Ending food waste, keeping perfectly good food out of landfills and feeding people who need a little help in your own community. It’s easier than you might think.
Have you ever wondered where all the leftover food from places like your local supermarket or restaurants ends up? How about the gorgeous produce that remains after the farmers market is finished and farmers are packing up to go home? The sad truth is that most of it ends up in the trash, which is then taken to landfills, creating methane—a potent greenhouse gas—as it decomposes. At the same time, there are people in your community who are finding it hard to make ends meet, and sometimes go hungry.
So how do we close the loop? Marv Zauderer, founder, chairman and CEO of the nonprofit ExtraFood.org, has found a way to get extra food to people in his community who are food-insecure. Donations from places like restaurants and grocery stores of a minimum 10 servings of food are offered to ExtraFood.org, whose organizers then match that donation with a nonprofit recipient that can distribute it to those in need. Volunteers pick up and deliver the donations.
This inventive matching service brings together compatible partners to address the hunger found among all ages in Marv’s community of Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Marin is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States and also boasts abundant farmland producing healthy organic food. Even so, there are people in Marin who go hungry, and areas where fresh, healthy food is not available. Not only does ExtraFood.org help feed vulnerable community members, it also keeps food out of landfills, thus reducing methane. Making sure food is eaten and not thrown away also means precious resources such as water and fuel, which are used in food production, don’t go to waste.
Marv talked with Ethical Foods about how ExtraFood.org has helped to fill the plates of the hungry, and how each of us can make a difference in our own communities.
When people think of hunger in the United States, images of blighted inner cities or rural poverty come to mind. Marin County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, yet around 50,000 residents struggle to get enough to eat. That’s a surprising number. Tell us about the people in your community that are food-insecure and why there is such a gap in an area known for its wealth.
“The food-insecure person comes from many walks of life in Marin County: Seniors, as many as 12,000, are so often on a fixed income that they must, at times, choose between food and medication. Children, more than 10,000 of them, live in food-insecure households. There are working families with one or more incomes that don’t last the month—or the week. There also are the homeless, and those at risk of homelessness.
“The largest numbers of our food-insecure neighbors are in the population centers of the cities of San Rafael and Novato. However, there are also concentrations in the ‘food deserts,’ defined as areas that lack sufficient access to healthy, affordable fresh food, in San Rafael’s Canal area, the unincorporated southern community of Marin City, and the rural region of West Marin.
“The income-inequality gap is indeed growing in our community—Marin County has the third worst gap among 57 reporting counties in California. The number of low-income residents in Marin grew by 54 percent from 2008 to 2011, and with the high cost of living here, many are still trying to recover from the impact of the recession.
“It’s worth thinking about why so many of us are surprised when we hear how many people in our community struggle. I was surprised, too, before I started ExtraFood.org. Although we may see a child come to school without breakfast or lunch, or a homeless person on the street, so many of those people who struggle are hidden from most of us: the child who hides her hunger at school, the family that hides the impact of a wage earner losing his or her job, the senior citizen isolated by illness or a lack of transportation. It points to an opportunity we have to connect everyone in the community more closely together.”
What’s different about ExtraFood.org? How does it fit into the overall solution of preventing food waste and feeding people in need?
“ExtraFood.org fills a gap in Marin County’s food system, linking those who have extra food with those who need it. In our countywide food recovery program, we pick up excess fresh food from Marin businesses—such as grocery stores, farmers’ markets, caterers and restaurants—and deliver it immediately to nonprofit food programs that serve the county’s most vulnerable people.
“Our highest priority is to be closely connected with the people who run those food programs—we’ve delivered to 60 programs so far—and to help them to be more effective. Everything we do is based on constantly listening to the specific needs of our nonprofit recipients, and finding and delivering food donations that match their needs: prepared food, fresh produce, dairy, eggs, meat, shelf-stable packaged goods, and baked goods. We help our recipients feed more people, provide more complete and healthy meals, reduce food program budgets, and redirect those dollars to our recipients’ other critically needed services. And we give our generous food donors a reliable, simple way to reduce waste and make another positive difference in the community.
