Every Thursday, the Fair Foods truck brings fresh fruits and vegetables to the Boston Housing Authority building on St. Botolph Street. “It’s cold, but they’ll come out,” says volunteer server Marion Thomson, of the tenants and neighbors who depend on the delivery. The system has been in place for 23 years, when longtime volunteer Sadie Savage negotiated the drop-offs.
When the truck pulls up, a few older male volunteers rush out to unload. Driver Jason Cammarata, the 31-year-old distribution manager of the Dorchester-based food rescue organization Fair Foods, is carrying 3,000 pounds of oranges, 2,500 pounds of potatoes, over 1,000 pounds each of lettuce and bananas, green onions, and spinach for six destinations.
Rescuing wholesome, sometimes imperfect, food from supermarkets, wholesalers, farms, and other vendors that would otherwise go to waste and distributing it to people in need is a vital link in the emergency food system. Today, food rescue is a critical solution to three unrelenting problems: rising food insecurity, increasing rates of diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity, and shockingly high levels of food waste, estimated at 40 percent of the food produced in America.
Food insecurity has been exacerbated most recently by $5 billion in cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, which took effect last November. Additional cuts of $8.6 billion over 10 years were recently approved by Congress as part of the new Farm Bill (it’s awaiting Senate approval). About 13 percent of the Massachusetts population currently relies on SNAP benefits, a majority of which are children, elderly, and disabled.
According to the national hunger-relief charity Feeding America, one in six Americans (and about one in five children) does not have consistent access to nutritious food.
One man at the BHA building, after receiving his allotment, asks for a greener bunch of bananas (maybe to last longer). No one is turned away, even without the $2 bag price (for 10 to 20 pounds of produce), which goes toward Fair Foods’ trucking costs. Christine Arias, who is picking up a bag, says, “For $2, it’s all fresh and it’s healthy.” The closest supermarket in this predominantly upscale Back Bay neighborhood is Shaw’s, whose prices are unaffordable for this population.
When household budgets are squeezed, produce and lean protein are among the first items to go. “Hunger and obesity go hand in hand in this country,” says Sasha Purpura, executive director of Cambridge’s Food for Free rescue organization.
Fair Foods, along with Food for Free, Boston’s Lovin’ Spoonfuls, operations at both Boston University and Tufts, and Rachel’s Table in Springfield and Worcester, deliver to pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, school and community meal programs, and elderly housing. These agencies, in turn, which get assistance from organizations like the Greater Boston Food Bank, are on the front lines providing food and/or meals to many thousands. “Toward the end of the month, food stamps run out and people use food pantries to make ends meet,” says Purpura.
Surplus recovery is growing as rescue organizations become more efficient and vendors more waste conscious. Food for Free, founded in 1981, distributed 1 million pounds of food in 2013 (about 70 percent produce) to 85 different organizations. Collections come from Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Boston Organics, small retail shops, farmers, and others.
Fair Foods handles only produce, distributing about 2.7 million pounds in 2013. Founder Nancy Jamison says her work wouldn’t be possible without donations from wholesalers such as Peter Condakes Co. (500,000 pounds of tomatoes annually), Gold Bell (800,000 pounds of potatoes, onions, and root vegetables), and varied produce from P. Tavilla Co., DiSilva Fruit, and Yell-O-Glow, among others.
Jamison’s signature $2 bag program (up from $1 over the last two years) is available at over 50 sites. Director Joyce Williams says, “We go where the people are.” Fair Foods estimates it feeds 2,000 families a week, which includes some food given away for free.
Volunteers make these organizations tick. Boston Area Gleaners’ 600-plus volunteers pick excess crops at over 30 farms. “Farmers always have surplus,” says director Laurie “Duck” Caldwell. Last fall’s strong apple harvest was a boon to dozens of agencies, including Cambridge’s weekend backpack program, which sends meals and fresh fruit home on Fridays with students.
Ashley Stanley, founder of the 2010 startup Lovin’ Spoonfuls, hopes that donations of excess edibles will become standard practice. “The same way recycling has become second nature, so should food rescue,” she says. In conjunction with Massachusetts’s commercial food waste disposal ban, which takes effect in October, Stanley expects to see increased donations of usable food, with the remainder shipped to anaerobic digestion facilities (to convert food waste to energy) instead of dumped in landfills.
A new Dorchester store selling wholesome food is expected to open in June, along with a food truck traversing underserved neighborhoods. Daily Table, the brainstorm of former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch, will sell its own prepared foods; produce, dairy, eggs, and bread will be recovered from supermarkets and growers. Some foods may be near or at their sell-by dates or have cosmetic imperfections, but safe to eat.
Fresh Food Generation’s first truck, from business partners Cassandria Campbell, 27, and Jackson Renshaw, 24, will hit streets this summer. The two intend to sell healthy and affordable Caribbean, Latin American, and African-style vegetable and rice bowls, chicken and pork dishes, and salads made with local ingredients.
While food recovery continues to make strides, many of those involved know it’s not enough. After delivering to St. Botolph Street, a disappointed Cammarata says that at the vendors’ pickup site that morning, “I had to leave four pallets of food because I didn’t have the capacity to distribute it.”
When you know how many hungry people that could feed, the waste really hurts.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com.