Boulder Food Rescue: Connecting the Dots in a Broken Food System

About 10 percent of food in grocery stores will never make it off the shelf. That’s 43 billion pounds of food that goes to waste every year. In fact, 30% of trash in a grocery store is food waste. Much of the food thrown away is actually edible, but the food distribution system makes it difficult to divert that food from the dumpster and get it to people who need it. But as KGNU’s Sarah Dalgleish reports, Boulder Food Rescue, a local non-profit, has had enormous success in connecting those two points and they’ve created a model that is being replicated in other cities.

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Food items like what’s pictured here contributes to the 43 billion pounds of food that goes to waste every year

Lou Creech, Communications and Development Director at Boulder Food Rescue, says their goal is to create a more just and less wasteful food system.

“We do that by increasing access to healthy fruits and vegetables and removing barriers to accessing that food. We have a decentralized model of food redistribution where we take the food directly from the food donor, whether that’s a grocery store or restaurant, to the folks that are receiving the food. Most of those are at no-cost grocery programs at affordable housing sites and schools and daycares. We also deliver food to about 10 other nonprofit organizations that are distributing food in their community as well,” she explains.

In 8 years of volunteering with Boulder Food Rescue, Emily Barnak has single-handedly managed to save over 26,000 pounds of food from being thrown away. In that time, she has also built strong relationships with the communities she brings food to.

“I’m called to the mission of reducing food waste in our community because as you can see the vast majority of the food that we’re sorting today is quite edible and otherwise would have gone to the trash. This is sort of my hub. I work right over there, I live about a mile away so it right away felt like I was taking care of my own little local community,” Barnak elaborates.

Creech explains that one of the challenges of Boulder Food Rescue’s work is that the problem is often invisible.

Boulder has one of the highest average meal costs in the nation and it coincides with it being Colorado’s most expensive county to live in, or one of them. Yes it’s true that affluence exists, but what about all the people that have been pushed out, what about folks that can’t afford to live here because of those rising costs? When we think about food insecurity, it’s not just that you don’t have food, it’s that you don’t feel secure in your options and don’t know where your next meal is coming from. That can be said for students, for families in affordable housing, for seniors in affordable housing.”

Emily Barnak with Boulder Food Rescue has single-handedly managed to save over 26,000 pounds of food from being thrown away.

With even more people facing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Boulder Food Rescue has seen an increase in demand for food donations. The organization’s decentralized model has adapted well to the obstacles of operating during the pandemic. Currently, the organization is able to continue running 20 no-cost grocery programs around the city.

“We’re getting food to people who may not be able to get to the pantry, who may not be able to leave their homes for a number of reasons. There’s been a lot of shifting, but if anything we’ve found that our belief in this work has just been strengthened because it’s working how it was intended to work. It’s a lot about these relationships that have been built over the last 8 years, that people can get the food they need. We’ve felt really humbled to see the system is working,” Creech says.

She is optimistic that the pandemic will result in a long-lasting shift in the way people think about their community.

“I hope that this time that we’re all going through is creating more empathy and bringing more awareness to things that maybe are invisibilized and I think that’s true for a lot of issues. For us, we are seeing that more volunteers are wanting to come out and help. I think that is one positive thing that is coming out of COVID-19 is just people caring more about their communities and wanting to make sure their neighbors are supported.”