Turning leftovers into meals for the hungry in Denver

City officials announce plan to reduce food waste and trash

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In a large warehouse in north Denver, We Don’t Waste has packed pallets of tomatoes, spicy peppers, cookies and more into its storage facility. Last year, the organization helped to provide about 30 million meals throughout the Denver-metro area.

The company has come a long way since 2009 when founder and executive director Arlan Preblud brought leftover food to nonprofits out of his own car.

“I only had the car, and after about three months knowing the volume of food that I was picking up I knew that the next step had to be some other form of transportation,” he said. “One thing led to another, and that led to something else, and pretty soon we needed a truck.”

The nonprofit receives leftover food from professional sporting events and caterers or rejected food from grocery stores. We Don’t Waste then works with more than 60 organizations across the Denver-metro area to provide food to other nonprofits, churches and schools, keeping those items out of landfills.

Supporting food-insecure households

Metro Caring in Uptown, which serves more than 60,000 people in the metro-Denver area, receives some food items from We Don’t Waste. The nonprofit also has a warehouse at 1100 E. 18th Ave. The organization does not restrict its services by zip code, and sometimes people drive from as far as Brighton to use the food bank, Metro Caring’s CEO Teva Sienicki said.

The food bank runs on an honor code system, Sienicki said. Customers use a shopping cart to pick up toiletries, fresh fruits and even frozen meats from a deli counter, as much as they think they need.

“They basically shop the same way as they would at a grocery store,” she said.

We Don’t Waste moved into its warehouse at 5971 Broadway in November last year. The warehouse has room for dozens of pallets of food and has a refrigerated area for perishable items. Before, the nonprofit had to take donated food to its partner nonprofits immediately since it didn’t have storage space. The nonprofit also has three trucks to deliver the food around the state.

At the end of June, the city of Denver announced a new Food Action Plan to tackle some of the food waste and insecurity issues here. The city’s Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) worked with organizations like We Don’t Waste to help educate restaurants and other businesses on food donation.

The plan is focused on reducing food waste and finding ways to get unused foods into the hands of food-insecure populations within the city. The city is aiming to lower the number of food-insecure households by 55 percent and cut food waste by 57 percent by 2030.

Restaurant waste is one of the first areas the city wanted to tackle.

Tristan Sanders, the public health program manager with DDPHE, said the city created new pamphlets on food storage to help restaurants safely store leftover food that could be donated to organizations like We Don’t Waste.

“Many restaurants don’t donate food because they think they’re going to get in trouble,” he said.

To create the Food Action Plan, the city partnered with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Rockefeller Foundation. Studies from the NRDC showed that about 4.2 pounds of trash per person is thrown out in a week in Denver. Of that, more than three pounds is edible food.

While Sienicki said she’s glad the city is talking about food waste, she thinks the plan is not getting at the root of the problem.

Metro Caring was started 44 years ago as a means to give Denver residents food after a large sweep of layoffs throughout the city. It was built to be something people used occasionally. But now, Sienicki said it’s become part of people’s day-to-day budget. Many of the nonprofit’s clients have two or three jobs just to make ends meet.

“Hunger is not caused by a shortage of food, it’s caused by an inability to pay for food,” she said. “We very much view our market as a for now a Band-Aid, but it’s not where we want to be.”

Shifting services to help break poverty cycle

Metro Caring has more than 70 garden beds throughout the city of Denver. Previously, the organization used volunteers to grow and harvest food for the nonprofit’s services. Now, clients use the gardens to grow their own food. Each plot has been personalized to grow what that person needs or wants.

Metro Caring is trying to shift its services to be more community-oriented, Sienicki said. In addition to gardening, Metro Caring will have a cooking club with different ethnic foods and classes on dietary needs like diabetes. The goal is to provide solidarity rather than charity.

“One of the things that people really need to break out of poverty is that social network,” she said.

Perishable items make up a majority of what people throw away.

Maddie Keating, Denver city lead with the NRDC Food Matters Project, said a majority of the items thrown out are perishable from people buying more than they need or can consume from the grocery store.

“We’re not talking about bread and products that aren’t going to provide nutritional benefits. We want to make sure that proteins and produce are being rescued,” she said. “We need to find ways to get these vast amounts of wasted food to our most vulnerable residents.”

The organization helped to provide Denver with statistics and expertise that helped inform the action plan. The NRDC also found that one in six adults are food insecure in Denver. For children, the ratio is slightly higher at one in five.

Population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau said the city of Denver had more than 700,000 people in July 2017. This means more than 110,000 adults don’t know where their next meal may be coming from.

“It’s significant,” she said. “For people that might not be that invested in this issue, when you draw the connection between how much good food is ending up in our landfills … and then you equate that to the fact that your neighbors might not know where their next meal is coming from, that’s pretty significant.”

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