From Voyage Denver
Today we’d like to introduce you to Hayden Dansky.
Hayden, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Boulder Food Rescue began with a group of friends, a tragic reality and a strong desire to create community-wide change. I started becoming interested in food because it was such a tangible thing we interact with every day of our lives – when I realized that we use an immense amount of resources to grow food and then throw almost half of it away, while so many people don’t have access to it, we were all struck to do something about that. We were seeing so much healthy and fresh produce in our neighborhood dumpsters, and couldn’t help but to try something.
BFR was developed in 2011 by Caleb Phillips, Becky Higbee, Nora Lecesse, Helen Katich, and myself. Caleb and Becky and one other friend Rhonda Hoeingman at the University of Colorado conducted research that discovered enough food is thrown away to feed everyone who goes hungry in Boulder and Broomfield Counties.
For myself, I grew up in a single-parent household where we primarily ate canned and microwaved food. I didn’t know about food systems until I was an adult, and these very friends were the ones who taught me about health, growing food, food systems, how to cook, and why it matters. Food became a thing to connect over. It enabled me to build relationships that ultimately changed my life. Food, no matter how scarce or abundant, has always been a thing to share with others.
We started using food that would have been wasted to host huge meals for our community. To do this, we reached out to local grocers and learned that much of their products could not be donated to food banks because the food was too perishable or because of policy restrictions, which amounted to thousands of pounds of nutritious food being thrown away every day.
Together, with the food donors, we developed systems for donation and took food directly to a meal we started called Food Not Bombs. People there told us that it was (a) the healthiest meal they got all week, and (b) it was different because we all sat down and ate together. They said that mattered because we blurred the lines between who was serving and who was being served. We created systems that worked for everyone and used food as a tool to build relationships. BFR quickly grew from five friends to hundreds of volunteers, picking up food 15 times a day, every day of the week, by bicycle.
Furthermore, they found that food insecurity is hidden in the cracks of the marginalized communities and there isn’t always an easy solution. In order to provide food to those who may not have access to traditional sources, we began donating fruits and vegetables to unique places that do not commonly handle food, such as low-income housing sites, elderly homes, mental health facilities, preschools, daycares, and more. This is where the No Cost Grocery Program was born. We now have over 30 sites that operate in this way, through residential leaders who are active parts of these systems.
BFR has grown beyond the city and we have a network of 23 organizations across the country doing this decentralized, community-based food access work.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
When we started BFR we had no idea how it would grow! We wanted to make positive change in our community, but we’ve had to learn a lot along the way. We became a 501(c)3 nonprofit so that we could have food donated from grocery stores. That meant developing a board, writing bylaws, and becoming official. It meant we had to learn how to fundraise for the organization. We started as a scrappy and thrifty organization, so we have had to learn how to fundraise to sustain our work so that it doesn’t become exhausting for anyone taking on too much.
Getting food donors to sign on and stay consistent has always been a challenge. Store managers are extremely busy and may not want to develop new systems of donation. Also, grocery stores have one of the highest rates of turnover, so it has taken a lot of consistent work to establish protocol and institutionalize donations. Luckily, many store receivers and managers have helped us along the way to do this, so that the systems stay even if they leave.
We hired our first paid staff (myself) one year later to get the organization off the ground. We now have eight staff members and many more programs around education, participation and research. With a growing organization, we’ve had to learn a lot about how to work together. We operate in a model of shared leadership and power. We work together to develop our programs, our strategies, and our protocols. We have consent-based decision-making models and work to dismantle traditional forms of hierarchy and power.
This is hard work, but it has led us to be a well-functioning team of people who love our work and our relationships. We believe these values should be reflected both in our programs and in how we work together. In order to get here, we’ve had to have a lot of conversations along the way, mistakes and failures. But we are a well-functioning team of people who don’t always fit into traditional work environments – we are comprised of lots of queer and trans people, people of color, and folks looking for an alternative way to work, that values relationships, trust and care.
We’d love to hear more about your organization.
Boulder Food Rescue’s goal is to create a more just and less wasteful food system by increasing access to healthy fruits and vegetables and removing barriers to accessing food. Today 1 in 8 people in the United States are food insecure, meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food while we simultaneously throw away 40% of the food we produce. The unique model of BFR simultaneously addresses both of these issues by distributing healthy food directly to these communities, working with resident leaders to distribute the food amongst their neighbors, called No Cost Grocery Programs.
