By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
There’s a food craze taking hold in Greater Boston: Tossed-out food is being rescued from Dumpsters; past-expiration-date food is being promoted as a healthy alternative to fast food; shelters and pantries are being stocked with produced gleaned from farms.
While many squirm at the thought of eating food salvaged from a Dumpster, Maximus Thaler has been Dumpster-diving behind Boston-area supermarkets for the past few years. He’s rescued ripe produce, fresh fruits, eggs, herbs and plenty of perfectly edible packaged food from being buried or burned.
With the food he’s rescued, he’s made such dishes as roasted purple potatoes, fruit salad with oranges, clementines, grapefruit, apples and bananas, curried cauliflower and peppers, and green salad with lettuce, arugula, cucumbers and tomatoes. In all, he’s collected thousands of dollars worth of food that was destined for the trash.
Although diving into Dumpsters isn't always legal, mostly because of trespassing laws, throwing away perfectly good food is criminal. Grocery stores throw out nearly $50 billion worth of food annually, much of it still safe to eat. In fact, a study by the National Resources Defense Council estimated that U.S. supermarkets on average discard $2,300 worth of out-of-date food per store daily.
Thaler has hopes of some day using this castoff food to open a café where patrons eat for free. He even has a name for the café, The Gleaners’ Kitchen, the same name has his website. He wants to show society that it’s possible to feed hundreds of people quality food without charging a dime. It’s not a business model, but more of a social experiment.
In 1996, Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The law prevents food donors from being liable for the nature of their donated food, except in cases of gross negligence. The law makes it legal to distribute food that is apparently safe, but not marketable due to “appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus or other conditions.”
Still some 14 billion pounds of food are sent to landfills or incinerated annually, while nearly 30 million Americans, including 12 million children, are at risk of going hungry.
The supermarket practice of jettisoning edible food is a byproduct of our modern food-buying culture. Consumers have come to expect large displays of perfect-looking fruits and vegetables and overstocked shelves, requiring grocery stores to showcase more food than they can sell.
Feeding food deserts
Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s, is working to open a nonprofit store in the Boston area that caters to low-income people, selling past-its-sell-by-date food in underserved neighbors. His Urban Food Initiative would take products that grocery stores would otherwise throw out and offer them at deep discounts to those who can’t afford everyday supermarket prices.
Rauch reportedly is in negotiations to open a 10,000-square-foot store in Dorchester. His idea for the Urban Food Initiative emerged from his research into hunger while studying as a fellow at Harvard University's Advanced Leadership Initiative.
He told The Boston Globe earlier this year that the idea is to make healthy meals available at the same prices as unhealthy fast-food meals that contribute to obesity, diabetes and other health problems.
Rauch said the idea is to take food “waste” — perishables at, near or past their expiration date that supermarkets throw out daily — and turn it into healthy meals priced to compete with a fast-food burger with fries.
The store would sell takeout items such as soups, salads, casseroles and wraps that are low in fat and high in nutrients, according to The Boston Globe story. The space would also feature a teaching kitchen.
But not everyone sees Rauch’s idea in the same glowing light. He and his partners have to overcome the perception that the store would be peddling unwanted food to the poor, in essence selling them "rich man’s garbage.”
Under Massachusetts law, businesses can sell “expired” food as long it is “wholesome” and still aesthetically pleasing, meaning the food smells and tastes good. Such items must be clearly marked and shelved separately from unexpired products. Expired food accounts for a small fraction of supermarket sales, but that could soon change. New laws proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will ban commercial food waste from landfills, requiring grocery stores and other institutions such as colleges and universities to find ways to divert organic matter from the waste stream by next year.
Harvesting for the hungry
Since 2004, Boston Area Gleaners has rescued 205,000 pounds of local produce and delivered the food to area shelters, pantries and soup kitchens.
Oakes Plimpton founded the Waltham-based nonprofit after having been connected with farms and hunger-relief programs since the 1970s. His idea was to contact farmers to see if they had any crops left in the fields to be gleaned. The first farm he called, Apple Fields Organic Farm in Stowe, told Plimpton it had four rows of overripe beets he could pick.
The organization’s gleaning has grown from there. In 2005, 60 boxes of corn were hand picked at Busa Farm in Lexington when successional plantings became ripe at the same time. A year later, the group gleaned carrots and turnips from Parker Farm in Lunenberg, 34 boxes of kale, 35 boxes of cabbages and brussel sprouts from Dick’s Market Garden also in Lunenberg, and 74 boxes of collards from a Concord farmer who had planted too much.
Gleaning soon grew beyond farm fields. In 2008, the organization started collecting bananas and other salvaged food from Trader Joe’s in Arlington.
Gleaning is a biblical term referring to the law of those times that required farmers to let peasants onto their farms after harvest to “glean” whatever produce was left. Today, many farmers usually plow this food under for a variety of reasons, such as the imperfection of harvest machinery, or because the produce became overripe, slightly damaged or otherwise imperfect and hard to market.
By providing gleaning services to local farmers, Boston Area Gleaners works to supplement low-income household food budgets, improve access to nutritious, fresh produce in the Boston area and remedy the waste inherent in modern farming practices.