Organization salvages food to reduce waste

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COLUMBIA - Robert Morrison wheeled two blue coolers throughout the farmers’ market, reusable bags an arm’s length away.

“Have you got anything for us today?” Morrison asked with a smile.

Some attendants handed him cartons full of vegetables. Others gave bunches of bread or pies. Morrison was on a salvage mission. He was there for his weekly visit give new life to food that was still “delicious,” but would be tossed out.

“We think that’s a shame, there’s no reason for anybody to go hungry in the United States,” Morrison said. “It’s a logistical problem - getting the food, and getting it to the people who need it.”

Morrison is a member of the national organization Food Not Bombs. The Columbia chapter collects food from farmers markets, grocery stores and bakeries. It uses that food most Sundays to make a free meal that it hosts at Cafe Berlin. Leftovers from the meal and extra materials are available to be taken home by participants and donated to nearby charities.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in a recent report that 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food are wasted each year by consumers.The Economic Research Service, a branch of the USDA, said in an analysis of that problem that issues getting food from the farm to retail can include as poor weather or pest infestations, but the report found a significant portion of waste happens away from the farm.

Americans are often confused by the difference between “use by” and “sell by” on packaging. This leads to tossing out the food while it’s still good. The USDA issued new guidance on this topic on Dec. 12. It recommends manufacturers use the phrase “best if used by” to reduce confusion.

“In an effort to reduce food loss and waste, these changes will give consumers clear and consistent information when it comes to date labeling on the food they buy,” said Al Almanza, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety in a statement. “This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash.”

The Rockefeller Institute conducted a global food waste study and found that a sizable portion of squander happens when people choose food for aesthetic reasons.

Put simply, consumers don’t want to buy bruised peaches and misshapen tomatoes even if the nutrition content, taste and quality of this food is the same as one that ‘looks right’,” the report said.

Jeannie Nobis, a baker for Grandma Barb’s Pies and Produce, said donating at the Farmers Market gives her some peace of mind.

“If I didn’t take it to any family, then I would probably give it to the chickens or throw it away,” she said. “I’d rather it go to use than to throw it away. I mean all of that work just to go into the garbage is kind of depressing.”

Those that donate are protected by the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act as long as the food was donated “in good faith.”

Part of the frustration has been the growing amount of food waste while a significant portion of Americans go hungry. The USDA estimates that 30-40 percent of food is wasted annually, while 12.7 percent of Americans are food insecure.

Morrison said, in his experience, hunger could be eliminated with improved communication and logistics.

Christine Costello, assistant research professor in the department of bioengineering, studies food waste at the University of Missouri. She said every time food goes into the trash, it’s not just the edible aspect that’s wasted.

“When we throw away the chicken, in some sense we’re throwing away all of the feed the chicken ate before it and all of the resources that went into that feed,” Costello said.

The USDA stated that food waste also contributes to the creation of methane gas, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide and leads to global warming.

Sean Matticker has been a participate in Food Not Bombs for six years. He said the program doesn’t just help the environment. It helps his wallet.

“It impacts me because I save on grocery bills,” he said. “I think we would have more people that would eat with us because the of how good the meals are.”

The EPA said in a 2015 tweet that Americans throw away $1,600 in food each year.

Morrison said a community has been built around the weekly meals.

“At its worse, soup lines can be very demeaning and dehumanizing,” he said. “We don’t call ourselves a food kitchen, we don’t call ourselves a charity. We’re just people sharing food. Everyone is welcome, we’re radically inclusive. Anyone can come eat, share. We feed the hungry. That’s our only requirement. The only requirement is that you be hungry. Anybody can be hungry. Anyone can bounce a check. Anyone can have a lean week.”

The EPA and USDA launched an initiative, called the Food Waste Challenge, to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. Numerous tips from the EPA for reducing personal food waste includes planning ahead to prevent overbuying and “shopping in your fridge” for leftovers before buying more.