Almost a third of the food produced in America goes to waste. But the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture aim to change that through an effort that builds on the motto, “Feed people, not landfills.”
The federal agencies are working with organizations across the country, including some in Kansas, in an effort to reduce food waste by half in the next 15 years.
The Kansas Food Bank, which provides food to soup kitchens, food banks and shelters in 85 counties, relies on reclaimed food as a major source of the products it distributes.
On a recent morning, a refrigerated Kansas Food Bank truck backed into the loading area behind the Dillons store at Central Avenue and Maize Road, on the west side of Wichita. The driver, David Allen, opened the cargo door, pulled out a folded metal cart and entered the stockroom through a roll-up door.
On this stop, there was no meat for him to pick up from the store’s huge walk-in freezer. But he found a good haul from the bakery department: 14 large boxes of bread and other baked goods.
They were removed from the shelves because they no longer meet Dillons standards for freshness. But that’s no reason to waste them, said Misty Cavanaugh, who helps Dillons stores match supply to demand.
“The bread that we produce here in our bakery, we actually pull that the day that it expires. So, he is taking that with today’s date on it,” she said.
More than 600,000 meals
The bread and baked goods from the store, with products donated by other stores along Allen’s route, end up at the Kansas Food Bank warehouse in downtown Wichita.
Jeremy Maples oversees the food donation program for Dillons stores. He said the west Wichita store is one of the biggest participants.
“They’ve actually donated over 29,000 pounds of food to the food bank,” Maples said. “And then our division as a whole, which is 82 stores, we’ve actually donated 820,000 pounds of food.”
Maples said that’s the equivalent of more than 600,000 meals — and that’s just through the first nine months of the year.
All of the food used to end up in landfills. Brian Walker, director of the Kansas Food Bank, said now it makes up a large and growing portion of the food his organization distributes to service organizations.
“I would say it’s probably a third. It’s millions of pounds a year,” he said.
Food recovered from grocery stores is increasingly important, Walker said, because shelf-stable products from manufacturers have become rare over the last few years. That’s largely because food processors are constantly improving their efficiency. That means less waste that has to go somewhere — like food banks.
On this day, food bank trucks picked up almost a ton of food — including 1,100 pounds of baked goods and 700 pounds of meat — from grocery stores in Wichita.
“There are lots of rules that go along with this,” Walker said. “You know, we have to make sure the product stays safe, that it stays frozen, so it remains a good product.”
He said much of the food recovered from supermarkets is more nutritious than shelf-stable products like microwave popcorn or boxed macaroni and cheese — but not all of it. The baked goods include doughnuts, cakes and pies. Walker said his agency is the Food Bank, not the food police.
“If that food can feed somebody, why not put it in their belly?” he asked. “If that food makes a child happy, or makes a mother happy, or makes a father happy, you know, why don’t we put it to good use? Why do we want it to go to the landfill, when somebody can still eat it, you know, even a birthday cake? Why shouldn’t a child have a birthday cake?”
Limiting what goes to the landfill
The food recovery program has existed in some form for years, but it really ramped up in 2013 and 2014, thanks in part to research from two interns with Kansas State University’s Pollution Prevention Institute.
Nancy Larson, director of the K-State initiative, said there is a direct connection between decomposing food and pollution.
“When it goes to the landfill, we know that it creates methane gas, which is actually a very potent greenhouse gas,” she said.
Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to the greenhouse effect, she said. Add to that all of the water used to grow the food, and all of the fuel used to produce, process and ship it.
“This is what drives me crazy,” Larson said. “So we spend the money to bring the product to the store, or to the distributor. Then we buy it, we bring it home or bring it to our industry. We store it and prepare it, and then we throw it away. So look at all the lost energy in transportation, labor, money, water, et cetera. And then when it goes in our landfills, in the case of food, it actually produces a very potent greenhouse gas.”
That’s why Larson is on a mission, which dovetails nicely with Walker’s efforts at the Kansas Food Bank. Larson said the best way to keep food out of the landfill is to reduce excess production and to find ways to use food that would otherwise be wasted to feed people and animals — or even as compost for crops.
As Larson sees it, taking unused food to the landfill should be the very last resort.