This participatory and community-based approach creates inclusive leadership within our programs, blurring the lines between who is serving and who is being served. This means that people receiving food are leaders in the distribution processes, have a voice and a hand in how things are done and are able to create and maintain programs that work for them, which develops greater self-sufficiency and well-being for the families involved.
This approach also bypasses the traditional food banking hub model cutting down on the time between when the food is donated and when it is consumed. So we are able to redistribute healthier, but more perishable, produce well before the end of its shelf life. BFR currently picks up such foods every day of the week, averaging 12 deliveries and 1,500 pounds of food per day. To date, we have recovered over 3.2 million pounds of food, to over 17,000 people in Boulder alone. And, to minimize environmental impact, we do as much as possible by bicycle!
It seems so simple to involve the people who utilize the food in the programs and decision-making processes, but it is incredibly uncommon amongst nonprofits. Nonprofits follow traditional charity guidelines that set up systems of power and saviorism, and often perpetuate the problems they are trying to solve. This work is more than food distribution – it’s working to actively dismantle the systems that cause folks to be food insecure in the first place. It utilizes food as a tool to build relationships, build community, and ultimately create new systems that work better for communities. It looks to see what is at the root of the issues and work towards creating change at the root of things.
We can see that it works. This model of No Cost Grocery Programs is starting all around the country. Our peer learning network of food rescue organizations now has 23 different cities across the US called Food Rescue Alliance. This is a growing movement, addressing many problems at once, and utilizing the voice of all to make active change in our communities.
What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
Last year we were celebrating the launch of our participant-driven recipe book, where participants of our programs contributed recipes using commonly received BFR foods and we created a bilingual cookbook to give out to all of our programs. The entire idea was fantastic because it is a perfect example of individuals receiving food coming up with solutions to make it easier for their own communities to utilize it, and actively working to make change. In the middle of the launch party, which included participants of our programs, financial donors, and individual members of the community, as I was speaking about our work, someone came up to the mic and said, “Hey I want to say something!” She then went on to talk about receiving BFR food and how much impact it has had in her community.
Then, someone else raised her hand to say something. I went over to her, not knowing her personally or what she had to say, and she went on to talk about how BFR food was so significant in her life, getting out of the hospital and needing fresh produce. They didn’t know me personally, but they felt compelled in that moment to tell people the impact that BFR had had on them. They wanted to utilize their voice to make a change and even though I had no idea what they wanted to say, I think it was a great example of why trusting people is so important for our organization. The speech wasn’t a pre-scheduled contrived version of ourselves. It was authentic and meaningful and true. It reminded me why we do this work and why we build relationships and trust people to make change for themselves.
- If someone wants to donate, every $1 that they give enables us to distribute $8 of produce to people in need.
According to Wendi Calder, the mission of Boulder Food Rescue (BFR) is a winner all around:
Take fresh edible produce destined for the landfill or compost bin and get it to Boulder residents. Deliver it by bicycle to reduce any further negative environmental impact. Put volunteers in charge of distributing healthy food in their own communities to anyone who needs it.
“As soon as I heard about the program, I volunteered to help start it up at Tantra Lake, where I live,” Calder says. She is BFR’s Grocery Program Coordinator in her neighborhood.
Every Tuesday, food arrives from a local supermarket.
“I set up tables and sort out the food we receive and then welcome residents to the clubhouse to pick up food,” Calder says.
BFR puts out fliers to spread the word, especially to newcomers. “We don’t have any qualifications. If you’re in need for any reason, we help you out,” she says.
“We have about 20 to 25 residents a week and it’s steadily growing. We have a young couple in their 20s and college students and very sweet elderly ladies. I love being a support to them,” Calder says.
Local food banks do the essential work of distributing food to the neediest, but fresh produce has always been a hit or miss proposition because of the short shelf life.
BFR’s No Cost Grocery Program fills the gap by distributing mostly produce to more than 30 housing sites and schools including Canyon Pointe, Thistle Affordable Housing and Mother House.
Volunteer bicyclists pulling trailers collect food from 40-plus donors ranging from Natural Grocers and Whole Foods to Great Harvest Bakery and the Hotel Boulderado. Local farmers and gardeners contribute crops in season.
Most of the donations are whole fruits and vegetables. “We see a lot of apples, mangoes, plantains and potatoes but it changes every week. Sometimes we get pre-cut packaged veggies and juices. Some of the produce is small or past the “sell by” date. It may be a little wilted or have minor blemishes. “It’s things you can trim off, nothing gross,” Calder says.
