Fresh organic carrots in farmer's hand

A few years ago, a report was released stating that 40 percent of food is wasted from farm to fork. This stunning news from the National Resource Defense Council has helped raise awareness of the global food waste crisis, with its many environmental and social impacts. Of course, issues of this magnitude and complexity cannot be solved overnight, but one Massachusetts organization is wisely making considerable inroads in reducing food waste with the help of a key partner.

Just a couple of years ago, Harvard University was composting 2,500 pounds of surplus healthy, prepared food from 14 dining halls each week. Meanwhile, one in seven Americans struggle with food security, especially access to healthy foods rich in fruits and vegetables.

“All of the sudden in March of 2014, in addition to all the grocery items Whole Foods was donating, there were also big bags of prepared foods being donated,” explains Executive Director of Food for Free, Sasha Purpura in an interview with Earth911. “We didn’t know that it was possible to donate prepared food and we were delighted by the possibility. We brought the idea to Harvard and they were eager to move from compost to donation.”

Wising up to food waste

Food for Free has been rescuing food and distributing it within the local emergency food distribution system since 1981. In particular, it is concerned about obesity and diet-related diseases that are common with lack of access to healthy foods. The organization distributed 2 million pounds of food in 2015, but sees opportunities to expand its reach with healthy prepared foods.

Food for Free launched a pilot program with Harvard University in the summer of 2014, collecting prepared food from dining halls in large plastic bags. Previously, prepared food wasn’t seen as viable for donation. Food for Free had to figure out how to properly store, transport, and distribute this food to community members in need.

Food For Free truck tackling the issue of food waste
Food for Free has been rescuing food and distributing it within the local emergency food distribution system since 1981, fighting food waste all along the way. Image Credit: Food For Free

“We realized there was tremendous value in the food [from Harvard University], but there were distribution challenges,” explains Purpura. “Big frozen bags of food can be useful to a meal program, though some meal programs wanted just a few bags here and there. Other meal programs wanted to cook from scratch, so they didn’t have a need for prepared foods. We couldn’t give the frozen food to food pantries.”

A balancing act

Much of the food donated to Food for Free was divided up into individual, frozen, re-heatable meals for people living in motels as temporary shelters. Although the motel program was designed as a temporary program to prevent homelessness, some families ended up living in motels for 6, 12, or even 18 months, according to Purpura. Families have access to only a bathroom sink, mini-refrigerator, and a microwave. Purpura is very concerned about the health issues that can ensue as a result of such limited opportunities to prepare food and is inspired by providing these families with balanced and healthy prepared meals.

“Many of the people in the motel program gain a lot of weight,” she explains. “Being able to give them a meal that isn’t from McDonald’s can have a real impact. We prepare balanced meals with a vegetable, starch, and protein.”

Food For Free delivers meals to reduce food waste
Food for Free had to figure out how to properly store, transport, and distribute this food to community members in need. Image Credit: Food For Free

The more recipient organizations that Food for Free partners with, the more opportunities Food for Free can find to provide these healthy foods to people in need. Food for Free is the first organization in its area to rescue and repackage prepared foods in this way, creating a new model. This innovative program allows less food to be wasted and enables Food for Free to increase its scale and impact.

When surplus food is picked up from universities and corporate partners, it is put in bags and frozen. The food then needs to be portioned into meals, or else heated and served. This creates a logistical challenge because only certain shelters and emergency food programs have the needed volunteers and facilities to receive these large quantities of food and prepare it as needed.

After launching the Harvard University food rescue pilot project, Food for Free learned some valuable things. Certain foods freeze better than others or can more easily be divided up. For example, if peas are frozen without water, they can be broken up without defrosting the entire bag. Frozen squash by contrast turns to mush and isn’t very appetizing.

After running a pilot program with Harvard University, Food for Free was ready to expand and rescue more food. Universities are a great partners, because they have healthy food and care about the community. Now, Food for Free collects donated prepared foods from Harvard University, MIT, Emmanuel College, The Fed Reserve Bank of Boston, Google, and Tufts University. They are also discussing possibilities with other corporate partners, who could also quality for tax incentives by donating food.

A sizable issue

Purpura noticed that some programs reduced the amount of food that they were rescuing. She believes this is because universities noticed how much surplus food was being prepared and quickly adjusted their quantities. She also says there is a dramatic reduction in the volume of rescued food during the summer months when there are fewer students dining at the universities. This is a difficult challenge for Food for Free because the demand doesn’t decrease during the summer months for the populations in need that they serve. As a result, Food for Free is seeking more corporate partnerships, ideally providing food more continuously throughout the year.

Food For Free fights food waste, one meal at a time
Purpura sees great opportunity in providing healthy meals to people in need and to reduce food waste by rescuing prepared foods. Image Credit: Food For Free

One of the aspects of repurposing prepared foods that is especially inspiring for Purpura is the opportunity to serve healthy foods to people in need.

“We hear about lack of food security in this country, which is largely a lack of access to nutritious food,” she explains.

“A large percentage of the people we serve are obese. Produce is fantastic for people that are able to cook, but there are lots of people we serve that are homeless, live in motels, or maybe they work two jobs and don’t have time to cook.”

Purpura sees great opportunity in providing healthy meals to people in need and to reduce food waste by rescuing prepared foods. Food for Free is working on creating a model that other organizations across the country can copy to expand the reach of this innovative concept. This model currently includes having freezer capacity for thousands of pounds of rescued food and borrowing kitchens to partition and prepare the bags of food.

“I think the people we are working with are motivated by doing the right thing,” says Purpura. “They see food waste and they see hungry people. They love doing this because it helps people.”

Feature image credit: mythja / Shutterstock 

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.