Groups get creative to reduce food waste, feed those in need

Tim Krohn, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·4 min read

Apr. 20—Natasha Frost learned to scramble to take advantage of rescued food that her organization distributes to nonprofits that serve low-income and diverse populations.

When a semi truck pulled up to her Wooden Spoon in Old Town, she found it was filled with raw chicken that would soon expire and was on its way to the landfill.

"We had to mobilize and unload 6 tons of chicken. We didn't have any forklifts."

While she found some helpers, someone else went next door and rounded up some construction workers who were working on a building.

"We underestimated the sheer sweat equity needed to just unload it."

But the crew got the 216 boxes of chicken into a walk-in freezer at Wooden Spoon and later got it to organizations that cooked and distributed it.

Frost was a panelist Tuesday for a roundtable hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency highlighting groups that have found innovative ways to recover excess food from grocers, restaurants and others and distribute it to community organizations.

MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said wasted food is responsible for at least 2.6% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — equivalent to more than 37 million cars or 1 in 7 cars on the road. "Preventing and reducing wasted food represents a significant opportunity to mitigate climate change."

Late last year Frost got a $75,000 grant from the MPCA's new Prevention of Wasted Food and Food Rescue program.

"The key piece of this grant was to build space at Wooden Spoon so we were able to accept large truckloads of food."

She said they have been able to rescue 12 1/2 tons of food in the past three months that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill.

"Our group is really taking off," Frost said. "We're going to be forming a nonprofit group to move the work forward. We now have partners at several food distribution centers and businesses. I'm really excited about some of the ideas being floated to expand opportunities to recover food."

Innovative ideas

Sarah Hoveseth, development manager at The Good Acre in St. Paul, said her group used a grant last summer to help small produce farmers who suddenly had nowhere to sell their products because the pandemic closed farmers markets while also offering more free food to the community.

"We guaranteed to purchase up to $7,500 of produce from each farmer. Forty-seven farms participated." The group paid $300,000 to the growers.

Hoveseth said that beyond preventing the food from rotting in the field, the program allowed local partners to get quality, fresh produce to people in need. "We had a wide variety of cultural specific produce."

She said the program kept 150,000 pounds of food from going to waste.

Erica Zweifel, of Carleton College, and Anika Rychner, of Northfield Food Rescue Program, said they teamed up to store food from local retailers for longer periods of time.

"It really concentrated on reducing waste by increasing refrigeration in rural areas. People needed more dairy that needed refrigeration." They installed walk-in refrigeration and freezers at the local food shelf.

They rescued 8,000 pounds of food per week.

Cathy Maes is executive director of Loaves & Fishes in Minneapolis, the largest free food distribution system in the state.

The group served 4.4 million meals last year, up from 1.3 million meals in 2019.

Their grant allowed them to create "Cooking for All" in Minneapolis to make sure large amounts of food can be rescued, prepared and served quickly.

Maes said the kitchen focuses on low-impact cooking where as much of the food as possible is used and distributed.

More grants

MPCA Assistant Commissioner Kirk Koudelka said the agency is focusing on food waste throughout the growing, harvesting, sales and usage cycle. "Food waste happens at every step."

Bishop said that while food composting is better than food going into landfills, it still produces greenhouse gases. "Prevention is better than composting." She said planning meals, more careful shopping and using leftovers are a few steps people can take to prevent food waste.

The MPCA is in the middle of its second round of awarding Prevention of Wasted Food and Food Rescue grants. Koudelka said they have 30 applicants requesting nearly $3.5 million. The grant fund has $580,000 to distribute.