She knows the food because she and her husband use the program. Calder has been on medical leave from her job working in a deli at a local supermarket. She has worked in food and customer service for 20 years.
“I love to cook. I watch cooking videos trying to teach myself about obscure produce. What we get is really kind of random, so I want to help the residents figure out how to use it,” she says. She shares recipes from BFR’s recently published cookbook.
BFR empowers volunteers to find the best ways to feed their own communities. “Sometimes residents can’t make it to the distribution point, so we decided to start doing delivery. They call or text us and we let them know what we have received. One of us will drop it off,” Calder says.
Residents also share their wish lists. “It might be certain kinds of fruit or they have a child who loves fresh corn, but we let them know when we get those items,” she says.
Calder and co-coordinator Lia Arnesen, another local resident, have gone ahead and taken the next step. “We don’t want any food to end up as compost, so whatever produce the residents don’t take, Lia takes to other locations like Attention Homes and Boulder Shelter for the Homeless,” Calder says.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for being introduced to this program and this organization. All they want to do is support and help the community,” she says.
By Bob Yates, January 2020
As you gathered with family and friends over the holidays, you probably faced several critical food decisions: Turkey, ham, fish, or brisket? Bake the potatoes, mash them, or maybe latkes? Apple pie or pecan? Or how about just getting some Chinese take-out? Every year, my wife’s family makes Tex-Mex: Quesadillas and guacamole, queso, tamales, pork green chili, tacos, enchiladas, sopapillas. So much food, so little time.
But, for thousands of Boulder residents, the choices are not so vast. Indeed, they often have no choice at all. Dependent in part or in whole on food charity, they must often take what they can get: Canned vegetables, macaroni past its “best by” date, fruit that’s just a little too soft. These families often have to cobble together a meal—holiday season or not—based not on choices, but on whatever happens to be cheap or free. Or, as my father would remind us when we were growing up, with perhaps fewer choices than some other families, “You’ll get what you get and you’ll like it.”
A local nonprofit, Boulder Food Rescue, is aiming to change the assumption that poor people should like whatever they get. The organization doesn’t accept that compromises must be made because a mother doesn’t have enough money to feed her kids. They reject the proposition that accepting charity means having no choice. Boulder Food Rescue was started in 2011 by five CU students who calculated that the amount of wholesome and fresh food discarded by restaurants and grocery stores in Boulder could easily feed every person in town experiencing food insecurity. And not table scraps and rotten vegetables. Real, fresh food that any of us would be happy to pay good money for at Safeway or King Soopers.
Lou Creech, the Communications and Development Coordinator for Boulder Food Rescue, says that, in order to understand what the organization is achieving, you first must understand the term “food insecurity.” “A lot of people use the word ‘hunger,’” Lou explains. “But, we use ‘food insecurity’ because it better describes not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or having to make food concessions to pay for other bills, like medical expenses. We have enough food waste in Boulder to eliminate food insecurity.”
Here’s how it works: Forty grocery stores and restaurants in Boulder make their stock rooms and kitchen pantries available to Boulder Food Rescue volunteers. Every day, the volunteers pick up from those donors food that would otherwise go to the dump. Maybe Ideal Market has extra grapes in inventory and grapes aren’t moving fast that week. Maybe a restaurant has too many green peppers that will go bad if they aren’t eaten in the next few days. Any food that is wholesome and edible is fair game, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
The volunteers pick up the food from the back of the store or restaurant and take it directly to 39 food distribution sites around Boulder. A majority of these are no-cost grocery programs set up in low-income housing sites, daycares, and schools. At one low-income senior apartment building, the food pantry is located in the laundry room, easily accessible to all tenants. Resident leaders in each facility coordinate with their neighbors to ensure that access to the food is equitable and fair. This is not how traditional food charities operate, but it gives individuals receiving food power and agency over their own programs. Other food is taken to nonprofits that give away or sell food at low cost, including Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) and Harvest of Hope. Each day, Boulder Food Rescue moves 1,500 pounds of food from those places that would otherwise throw it away to families who need it, serving 17,000 individuals annually. Since Boulder Food Rescue was started nine years ago, they have redistributed more than three million pounds of landfill-bound food to Boulder residents.
