One in six people in New Mexico struggles with hunger, according to a 2015 report from Feeding America. One of the most frustrating things about this statistic is that we know that the country does produce enough food to feed everyone in it—but because of income inequality, systemic poverty and inefficient distribution, approximately 40% of that food supply ends up in landfills. It’s a mind boggling problem, and Food Rescue US is trying to solve it.
“The solution is simple. We need to work together to rescue would-be wasted food and deliver it to our food insecure neighbors.” So says the Food Rescue US website, where volunteers can sign up to be “food rescuers”: drivers who run food from where it would otherwise be thrown away to where it’s most needed. It does, indeed, seem beautifully simple.
Jeff Schacher, a software developer in Connecticut, founded the national organization in 2011 after he spent several years working with restaurants and saw how much food they regularly throw out. He knew that these restaurants would be more than willing to donate this food to people who need it, as long as it was easy to do. With that in mind, he developed a web-based app called Community Plates (later renamed Food Rescue US) that linked food donors with food rescuers and food pantries—rescuers just have to sign up for a delivery route, then show up at the right place at the right time. Easy.
The Albuquerque chapter of Food Rescue US launched in January 2012. The pickup locations are mostly grocery stores—many Smith’s and Albertsons locations participate in the program—as well as some bakeries (mostly Einstein’s Bagels) and restaurants. The drop-off locations are food pantries, homeless shelters and halfway homes throughout the city.
When I spoke to Brittainy Mullins, the coordinator of the Food Rescue US Albuquerque chapter, she was hoping to get more Smith’s locations to sign on to donate excess food. Although donating food that would otherwise be thrown out seems like a no-brainer, some companies are concerned about the legality of passing on less-than-fresh food to consumers. Thankfully, the Good Samaritan Act of 1997 protects food donors from any potential legal repercussions if, by any chance, their donations end up making people sick. Nevertheless, it’s harder to get food donations than you might think, and even harder to get volunteers.
“When I came on board [as coordinator], we had on our list 170 volunteers,” Mullins tells me when we meet for coffee Downtown. “And when I got into it and really saw who was committed and involved—only six of those people regularly did food rescues. So we had a huge list of people who had signed up and probably did one rescue, then stopped.” This list of one-timers frustrates Mullins, as she wants to increase the number of donors in Albuquerque and will need the extra workforce to handle the new donations.
“It’s super easy for people to volunteer. In some of our other locations people don’t even use cars [to transport donations]. They use their bikes or walk.” The iOS and Android apps that Food Rescue US now uses make becoming a food rescuer ridiculously easy. You download the app on your phone, create an account, watch a brief video explaining the organization and the volunteering process, and then browse a list of scheduled “food rescues” around the city. Most of these are regularly scheduled for the same day and time, and some volunteers will “adopt” a particular weekly route that fits their schedule. Since each run takes no longer than a half hour, most people could easily fit one into their week.
On Friday, I drove a Food Rescue US route to see how it works. I showed up at the Einstein’s Bagels at Central and Stanford right as they were closing for the day, and luckily was able to snag a parking space in front. The door was locked but there was an employee inside who was still cleaning up, and she knew exactly what I was there for when I knocked on the door. She brought three grocery bags full of bagels to the door and handed them off to me—a totally reasonable amount to transport in my little Ford Fusion. (I was a little concerned I’d be hauling around huge palettes of food, but the app gives details on what to expect from each route.) As the rescue details directed me, I drove to Casa de las Comunidades, a Catholic nonprofit on Chama Street that, among other things, distributes donated food twice a week to those who need it. Another locked door here, but after I knocked (and got a couple shots of myself valiantly holding the grocery bags, because I don’t ever volunteer without documenting it, obviously) and waited a minute, a small woman wearing glasses came to the door. She let me in to set the bagels down on the card table inside, and that was it. It took about 15 minutes from start to finish. I didn’t even have to pay for parking.
If you’ve gotten this far into the article, I hope you’re already considering volunteering for Food Rescue US. It takes barely any time at all, and it makes such a difference in your community—less food gets wasted, more people get fed. Few people know the impact Food Rescue US has had in Albuquerque more than Larry Beebe—a volunteer for the organization who also benefits from some of the food pantries that they bring donations to. In addition to volunteering for Food Rescue US for over five years, he’s also the food drive coordinator at Bethel Second Baptist Church. “I’m on a fixed income,” he tells me over the phone. “If I didn’t get some of the food I get from the pantry, I don’t think I would make it.” For him, the food rescues feel like a way of returning the favor for the benefits he receives.
“You would not believe how much good food hits the dumpster,” Beebe says. “And it means so much to people when they can get a good meal. It means so much to us.”
Check out foodrescue.us to find out more about Food Rescue US and sign up to volunteer, or download the app from the Apple or Google Play Stores.