A Bicycle-Powered Food Recovery Initiative That Also Saves Water and Energy
Boulder Food Rescue has saved more than 800,000 pounds of food from being wasted with nearly zero use of fossil fuel or water resources
My legs ache. It’s 8 a.m. in February and the sun is just beginning to hit the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. I’m pulling a massive bicycle trailer filled with produce using a mountain bike. The traffic light in front of me turns green and I pedal through a four lane intersection at about 5 miles an hour. Behind me, the bike trailer carves a wide arc as I turn into the perpendicular street. After what seems like minutes, I reach the other side of the intersection and the safety of another bike lane.
Photo by Ethan Welty
I’m doing this for Boulder Food Rescue, a small nonprofit organization that has been redirecting perishable food from Boulder’s grocery stores to organizations in need for over three years. My trailer today is full of bakers’ bags of bread and stacks of prepared deli food in plastic see-through containers. Recently, I hauled 120 pounds of bananas. The deliveries are made using a fleet of bike trailers. The use of cargo bike trailers stands out in the suburban environment of Boulder, where volunteers ride with the car traffic on a daily basis.
Hana Dansky, executive director of the organization, explains how it all started: “We were doing a meal in the park called Food Not Bombs based on a model that was started back in 1980 and has chapters across the country. We started the meal and people were saying ‘this is the most nutritious meal that we can find, its full of fruits and vegetables’. Through doing that meal we really got to know the community and other non-profits that were serving the community. We started to figure out where the needs were and where the gaps were,” she says.
“We discovered some gaps in the system. By the time the food bank picks up food from the grocery store, transports it to the warehouse, sorts it, and then redistributes it, three to seven days can pass. Fruits and vegetables in particular they either couldn’t take, or couldn’t redistribute. They would throw them away or they would redistribute bad produce. We go straight from the grocery store to the recipient. Instead of seven days its 30 minutes. That’s the key piece. We focus on fruits and vegetables because they’re healthier foods.”
America wastes a lot of food. A 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council states that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten and that wasted food is the single largest component of municipal solid waste. In the American West, where water and energy issues are of extreme importance, the resources used to grow and transport wasted food is a problem. In a recent article in the Scientific American, Michael E. Webber notes the significant under appreciation of the interrelatedness of the world’s water, energy, and food problems.
While the Boulder Food Rescue’s impact on food waste in the United States may be localized, like many similar food redistribution efforts underway around the country, it rightly addresses the nexus of misuse of these three most critical resources of modern society. The small organization is driving the number of wasted food pounds in Boulder County downwards with nearly zero additional use of fossil fuel or water resources. Since 2011, its volunteers have redirected over 800,000 pounds from landfills and composting operations. Eighty-five percent of their deliveries have been made using bikes.
The largest economic incentives for grocery stores and other food businesses to donate food is that they receive federal tax credits for donated food under US Code no. 170 as well as lowering their municipal waste costs. Boulder Food Rescue currently receives food from over a dozen donors, eight of which are major grocery stores in Boulder County. In recent months, over 150 volunteers per month have redirected food to 30 recipients. This equates to 80 to 90 deliveries a week. The regularity of deliveries leads to an important aspect of the organizations vision: community engagement and the reduction of hunger in Boulder County.
“I think that hunger and food insecurity are both really hidden in this country,” Dansky says. “The general stereotype of hunger in the US is the person on the street that’s flying a sign. That’s one face of hunger but there are so many more. One in four children are food insecure. So that’s pretty interesting. Kids are the face of hunger these days. Lots of kids will go to school and eat meals and when they come home for the weekend they don’t have food.”
“There's a stereotype that a malnourished person is skinny," she continues. “What we’re seeing here in the US is that processed and unhealthy food is cheaper and unhealthy food leads to obesity. We’re seeing malnutrition and hunger coupled with obesity. That’s super interesting because its two things that people generally think of as at opposite sides of the spectrum.”
To address food insecurity, the organization makes their 80 to 90 weekly deliveries to a thoroughly diverse group of recipients that includes the low-income elderly population, preschools, daycares, soup kitchens, housing cooperatives, day shelters, and homeless shelters.
Boulder Food Rescue also addresses the social side of food issues in Boulder County. “Its within our mission to create a more just and less wasteful food system. Its also in our mission to educate our community about food justice,” Dansky says. We always knew that we were working with a broken system. We use Boulder Food Rescue as a tool to look deeper into what’s actually going on with our food system. Hopefully one day we will get to a point where we can influence policy. In the mean time what we’re good at is building community around food, and engaging clients to get involved with and care about healthy food.”
On April 18, the organization will host its second annual Forward Food Summit conference. The hope is to bring the topics of food justice and the environmental reasons for addressing the food system together under one roof. This year, the subject of the summit is the intersection between food security and race in the United States.
The Boulder Food Rescue story is larger than just Boulder County. With their ingenious Food Rescue Robot, the organization has lent an extremely useful web-based volunteer and operations coordinating tool to 22 other organizations across the United States. The robot, which is a website created by founding members through a research project at University of Colorado at Boulder, does things like remind volunteers about their shifts, show them the fastest route to accomplish their delivery, and help keep track of how much and what type of food is being donated. Boulder Food Rescue has spread to four equally active chapters in the United States, including Seattle and Denver. The organization provides outreach and support at the national level for groups with other food redistribution models as well.
If you’re reading this article, perhaps you’ve noticed flaws in the food system in your own community and want to do something about it. “The first thing is do research in your community,” says Dansky. “Find the gaps and don’t replicate something that already exists. Find your natural allies and potentially work with somebody. If there's already a food pantry maybe you can work with them to get more food. Getting grocery stores on board can be one of the most challenging aspects.” “Build community and have fun. That’s how you’re going to keep people around and draw volunteers.”
I agree. Riding through the morning streets in Boulder feels good. The cars are few and far in between and the roads feel like they finally belong to cyclists. The mountains are illuminated, and as I pedal closer to my drop-off point I have a feeling that the food in my trailer is going to make someone happy.