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The Cambridge-based food rescue organization Food for Free gathers fresh fruits and vegetables that might otherwise go to waste and makes them available to food pantries and other emergency food programs. Although busy year-round collecting and distributing nearly 2 million pounds of fresh food, the organization goes into high gear before Thanksgiving. "Starting this week, our operations look very different," says executive director Sasha Purpura. In the 10 days leading up to the holiday, Food for Free distributes more than 20,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables. "Food for Free is out there seven days a week," says Adam Collins of Cambridge, who drives one of the organization's three trucks.

Q. Why is there such a need for fresh foods at pantries?


Sasha: In America, there is this paradox that hunger has gone hand-in-hand with obesity. Hunger in general is not a lack of access to calories, but a lack of access to nutritious calories. You can get cheap food, but it's often high in calories, high in sodium, and low in nutrition. The emergency food system is often made up of small nonprofits and volunteer groups that don't have storage, transportation, and staff. They are not able to provide produce. We are able to deliver produce at their request so they can distribute it right away.

Q. How does food rescue work?

Sasha: We're about access to healthy foods. We do that primarily by getting food that would otherwise go to waste. We have three vehicles and every day they go around to Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and other places to collect hundreds of pounds of gorgeous stuff. We go to 11 farmers' markets in season.

Adam: We also pick up from Harvard dining halls. Typically whatever's cooked, we'll get at the end of the day. They put it in food-safe bags and freeze it. They have 10 dining halls, so you're talking several thousand pounds of food that might be going in the trash otherwise.


You deliver to pantries and agencies, but also to individuals.

Adam: Every other week we have home deliveries. We put boxes together for individuals who cannot get out and go to a pantry.

Sasha: These are folks who live at home, mostly seniors or disabled. We don't bring them precooked meals. It's a box of groceries and at least half is fresh produce. It gives them access to healthy food, and it gives them the independence of cooking for themselves.

What will you distribute for Thanksgiving?

Sasha: Different groups do turkey drives. What we focus on is filling out the rest of that meal so everyone can have kale, collards, sweet potatoes, and onions — all the things that make that meal what it should be. We put together an order list for agencies to make sure all their recipients can go home with a full bag of Thanksgiving sides. We used to purchase all of that.

How do you handle it now?

Sasha: We still do some purchasing. But last year we started a partnership with Boston Area Gleaners, who go to farms and harvest what the farmer hasn't. Last year they did 10 tons in 10 days and almost all of that went to us. We were able not only to provide all this food to people who needed it at a lower cost, but it was farm fresh and locally harvested.


How can people help?

Sasha: We are well-staffed with volunteers, but our expenses go up significantly this time of year. The need and desire for food around the holidays is great. The network we serve is always in need of volunteers, whether it's a food pantry, a shelter, or a dinner.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com