And they do this all by bicycle. You can see the volunteers tooling around town, with their big Boulder Food Rescue-emblazoned carriers in tow, taking food directly from stores and restaurants to food pantries. There is no central sorting, storage, or distribution facility. The volunteers simply bike the food from where it is donated to where it is needed, often just blocks away. Lou acknowledges that bike deliveries have become part of Boulder Food Rescue’s brand. “When we got started, it was out of necessity,” Lou explains. “It was simply logistical because most of the pick-up and delivery locations happened to be near each other, and most of our volunteers happened to be bikers. Now, environmental sustainability using bikes is part of our mission. Plus, it gives us visibility. But, I always try to emphasize, it’s not just kids on bikes delivering food. It’s about food justice.”
In addition to picking up food at grocery stores and restaurants, Boulder Food Rescue volunteers stop by the Boulder Farmers Market as it is wrapping up on Wednesdays and Saturdays to take any food that the farmers don’t think they can sell at the next session. And the organization has started a cool new program called Fresh Food Connect, where volunteers will come to individual homes and pick up produce that folks have grown in their back yards, at Growing Gardens plots, and at the Milk and Honey farm at the Jewish Community Center. You got fresh fruit and vegetables you think someone will like? Contact the Boulder Food Rescue and they’ll come by and pick it up.
I asked Lou about the “eww factor.” Don’t some people equate food redistribution with dumpster diving? How do families who receive the food know that it’s safe and healthy? “This is simply an overstock problem,” Lou explains. “Let’s say a store gets a new shipment of avocados. The existing ones in the produce aisle are just fine, but the store wants to put out the newer ones, with a longer shelf life. It’s like the last cookie on the plate. No one wants to take it.” Lou also debunks the myth that packaged food can’t be eaten after its “best by” or “use by” date. “It doesn’t mean that the food is bad or expired,” Lou says. “Those labels are just a guide for the stores based on the flavor targets of the manufacturers.” Lou uses an apple to illustrate how people can be unnecessarily picky and waste food: “If you had an apple at home that you noticed was bruised, you would probably cut around the bruise and eat the rest of the apple. But, if you saw a bruised apple at the store, you would never buy it. The store knows this and they will throw the apple away, wasting most of the product. We’re happy to take that apple and share it with someone who doesn’t mind cutting around the bruise.”
I’m always proud of great social justice programs, like Intercambio, that start in Boulder and then get picked up in other communities around the nation. So, I was happy to hear that Boulder Food Rescue has spawned similar programs along the Front Range and around the country. They’ve started a network of two dozen food redistribution organizations called the Food Rescue Alliance, with members as far away as Seattle, Tyler, Texas, and Kingston, Ontario. The network shares food redistribution best practices, holds workshops for cities considering starting their own food rescue programs, and even shares proprietary software called “the Robot” for food tracking and delivery logistics.
Like most nonprofits, Boulder Food Rescue’s biggest needs are volunteers and funding. Volunteers are particularly needed during the summer months, when many college volunteers leave town and more backyard farmers are donating produce. “We have 15 shifts every day. Volunteering for us is very rewarding,” Lou says. “And, it’s fascinating to see the back of a grocery store. When you see what gets thrown away, it changes your heart.” Boulder Food Rescue receives some funding from the City of Boulder as a result of the sugary-drink health equity fund that voters approved a few years ago. But, most of the organization’s support comes from individual donors. Lou estimates that, for every dollar Boulder Food Rescue receives in contributions, they can deliver $8 in groceries by buying more food transportation bikes and adding more participating stores and restaurants.
Lou frequently uses the phrase “food justice” and wants folks to understand that what Boulder Food Rescue does is more than feed the hungry. “Out there, there are two systems: There is the choice system and the charitable system,” Lou explains. “A lot of us operate in the choice system. If we want spaghetti one night, we just go out and buy the ingredients. There are others who need to rely on charity. But, they should still get choices.”
Lou says that Boulder Food Rescue is trying to shift the way that charity works. “We want to blur the line between who is serving and who is being served. We want to liberate both the giver and the receiver. We want to stop distinguishing between haves and have nots. We want to create a more just system. We want to get to the point where food is readily available to those who need it and our organization does not need to exist.”
As we gear up for Colorado Gives Day next Tuesday, December 10, we are asking for your support to increase our impact! For every $1, we are able to redistribute $8 worth of fresh produce. We are committed to increasing food access, while diverting perfectly good and nourishing food from the landfill.