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Food Waste & Hunger: Solutions to the Paradox

Maura Shea — Vice President of Innovation, Feeding America

In the United States, more than 72 billion pounds of safe, wholesome food goes uneaten a year. We designate some for animal feed, plow some under or leave it to rot in the fields, and simply throw much of it away. All while 41 million Americans go hungry.

For 38 years, Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, has been keeping uneaten food out of landfills by capturing and distributing it to families in need. We’ve created programs to secure large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers, packers, and shippers, as well as from a vast array of retailers. In 2017 alone, our network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs provided more than 4.2 billion meals to people in need; 3.3 billion of those pounds came from food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

This begs the question, of the tremendous amount of food we distribute, how much is making it to people in need? And once they get it, how are they using it? Feeding America has historically measured our pounds of food distributed, but this year, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, we started expanding our metrics to consider the impact of those pounds and how collaborating with our current and future partners can not only provide more meals but also improve outcomes for the people we serve.

Food banks have quietly been working as a more coordinated network … helping to prevent valuable food from being dumped.

To start, our innovation team analyzed how food pantries currently handle the need for urgent distribution of perishable produce. Then, working with our sourcing staff, the team studied the experiences of pantry staff and volunteers working in eastern Wisconsin, hoping to develop a model for food banks seeking to expand their agencies’ produce handling capacities.

From this research, we uncovered two key learnings. First, food pantries located farthest from their supplying food banks encounter challenges in receiving, handling, and distributing fresh produce. The quantities, varieties, and quality are extremely variable and difficult to predict, both for the pantry volunteers and for their hungry neighbors, which sets low expectations for agencies and the people they serve. Second, many families struggle to find easy ways to plan and prepare healthy and delicious meals using that fresh produce.

With these learnings in mind, we decided to test two prototypes for making fresh fruits and vegetables easier to accept, both at pantries and at the dinner table. The first concept, called “Side Car,” involved repacking produce into crates easy for handling and display, and delivering them on an optimized route to pantries right at their scheduled distribution time, eliminating the need for refrigeration and storage. The second was titled “Now & Later,” and mobilized local chefs, who prepared family-style meals at meal service program sites using only produce from our cooperative. At the end of the dinner, families were provided the recipes, prep tips, and all the ingredients for the meal they enjoyed.

Both of these programs were well-received, and the next step for us is to bring these two pilots to scale. Food banks have quietly been working as a more coordinated network, rescuing a consistently greater quantity and quality of food, sharing food across service areas, and working hand in hand on federal policy issues that ensure safe donations of edible foods, helping to prevent valuable food from being dumped. The Rockefeller Foundation’s support gave us the opportunity to explore a user-centric approach that considers, and in turn, offers the chance to have a greater impact on the national charitable food system and the people it serves.

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