Local grocers, non-profits salvage food to feed those in need

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Volunteer Veronica Martinez sorts packages of pasta into a specially marked bin so that they can be properly divided and packaged at the Food Capitol Area Food Bank of Texas on Friday afternoon. By distributing food from grocery stores that otherwise would be unsellable, food reclamation organizations help families on fixed incomes to have more nutritional options.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

Austin grocers and non-profits work together to bring food that stores can’t sell to people who need it.

Through reclaimed food efforts, they salvage goods that would otherwise be thrown out to give to hungry people. In Texas, 17.1 percent of people live below the poverty line — higher than the national average of 14.3 percent, according to information from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“For everything that goes into food productivity in this country, there shouldn’t be hungry people,” said John Turner, spokesman for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.

At the food bank, food that is past its sell-by date or that is too damaged is discarded, and the rest is sorted.

When a family member loses a job and their food budget goes down, the nutritional quality of the food that family eats also goes down too, Turner said.

“If you’re on a fixed income, things that tend to get squeezed first are food budgets,” Turner said.

Of the 25.3 million pounds of the food the Capital Area Food Bank distributes, 17 percent is reclaimed from grocers — it can be fruit that has ripened too much for the shelves, or packed food that has been damaged or is otherwise unfit for sale.

Turner said when a store orders too much food, the food bank benefits by receiving the surplus as a donation.

Trucks that go out to deliver food to community pantries or directly to hungry people pick up the available food from large grocers such as H-E-B, Randalls, Walmart and Target on their way, Turner said.

The situation benefits everyone, because the food that would otherwise be sent to a landfill goes to hungry people who really need it, Turner said. The grocers would otherwise have to pay disposal costs for that food.

He said about 18 percent of the people who receive food from the food bank are homeless, but the rest are usually working families experiencing hardship.

“Their next line of defense is to come out and ask for help, and that’s hard for them,” said Turner.

Leslie Sweet, spokeswoman for H-E-B of Central Texas, said the stores mark goods with sell-by dates that are earlier than the actual shelf life of some perishable foods, which creates a broader window for passing the food along to the food bank.

For example, the stores only sell ground beef the day it’s been ground, so at the end of the day it’s all frozen and is donated to the Food Bank, Sweet said.

She said H-E-B has a history of donating food to the hungry, but in the last decade the stores have been able to increase the amount of protein items it donates to food banks by freezing more and by increasing standards about the handling of the food so that the cold chain remains intact throughout the transfer process.

To reduce waste, Whole Foods Market spokeswoman Rebecca Scofield said they recover as much as possible can within the store. Often, bruised fruit can still be juiced and bread products can be used in deli recipes.

Then, local charities, including The Salvation Army and the Capital Area Food Bank, collect food unfit to sell, and what is left is composted instead of going to a landfill.

“Surely some food goes to waste, and we’re working hard to get to zero waste, so every possible scrap does get composted,” she said.

At Wheatsville Food Co-op, food unfit for sale from each department is made available to store employees, then daily and weekly pickups from various organizations distribute the food to the community, said spokeswoman Raquel Dadomo. Whatever is left over is then composted.

“They’re taking away the things that are a little bruised, not in salable condition, but still perfectly good to eat,” Dadomo said. “We’re able to help our employees and we’re also able to help people in low-income situations who may not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Printed on Monday, August 8th, 2011 as: Helping the Hungry