ReFED’s Roadmap to 2030 highlights that “Strengthening Food Rescue” is critical to furthering the recovery of high-quality, nutritious food that would otherwise be wasted. As solutions in this action area are implemented, it’s important to maintain an emphasis on the health and dignity of the end recipients – the more than 50 million Americans struggling with food insecurity. Guest author Hayden Dansky, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Boulder Food Rescue, discusses why community-led initiatives are key to the sustainable and inclusive redistribution of surplus food.
Conversations about addressing food waste often leave out the communities who are receiving and distributing the food, resulting in a hyper-focus on addressing food waste from a logistics-only standpoint and assuming the food will automatically be eaten by people receiving it. Without input from community members on their needs, an entire half of the equation is missing, which doesn’t address the food waste problem holistically and causes harm to communities receiving food. It’s important to consider community-based solutions, cultural needs, and relationships that cannot be automated if we want to better solve the food waste crisis. Localized, diverse, and community-driven solutions, such as Boulder Food Rescue’s No Cost Grocery Programs, returns power, choice and control back to the people most impacted by hunger and food waste, allowing for solutions that better meet people’s food needs.
Addressing food waste on a systemic level without the concern of the people receiving the re-routed food assumes that people struggling with food insecurity want all the food that is being wasted, even if that food is undesired. This often looks like receiving culturally irrelevant foods, foods that go against dietary restrictions, religious taboos, unfamiliar foods, and less nutritious foods, such as canned food and sweets. People living on lower incomes often have higher rates of health-related illnesses, many of which are linked to dietary needs and restrictions.
Hence, if the recovered food is unwanted, it gets wasted. This leads to food rescues spending an immense amount of resources moving food waste to communities that will end up throwing it away, putting the burden on folks most impacted to address it. This is not to say that food rescue organizations aren’t actually recovering any food, but many do not track or report food waste after food has been dropped off, so we have very little information about the success of the program once the pounds are counted as recovered, unless we have methods of feedback from folks eating the food.
It’s impressive that we are seeing an outpouring of capacity and resources addressing food waste. No one organization can tackle it alone. However, many businesses and web apps seek to scale food recovery without considering unique circumstances of diverse community needs. While it’s great that the industry has impactful numbers around reducing food waste, many are not meeting site-specific cultural needs of recipients.
For example, some organizations scale impact using a one size fits all model that all user organizations must adhere to, compromising their use of local knowledge to adapt the system at the local level. An organization that delivers food with slightly different models, needs, or data measurements have to use workarounds to make software work for them. Some fail to prioritize data privacy, posing a barrier to sensitive recipient communities, such as domestic violence shelters or undocumented individuals.
To create a more community-driven approach that involves those most impacted by hunger in the solutions to the issues, localized food rescues & mutual aid groups have found ways to reduce barriers and involve people in having more of a choice in the foods they receive. Boulder Food Rescue (BFR) has been operating No Cost Grocery Programs (NCGPs) for ten years. They are community-led and operated food distribution points, hosted in places convenient to the people who use them, such as backyards and community centers. This reduces barriers associated with operating hours, transportation, and transporting groceries. Programs are run by community members and other program users to reduce barriers associated with shame and stigma.
BFR coordinates with community members in order to only deliver food items program users want to receive in quantities they can use. This reduces the burden of unwanted food that can often exist in food rescue and charitable food services. BFR trains courier volunteers to carry out quality control sorting procedures before delivering food to communities to deliver food in desirable quality and reduce the burden around receiving poor quality food, another barrier common in food rescue and charitable food services.
There are certainly challenges too. Smaller grassroots and localized food rescues' efforts do not impact as large a population as many banks, pantries, and food rescues that provide scalable solutions. Furthermore, this work takes time and can be slow. It’s rooted in building trusting and lasting relationships, which often is seen as “inefficient” when it comes to measuring quantitative impacts. Beyond the challenges though, this work makes an impact in people’s lives. NCGPs create a more affirming and accessible way to get food, ultimately reducing both food waste and the shame and stigma of accessing resources.
Although prioritizing relationships and sharing power with communities may not allow for smaller organizations to boast impactful numbers of food waste reduction, the likelihood of the food being used is high. It also puts them in a better position to organize for systems change and support communities towards increased political power, improved health outcomes, and greater personal well-being. These smaller efforts have more space to iterate and experiment, providing learning for the larger charitable food systems. They also create programs that work better for people, ultimately reducing food waste.
No Cost Grocery Programs were created originally in Boulder and Denver, CO, and then iterated upon by many food rescues across the country that are a part of Food Rescue Alliance. Food Rescue Alliance (FRA) works to share resources, best practices, and ideas with one another, constantly iterating upon our work and learning from different models. FRA also shares day-to-day logistics software, Rootable, that is being built in a participatory way, allowing users to prioritize features and needs, contributing to a shift from a centralized charity system to community control of food resources.
Hayden Dansky (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a co-founder and the Executive Director of Boulder Food Rescue, who works to create a more just and less wasteful food system through sustainable redistribution of healthy food, working to decrease barriers to access, and creating community-led and participatory programs. They have been engaged in food access, participatory research, power-sharing and equity programming, and organizing with social justice organizations for over 10 years, including co-founding Food Rescue Alliance; Boulder Food Not Bombs; an LGBTQ+ housing cooperative; and serving as co-chair of Rhythms for Change, a Jewish cohort focused on local indigenous solidarity actions. Contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect ReFED's views and opinions.