Across America, many households are spending a lot more on food.
According to the Consumer Price Index, food prices rose 11.8% between December 2021 and December 2022. Prices for staples, such as eggs, jumped as high as 140% over the past year, leaving many families scrambling to make ends meet.
At the same time, food waste takes up more space in U.S. landfills than anything else.
People in the United States discard more food than any other country — upwards of 80 billion pounds yearly. That’s an estimated 30-40% of our country’s food supply, equating to 219 pounds of food waste per person.
Though we complain of increased costs and toss about one of every three grocery bags of food in the trash, an estimated 35 million Americans, including 10 million children, are experiencing food insecurity. Food insecurity means they don’t have access to sufficient food or food of adequate quality to meet their basic needs.
What does the pain in your pocketbook have to do with food insecurity and waste? There is a movement, possibility even in your community, that addresses all three of these concerns.
What are food rescue organizations?
Nathan Shaw of Fort Collins was a “bit of a dumpster diver,” he admits. He realized there was a lot of food people wanted to donate but couldn’t. Small businesses with excess food or grocery stores needing to clear a product for something new were filling their back-alley dumpsters.
So in 2017, Shaw started the nonprofit Vindeket Foods, a food rescue store in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The concept of recovering good food and distributing it for use again was created in 2011 by five students at the University of Maryland after they recognized the waste on their campus. They started the Food Recovery Network and by 2015, there were 100 chapters across the U.S. Today, the network is the largest student-led movement fighting food waste and working to end hunger in America.
Now, there are hundreds of food rescue organizations not associated with campuses. The food rescue locator can help you find one near you.
A local mission focused on food waste
Vindeket’s mission, Shaw said, is not to take from the food being donated to food banks in his community but rather collect the food that “falls through the cracks.”
Shaw said he works with local food banks to see what food they cannot collect.
“Food rescues are different from food banks,” Shaw said. “We are focused mainly on food waste. We pick up what others don’t. And we serve everyone – anyone is welcome to shop at Vindeket.”
The business model of a food rescue organization
Food rescues welcome donations to support the mission. Along with monetary donations, service participants (volunteers) run the day-to-day food rescue operations. Shaw said Vindeket has two (full-time equivalent) paid staff; the rest are service participants. People of all ages are welcome to volunteer, and more information is available on their website.
To reduce expenses, food rescue stores often have limited hours. For example, Vindeket is open from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays.
It’s not perfect food, but it is good and nutritious food
While food rescue stores save food that ends up in the trash, it doesn’t mean the food is not safe and nutritious.
“There are so many reasons food ends up here,” Shaw said. “Sometimes it is not perfect, changed packaging, changed marketing, was overstocked, or the store ordered too much. Sometimes it’s a ‘best by” date – we get a lot of stuff there – that didn’t sell. Sometimes it’s packaging defects, like dents in the cans. There are thousands of reasons it didn’t sell at the grocery store or farm.”
But one person’s trash is another’s treasure. And stores that donate to Vindeket (and other nonprofit food rescue organizations) can get a tax deduction for their donation. It’s a helpful incentive for those businesses not to toss that food in the trash, Shaw said.
Shaw doesn’t blame the stores for this waste; he blames a flawed system. Food waste occurs from inception to our homes, but Shaw often sees food waste resulting from consumers’ need for perfection and misunderstanding food labels.
“Stores aren’t the ones controlling the market, consumers are, and we want things to look perfect — no bruises, the right shape – and this creates a lot of waste. We need less high standards for our products.”
The misunderstanding of food labels
Shaw often hears the comment: “But it is expired.” Usually, that label — and the date stamped on it — doesn’t say “expired” but instead says “use before,” “sell by,” or “best if used by.”
In the U.S., there is no universally accepted food label description for open dating. In recent years, the FDA has supported efforts by the food industry to make “Best if Used By” the standard phrase. The FDA estimates that 20% of all food waste is because of uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packed food.
Except for baby formula, most dates on the packaging are applied at the manufacturers’ discretion, and there’s not much science behind it, according to the FDA.
The FDA prohibits manufacturers from placing false or misleading information on labels, but date labels are generally not required. These dates reflect when the manufacturers believe the product will be at optimal quality, but it doesn’t mean the food is unsafe after that date.
FDA food safety advisors recommend that consumers routinely examine foods in their kitchen cabinets or pantries past their “best if used by” dates to determine if the quality has “gone bad.” If a product has noticeably changed in color, consistency or texture, consumers may want to avoid eating it.
Understanding the proper way to store certain foods may also extend their shelf-life. The Food Keeper app, created by foodsafety.gov, is a helpful tool, along with the FDA’s fact sheet on refrigerator and freezer storage.
Here are some tips to reduce food waste in your home:
- Preplan your weekly meals and write a shopping list before you go to the grocery store. To save even more at the grocery store, stop by a food rescue store, like Vindeket, and see if you can obtain some of the items on your grocery list. It may save you money and help reduce food waste.
- Go ahead and pick out the “ugly” produce at your local grocery store and help prevent it from being thrown away.
- Use your freezer to store foods and keep them from going bad until you’re ready to eat them.
- Create a space in your fridge for foods you think will go bad in a few days so that you reach for and use them first.
- Learn about food product dating.
- Support your local food rescue store.
- Be aware of how much food you throw away.
- Composting is a great way to recycle organic waste. It helps to improve soil health in your garden and flower beds.
The benefits of food rescue stores are many. They help working-class families save money and offer no-cost nutritional food for everyone, helping to tackle food insecurities. They also prevent thousands of pounds of edible food from ending up in landfills, where it could create environmental pollutants as it decays.
Whether you are trying to relieve the stresses on your pocketbook, or do something good for the environment or your fellow neighbor, check out your local food rescue store.