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.”