“In the bigger picture of the work to end hunger and waste in Marin, our efforts are complementary to the fine work of the SF [San Francisco]-Marin Food Bank; we pick up donations that aren’t cost-effective for the food bank to pick up, and our donations meet recipients’ needs that would otherwise be unmet. We also collaborate with a number of organizations, in addition to food donors, on waste reduction. For example, we’re aligned with the Zero Waste Marin effort to end waste in Marin by 2025. And we partner with Marin Sanitary Service [solid waste and recycling], referring businesses to their food-scraps-to-energy program while MSS, in turn, refers businesses with excess edible food to our program.
“We’re growing an integrated renewable ecosystem of food donors, recipients, community volunteers, financial donors, and supporting partners, who are attuned to the needs of the people we’re serving. We call it ‘food recovery with the human touch.'”
When you founded ExtraFood.org, was your original focus and motivation to feed people or to do environmental good? Were you aware of the environmental impact of food waste before you began this mission?
“Hunger breaks my heart, and it always has. So three years before starting ExtraFood.org, when I began thinking about how I could help to end hunger, I began to learn about the problem of hunger in Marin County, the United States, and the world. I talked with key people in the Marin community, and absorbed quite a number of books, movies, and research studies. It’s hard to get very far in the process of learning about hunger before learning that 40 percent of all edible food is wasted in the United States. That food waste in our landfills creates methane, which is 21 times worse for our atmosphere than carbon dioxide. If global food waste were a country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas production after the United States and China. I’m very concerned about the health of the planet that we’re leaving behind for our children and grandchildren, and so the environmental aspect of our mission is also very important to me.”
According to your website, ExtraFood.org has delivered more than 300,000 pounds of food to nonprofits for distribution to the people in your community who need it. By preventing food waste, your organization not only helps feed the hungry, it also provides ecological benefits.
“First of all, we will have a more sustainable future if we take better care of our atmosphere and reduce the rate of climate change. Reducing portion size, learning how to reuse food at home, diverting food waste to a food-scraps-to-energy program or to a properly operated composting program, donating edible food to a program like ours—these are all ways we can reduce the amount of methane created from the food waste piling up in our landfills. And there’s a huge amount of waste. In our county, food waste comprises up to 30 percent of the waste stream. That’s millions of pounds per year.
“Because of the drought we’ve been experiencing, water has become a much more precious resource, and many of us no longer take water for granted. And yet research shows that it takes 25 percent of our country’s freshwater to produce the 40 percent of edible food that’s wasted each year. Cutting down on food waste is a powerful way to use the water we have more efficiently.”
Besides addressing hunger, how does your collaborative approach with your partners and volunteers benefit the community?
“Our collaboration with our recipients means they only get food that matches their needs. So, they’ll use the food rather than having to dispose of it, and the community sees the environmental benefit of our food donors’ waste reduction. Our food donors benefit from the ‘one-stop shopping’ we offer; we make sure their donations get to people who need them the most, and we talk with them about the difference their donations make in the community. Our volunteers, who sign up online to pick up and deliver donations, benefit from the opportunity to make a difference in a way that fits their busy schedules. Our financial donors and supporting partners know they’re helping to sustain an organization that is effectively addressing a fundamental problem in the community, an organization that is well-integrated into Marin’s business, government, and social service infrastructure.
“When the nonprofit recipients in our community help those who struggle with food security to have more healthy fresh food, everyone in the community benefits. When people have a secure food supply, they are better able to learn, work, and contribute to our community. And those of us who are working together to help our neighbors who struggle–we’re strengthened, too, by the opportunity to share the abundance in our county and help everyone to thrive. Being of service connects us more to each other and to the people we’re serving. A more connected community is a stronger community.”
What are your biggest challenges at the moment? If you could eliminate one obstacle, what would that be?
