Community works together to reduce food waste

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Donated produce is on display at Community Harvest Food Bank’s Community Cupboard Feb. 15. Donations from grocers and other organizations help the organization feed its clients as well as reduce food waste. MEGAN KNOWLES

FORT WAYNE — In the United States, 40 percent of food is wasted, according to the National Resource Defense Council. Meanwhile, one in seven Hoosiers are food insecure, Jodi Leamon, business technical coordinator for the Allen County Department of Environmental Management, wrote in an email. 

Growers, grocers and restaurants must create or have available enough food to meet the demand of their customers. Often, this creates excess.

In northeast Indiana, however, farmers, food banks, restaurateurs and volunteers work together to save as much food as possible.

Growers and grocers

Three local farmers allow Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana to glean excess produce from their fields after harvest, Community Harvest CEO John Wolf said.

The organization supplies food to almost than 400 food pantries and more than 21,000 clients weekly.

“Instead of plowing under the product we’re able to actually make use of that product and hand it out in our cupboard or our Farm Wagon,” he said.

Last year about 95,000 pounds of produce was recovered this way, which ranged from squash and pumpkins to watermelon and peppers, Wolf said.

Grocery stores also donate a large amount of excess produce, day-old baked goods and canned goods to the food pantry, he said. For example, last year Walmart alone donated about 6 million pounds of food to Community Harvest.

“If you have a bruise on your apple at home you cut the bruise off and eat it. Well, stores can’t sell that but they can donate it to us and…instead of allowing it to be put in a landfill we’re able to distribute it the next day,” Wolf said.

Community Harvest is also able to take some of the produce they grow themselves or purchase and freeze it thanks to its Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Produce Preservation Center, Wolf said. That produce can then be distributed during the winter months when fresh produce is not as available.

Canned goods

Community Harvest receives and is able to distribute more than a million pounds of canned goods annually, Wolf said, some of which is dented or “close-dated.”

“When we get it we come back and we look at it, we check the date codes, we check to make sure the cans haven’t been compromised. They may have a dent in them but if they don’t have a leak in it or the seal’s not damaged we’re still able to distribute the product,” he said.

Most people don’t realize the dating on canned goods and other packaged goods is more likely a best-by date rather than an expiration date, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s website.

“In an effort to reduce food waste, it is important that consumers understand that the dates applied to food are for quality and not for safety,” according to the USDA.

High-acid canned foods will “keep their best quality” for 12 to 18 months, while other canned goods can last for two to five years, according to the USDA.

Canned goods that are rusted, swollen or compromised should be discarded, according to the USDA.

Restaurants

Restaurants too can find they have food in excess at the end of the night. As long as it hasn’t left the food preparation area it can be donated, according to Restaurant Business magazine.

“There is no liability whatsoever in donating food due to the (Bill Emerson) Good Samaritan Act (of 1996),” Leamon wrote.

ACDEM has partnered with Food Rescue US to get food from local eateries to the people that need it by way of volunteer runners.

So far, Allen County has 110 people signed up to transport food from donors to nonprofits looking to serve it and several restaurants — including Trubble Brewing, Sweets So Geek and Bravas — willing to donate.

Leamon is hoping to see those numbers grow.

“It’s been a successful strategy in other places and it definitely can be here too,” she wrote. “I just need more donors to take the step. There is no amount too large or too small, just enter it into the app so that the appropriate volunteer can come get it and take it to the nonprofit that is the best fit!”

‘A win-win for everybody’

Sometimes, even Community Harvest gets more donations than it needs, but the organization is committed to being responsible with its dollars and reducing waste.

About a year ago Whitley County farmer Richard Mullinax approached the food bank about its excess, unusable products.

“I thought, I bet we could do a win-win situation here where the stuff they don’t need anymore I could feed to my pigs and maybe they could make a little money off it or whatever,” Mullinax said.

Community Harvest went above and beyond in working with him, he said, allowing him to take the excess for the cost of hauling it and removing items like baked goods from their packaging.

“Really it’s because they’re dedicated to not taking up excess landfill space is why this does it because it’s trouble for them. If you think about a bunch of bread going bad or milk going bad, all of it has to be taken out of its individual containers. So they rely on a lot of volunteers who are willing to help the food bank and they’ll throw all these things in these big hoppers,” he said. “They are just some really high level wonderful people, that they’re willing to go to all that trouble, it really speaks well of what a great organization that really is.”

Wolf said working with Mullinax and a composter helps Community Harvest as well.

“We’d rather give it to the hog farmer than pay to haul it off to the trash,” he said, which can cost hundreds of dollars. “We make use of everything we can, trying to be as frugal as we can with our funds. When we can help the environment, when we can help the community, when we can help our clients it’s a win-win for everybody.”