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A garbage can filled with food waste

Waste not, feed more

Food waste is a massive problem in the U.S., even as 1 in 8 Americans experience food insecurity. Here’s how Colorado is responding.

April 3, 2019

By Cory Phare

Americans waste nearly one pound of food per person every day, and up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten, according to research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At the same time, an estimated 11.8 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2017 – including 9.2 percent of Coloradans, according to a separate USDA study.

Colorado’s Food Bank of the Rockies has worked to both feed the state’s hungry and end food waste since 1978. This year, Metropolitan State University of Denver students, faculty and staff are supporting that cause as part of the annual Roadrunners Give Back Day initiative.

“We want to ensure no one goes hungry and nothing is wasted that could be shared with our neighbors who are facing hunger,” said Food Bank of the Rockies marketing director Janie Gianotsos. 

Last year, the nonprofit's Food Rescue program worked with local grocers, retail establishments, caterers and wholesalers to recover almost 23 million pounds of nutritious food that would have otherwise been discarded, she said. The program distributed 65.7 million pounds of food in total in 2018.

Food Bank of the Rockies partners with more than 600 hunger relief organizations to reduce waste by providing food-saftey training and resources such as safe transport equipment, including coolers, thermometers and cooling blankets to more than 400,000 individuals in Colorado and Wyoming.

“We couldn’t reach the number of people we do without the help of our partners — they know and serve their local communities,” Gianotsos said.

Volunteers pack donation boxes for the Food Bank of the Rockies for the 2018 Roadrunners Give Back Day service outing. Photo by Alyson McClaran
Volunteers pack donation boxes for the Food Bank of the Rockies for the 2018 Roadrunners Give Back Day service outing. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Where are the ugly apples?

Eliminating food waste is a personal and professional passion for Jackson Lamb, professor of hospitality at MSU Denver. He dedicated his sabbatical study to food insecurity, waste, rescue and redistribution and is a former board member for Denver-based food bank We Don’t Waste

Food waste occurs at all levels of the process, starting with agricultural production and extending to distribution, grocery shelves and our own pantries, he said.

Some factors leading to food waste, such as natural disasters, are out of our control. Think of the floods that recently swept through Nebraska, Lamb said. They may lead to complete crop loss because those flood waters carry toxins including oil, gas and manure.

Other factors leading to food waste can be mitigated, such as waste resulting from consumers’ expectation for “perfect” produce to appeal to consumer preference, he said. 

“When you go to the grocery store, all the apples look great – but where are the ugly apples?” Lamb asked. “When you find a broken egg in a package and put it back, what happens to the other 11 eggs?”

Another key strategy in combatting food waste is changing consumers’ shopping habits, Lamb said.

“How many people go to the grocery store and just load up their refrigerator? Often you can’t even buy in smaller quantities—that ends up leading to a lot of perfectly good items getting thrown out. You’re losing food and money,” he said.

To teach students in his “Food Fundamentals” course how to combat this doubly wasteful practice, Lamb sends them to various grocery stores to price out chicken, beef, fish and other meat and produce. They then create a spreadsheet that serves as a smart shopping guide balancing quantity and price. 

“When we talk about changing shopping habits, people will ask me, ‘Which store should we go to?’ I respond: ‘All of them,’” Lamb said.

Once the food is recovered, distributing it to those experiencing food insecurity becomes a race against time that requires infrastructure provide by organizations such as Food Bank of the Rockies, he said.

“The big barrier is (figuring out how) we can package leftover food to gain time and transport it effectively to the end consumer,” Lamb said. “It’s really a question of logistics; the clock is constantly ticking.”

Roadrunner Food Pantry assistant Angie Cole stocks some of the items available at the Roadrunner Food Pantry located in the Tivoli Student Union. Photo by Alyson McClaran
Roadrunner Food Pantry assistant Angie Cole stocks some of the items available at the Roadrunner Food Pantry located in the Tivoli Student Union. Photo by Alyson McClaran

A different kind of food insecurity

Homeless populations represent about 10 percent of Food Bank of the Rockies' food recipients, the nonprofit reports. The remaining recipients consist of low-wage workers, children, seniors on fixed incomes, individuals with health issues – and college students. 

The MSU Denver Roadrunner Food Pantry is a beneficiary of Food Bank of the Rockies' efforts and works with the nonprofit on initiatives such as the Volunteer In Partnership Program and Roadrunners Give Back Day.

“A lot of people might think about traditional-aged populations when it comes to hunger issues,” said Erica Quintana-Garcia, case management coordinator with MSU Denver who oversees the Food Pantry. “But our students are facing a different kind of food insecurity.”

Since August last year, the University’s Food Pantry has distributed over 3,100 pounds of food over 1,266 visits. And the recent addition of a refrigerator donated by the University’s School of Hospitality, Events and Tourism has allowed it to expand the range of food available to patrons.

“We want students to have access to food if they’re hungry – even if that’s just grabbing a quick snack in the morning,” Quintana-Garcia said. “It’s important, since you can focus better on your studies when you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from.”

"Every dollar helps provide four meals for people in need; volunteering and giving funds are the best ways for individuals to help us," said Gianotsos. Volunteers, like those here at the 2018 Roadrunners Give Back Day event, are still be accepted for this year
"Every dollar helps provide four meals for people in need; volunteering and giving funds are the best ways for individuals to help us," said Gianotsos. Volunteers, like those here at the 2018 Roadrunners Give Back Day event, are still be accepted for this year's iteration taking place April 11. Photo by Alyson McClaran


How you can help give back too

Though contents may vary by donation, each volunteer box packed for Food Bank of the Rockies contains cereal, juice, nonperishable fruits, veggies and proteins; every dollar donated also provide four meals for people in need, Gianotsos said.

Food Bank of the Rockies is one of sites for the Roadrunners Give Back Day volunteer opportunity. Originally slated for April 11, the service effort is being rescheduled due to weather; in the meantime, you can donate non-perishable items and feminine hygiene products to the Roadrunner Food Pantry. Just drop them off in the MSU Denver Dean of Students office in the Tivoli Student Union, office 311, during business hours.

You can also donate online.


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