Boulder Food Rescue audits city’s food waste habit

Every week dozens of cyclists escape Boulder supermarkets trailing carts full of food they haven’t paid for. The colorful peppers, ripe raspberries and juicy tomatoes are good enough to steal, but the determined folks who pedal their cargo in all weather aren’t thieves — they’re on a mission to keep fresh, edible food from landfills.

Since its founding in 2011, Boulder Food Rescue’s bicycle-powered volunteers have kept more than 1.2 million pounds of food from going to waste, instead delivering it to local food pantries and other organizations that quickly make good use of it.

The nine railroad boxcars’ worth of food the organization has diverted from landfills to date is certainly a sign that the group’s “just-in-time” food rescue model is working. Now, the group knows just how well.

In February, Boulder Food Rescue published a food waste audit for the city, the first of its kind.

“There are some higher level audits that have been done around food waste, but nothing to this extent or detail,” said organization founder Hana Dansky. Dansky used both qualitative and quantitative methods for the report.

Volunteers, again on bikes, carefully surveyed all the city’s grocery stores and a random sampling of restaurants about their food waste, collection and donation habits. They also compiled citywide food waste-related data and spoke with local waste collector Eco-Cycle.

As a result, the group learned both how effective it is at diverting food waste and how the city can continue to improve.

Boulder Food Rescue continues to collect more and more food each year. The audit found that food recovery programs like theirs are responsible for diverting 3 percent of the commercial organic waste stream, which is equivalent to a reduction of 574.3 tons of landfill-released CO2.

Still, Dansky said, “There’s a lot more to be done.”

The group’s founder says she isn’t surprised that despite all their efforts, so much food still ends up wasted.

“I’m in the field. I know whats going on,” she said. “We work with donors on a daily basis to form relationships, partnerships, and yet we still know there are a lot of barriers.”

Some of these barriers include staff turnover, a lack of communication and time constraints. Management is extremely busy, which means food often gets thrown out despite stores’ best intentions.

Dansky says education is one of the most promising areas for improvement. A large number of employees at both restaurants and retailers, for example, want to increase their food donations, but not everyone knows how.

She wants to educate employees about policies like the federal “Good Samaritan Law” that protect donors from liability if donated food products lead to illness.

Hypothetically, the city could also offer incentives Or disincentives to decrease food waste, like fines for throwing away food (a practice some European nations have experimented with) or tax credits for donations. Stores and restaurants can already get federal tax credits for donating food to nonprofits, which they may not know.

Ultimately, though the food waste audit unearthed “interesting, scientific evidence” about the city’s food waste habits, Dansky says the most important aspect to her is the relationships Boulder Food Rescue has formed with people.

“We’re donating healthy food to people who don’t have access to it otherwise,” she said proudly.

“We are able to work with the people who are most affected by food waste, and we help them to actualize their own food security.”

The full audit is available on Boulder Food Rescue’s website.

Photo credit: Lori L. Stalteri, Flickr creative commons