“Fundraising is a year-round challenge, as it is for most, if not all, nonprofits. But as a 20-month-old organization, we’re off to a great start in welcoming a number of generous individuals, families, foundations, corporations and others to the ExtraFood.org family as financial supporters. We’re working to meet the growing requests for our free service by putting more resources in place and by recruiting more food donors to join our program. Those are really the biggest challenges: getting the word out about our program, and keeping our program top-of-mind with potential food donors. There are literally hundreds of businesses in Marin County that may have extra food that have choices about what to do with it. We want them to call us, email us, text us, or use our website to ask us to pick it up when they have it. We’re ready 365 days a year.”
Share some of your recent successes. What recent accomplishments or developments have been most gratifying?
“We’ve done over 4,000 ‘food trips’ in our 20 months of work, and it’s one of the most wonderful parts of my job to hear the stories that come out of that work. I think of Whistlestop’s Meals of Marin home-delivered meals program to people facing life-threatening illnesses. Its funding was cut and the program was going to be canceled, but because we began delivering food donations to Whistlestop, the program was saved.
“I think of West Marin Senior Services and San Geronimo Community Presbyterian Church setting up a new food program now run by the church that’s dependent solely upon our donations. It not only serves vulnerable families in the San Geronimo Valley but also relays food to those who are hungry and isolated on the Marin coast. I think of the nonprofit recipients that tell us that because of our partnership, they’ve been able to reduce their food budgets and put that money into their other needed services. I remember the ExtraFood.org volunteer who makes food trips with her son, and who told me about what her son has learned and how he has been affected by seeing kids his age who struggle. I think of all the ExtraFood.org volunteers who have told us they’ve been moved to tears when they’ve seen the people who are struggling, how they’re being served, and how we’re helping them.
“I’ve been profoundly moved by our network of people who are serving our most vulnerable neighbors. We’re blessed with an amazing group of more than 100 volunteer food runners. The staff in the 60 nonprofit food programs we’ve served are uniformly passionate and dedicated to their work. Our food donors are all very clear about their desire to avoid contributing to the problem of food waste by instead helping to solve the problem of hunger. Our financial donors and supporting partners are energized about helping to solve these problems. It touches me deeply and gives me great cause for hope and optimism to be surrounded by so many generous, warm-hearted people who are focused on making a difference in our community.
“Our board member Heidi Insalata Krahling of Insalata’s and Marinitas restaurants is fond of saying, ‘Food is only food until it’s shared.’ I’m grateful that the ‘circle of sharing’ that we’ve all worked together to build is making a difference every day of the year.”
How has your work at ExtraFood.org changed you?
“My first career was in technology, and my second was as a family therapist. As a therapist, I worked for a brief time in a Marin County school with a significant percentage of kids from low-income families, so I have seen some kids come to school without breakfast or lunch. I also worked for a time in a Marin agency serving largely low-income adults, children, and families. And I had seen homeless people on the street. But I largely lived within the confines of the material abundance that my family has been fortunate to have. My work at ExtraFood.org has begun to break me out of that ‘bubble,’ and connect me more deeply and thoroughly to our community. I hope I’m becoming a more aware, sensitive, and supportive member of the community as a result. I know I feel happier and more content when I feel more connected.”
What advice would you offer people who live outside of Marin County who want to get involved in alleviating hunger and food waste in their communities?
“First, consider how you might reduce food waste at home. On our website is our ‘Food Waste‘ section, which explains easy steps you can take. Second, contact one of your local social service agencies, or, if you have one, your local food recovery program or food bank. They’ll know about the people and organizations that are working to solve the problems of hunger and food waste in your community. Most nonprofits need volunteers; check their websites and you can also visit a site such as VolunteerMatch.org to look for hunger- or food waste-related opportunities. If you have relationships with owners of local food-related businesses, such as grocery stores, caterers, or restaurants, ask them what they do with their extra food. Lastly, if you don’t have a food recovery program in your area and want to start one, contact us. We were helped immensely by Food Runners, which has been recovering food in San Francisco for 28 years. We want to pay it forward!”
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Books: learn more about food waste and how to avoid it