‘Ugly’ vegetables are making headlines lately- from massive ‘disco soup’ events to the marketing of “inglorious fruits and vegetables” to zero waste grocery stores popping up around the world. When I landed in northwest Michigan just over a month ago for a fellowship with Groundwork’s Food & Farming team, these articles highlighted two stats about food in the U.S. that I found absolutely shocking.
The first, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of food grown, processed and transported in the U.S. will never be consumed. Second, 48.1 million Americans are “food insecure” which means they don’t get enough safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. These two facts—when viewed in such stark contrast—are truly reprehensible. Under this current system, millions go hungry while billions of dollars of edible food is wasted.
Despite these numbers, there’s good news in our region. We have a program here in the Grand Traverse area that’s dedicated to rescuing usable food from heading to the landfill and supporting families who need food on their table. Food Rescue, a project of Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, is the bridge that connects surplus and about-to-expire foods from retailers and farmers to food pantries and meal sites.
As part of my fellowship at Groundwork, I’m immersing myself in the work of community agencies helping to address issues of food access in northwest Michigan. And because Food Rescue seemed like a natural fit, I reached out to Taylor Moore, Food Rescue’s program manager to arrange a volunteer day.
I joined Taylor on a sunny Friday morning as he made one of his biweekly rounds on the west side of Traverse City. I pulled up to Food Rescue’s offices on Aero-park Drive and immediately hopped in one Food Rescue’s large refrigerated box trucks, which are critical to Food Rescue’s mission of transporting fresh produce to families in need. Throughout the day Taylor and I made stops at Tom’s Market, Olsen’s Market, Munson Medical Center, Walmart, Target, Aldi, two Meijer locations and a few bakeries.
In only a few hours we rescued a few thousand pounds of food from being sent to the landfill, including fresh berries, beautiful locally grown lettuce, steak, frozen chicken and loaf after loaf of handmade bread.
Food Rescue, because it lacks the space capacity, does not store food like traditional food banks. Instead they pick up and redistribute the food that they rescue directly to the organizations that need it on the same day. So by midday, I had not only seen the complex logistics of a food gleaning program with a wide-variety of partners, I also witnessed the needs and challenges of a diverse group food pantries and meal sites.
Taylor and I delivered to sites that ranged from small homeless shelters to large aggregate meal sites to a wide variety of food pantries. While most foods are easily accepted and quickly redistributed, I learned there can be challenges to getting foods onto plates and into stomachs. These challenges included issues such as a lack of refrigerator space to store fresh produce, facilities and volunteers to process donations at pantries and a lack of knowledge on how to prepare less common fresh food items.
In my fellowship, much of my time is spent on researching and implementing strategies to encourage healthy eating in food pantry settings under a grant program called Building Healthy Communities (BHC). In addition to providing funding for infrastructure improvements such as the purchase of new refrigerators in select pantries, BHC funding allows for the development of nutrition education materials, which can help people understand the lesser-known produce items like the ones delivered by Food Rescue.
“Reducing food waste and providing greater access to food is not over after Food Rescue delivers the food. Which is why Groundwork’s efforts, in collaboration with pantries, to make best use of storage space, promote healthy food, provide useful recipes and other resources is not only important to our mission but also the empowerment of our communities,” Taylor said, referring to Groundwork’s work in supporting Food Rescue’s efforts
Volunteering with Food Rescue allowed me to experience firsthand the importance of fostering community connections. Food Rescue itself does just that by bringing farmers, retailers, food pantries and meal sites together to reduce waste and feed those in our community that are most in need and provides resources that encourage healthy eating in pantries, making Food Rescue’s work even more impactful.
Food Rescue’s work relies on a team of dedicated volunteers for it to be so effective. If you’re interested in helping out, Taylor explained to me that there are three ways to volunteer:
1) ride along on the food rescue truck;
2) pickup and deliver food from the Sara Hardy Farmers market;
3) or, sign up for the Healthy Harvest farm gleaning program.
I enjoyed my first time volunteering with Food Rescue and am looking forward to returning soon.
About Food Rescue
Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan is the area’s mobile food rescue resource and a program of Goodwill Northern Michigan. Food Rescue operates in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Kalkaska, and Antrim counties and partners with 112 business donors to make direct deliveries to 44 organizations across the five-county area.
About the Groundwork Center’s Fellowship Program
The Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities offers 10-12 week fellowships in our food & farming as well as clean energy programs. For more information, including how to donate to the program or apply, please visit groundworkcenter.org/careers or contact Policy Specialist Meghan McDermott.