Summer 2016

Waste Not

There’s a future for food beyond the ‘sell by’ date

By Julie Flaherty

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Brittany Peats, N15, is director of operations at Food Link, a food rescue organization. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Deciding how to divvy up the 1,000 pounds of extra edibles that the food-rescue organization Food Link collects each day is a bit of an art. Surveying a day’s haul, Brittany Peats, N15, the director of operations, reasoned that the local boys and girls club would be happy to get the milk, because the kids love to eat cereal for snack time. And while the apples and oranges were also perfect for the after-school programs, she knew not to send them any bruised fruit, which doesn’t fly with picky young eaters.

The folks at the senior center, on the other hand, take the occasional blemished peel in stride. “They’ll just make apple sauce,” Peats says.

Food Link, based in Arlington, Massachusetts, collects surpluses from restaurants and supermarkets—including Panera, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—and distributes it to 30 nearby senior centers, after-school programs, veterans groups, low-income housing facilities, food pantries and others. It’s Peats’ job to orchestrate the complicated logistics of getting food from where it’s no longer wanted to where it’s needed.

Up to 40 percent of food in the United States—20 pounds of food per person per month—is never eaten.

Since she joined the 4-year-old nonprofit as its first full-time employee last year, Peats has been concentrating on streamlining operations. She’s gotten tips on logistics, food storage and organizing volunteers from other food-rescue groups in Boston, including Food for Free, which has been operating for 35 years. The Greater Boston Food Bank provides guidelines on how long certain foods can be considered fresh, which is often well past the “sell by” date.

The goal, of course, is to cut down on waste. Up to 40 percent of food in the United States—20 pounds of food per person per month—is never eaten, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. But Food Link is not about saddling the poor with old, damaged goods.

“For a lot of people who haven’t been part of the organization, that is their first response: Why are we giving people seconds or expired food? But then they see it’s all really good,” Peats says. “We tell our volunteers, Don’t pass on any food that you wouldn’t eat yourself.”

And there is a lot of it. A pickup from the nearby Whole Foods nets shopping carts full of eggs, yogurt, avocados, pickles, plantains, oranges and tomatoes, as well as soups, sandwiches and pizzas.

Back at the Arlington Food Pantry, which serves as Food Link’s base of operations, some of the organization’s 80 volunteers sort through the reclaimed bounty. Meat goes into the food pantry freezer. Peak-ripe strawberries go to the kids programs. Unfamiliar exotic fruit is puzzled over. (“Are they supposed to be this squishy?”) Severely dented produce gets marked for the chicken farm down the street for feed and compost.

“Our emphasis is on distributing healthy foods.”

Boxes of seemingly pristine cookies are well within their “best by” date. They are a discontinued item, one of the volunteers explains, pulled from the shelves to make room for new products. These and other sweet treats are put aside for community meetings and conferences.

“Our emphasis is on distributing healthy foods,” Peats said. “We make sure we’re not overloading kids’ programs and senior citizens with a bunch of sugar that they don’t really need.”

The laws on what foods can be donated vary by state. Food-rescue groups got a boost in 1996, when an amendment to the national Good Samaritan Law said that people or businesses that donate food to nonprofits with best intentions are protected from liability.

Closer to Tufts, an even bigger incentive came from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, which, in October 2014, banned commercial food businesses from throwing away more than a ton of food per month. That left businesses with four options: Create less food waste, give the extra to farm animals, compost it or donate it.

Donating it is becoming popular. It’s just the obvious thing to do, Peats said. “When you unload a van full of food and it’s just stacked up, you think, of course we’ll try to give this to someone who needs it.”

Julie Flaherty, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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