Food Bank receives donations from most major retailers, in addition to growers and distributors across the state and country. “We collect food that would otherwise end up in a landfill and repurpose it for people who need it,” Moran said.

A need for nutritious donations

Most of the 126,000 people the Regional Food Bank feeds are fed with recovered food. This is food recovery at work, exemplifying both the possibilities of food recovery as well as the limitations. The amount of people who are food insecure is still vastly greater than those who are reached, and the food that is recovered is not always food that is nutritious.

According to Moran, 25 percent of what the Food Bank distributes is produce, up from just 15 percent five years ago. But even with those numbers, a demand remains for more.

“The two things we need the most are produce and protein – vegetables and meat. Meat is very highly sought after and very expensive to purchase and not sell as a donor. That’s the one thing we never get enough of,” Moran said. “And the challenge with produce is getting it out fast enough. Meat can be frozen, so it has a lot longer shelf life.”

 Dozens of donated donuts at the Northeast Resource Center. (Joel McGuire / Red Dirt Report)

When food donations primarily consist of packaged products, a well-rounded diet from recovered foods can be difficult to achieve. The Food Bank is not alone in its need for healthier foods – the Northeast Resource Center also signaled a need for meat and produce.

In “The Role of Food Banks in Addressing Food Insecurity: A Systematic Review,” written by Fiona H. McKay and Matthew Dunn, it was found that food bank staff “felt they should only provide healthy foods, but were unable to do so due to inconsistent donations, high cost of healthier foods and limited storage.”

Even if there was enough food donated every year to feed everyone, it likely would not be the right food at the right time it is needed.

Feeding hungry mouths with recovered food is better than no food. However, because food donations vary drastically in quantity and quality, the content of meals produced from food recovery may be as unpredictable as the prospective meals eaten by a person who lacks food security.

Doing your part

Any change will involve a shift in public attitudes and perceptions regarding food. The NRDC, partnering with Harvard Law School, found that we could be throwing out 90 percent of the food we buy too early.

If respecting food is an element of reducing waste and increasing recovery, then farmers markets and community gardens could be seen as partners in reframing our views and making progress on food waste.

The lowest hanging fruit of reducing food waste is to change food labelling practices. Better practices would include using simpler “best if used by” or “use by” labels and selling “ugly” fruits and vegetables instead of throwing them away.

On a more personal level, the Regional Food Bank and its many partner agencies rely on volunteer support to pick up and distribute the food it recovers.

If your business or restaurant is interested in donating surplus food, you can learn more at foodtodonate.com, or register as a donor here.

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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