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Colorado Springs Food Rescue combats food waste while buoying nonprofits 

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click to enlarge Transporting salvaged food by bicyle for nearly half its routes reduces CSFR's carbon footprint, energizing volunteers. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Transporting salvaged food by bicyle for nearly half its routes reduces CSFR's carbon footprint, energizing volunteers.

Fifty-four pounds of salvaged food are snugly packed into a large plastic bin in the trailer behind my bike — mashed potatoes, chicken and couscous — divided into a stack of rectangular glass casserole dishes.

I know the exact weight of the bounty because before we load up the delivery, we weigh it on a giant Hobart scale in Penrose Hospital's back kitchen, where we don hairnets to fetch carts of sheet trays filled with a couple of days' leftovers from the walk-in cooler. We pull on gloves to scoop the food from the hospital's dishware into Colorado Springs Food Rescue's containers. Volunteer Meg Smeltzer — fresh off an internship with Pikes Peak Urban Gardens, the nonprofit that will soon oversee a new greenhouse operation for Penrose's kitchen — takes food temperatures and calls them out to CSFR volunteer and development director Elsa Kendall, who records them on a clipboard.

Penrose executive chef Brett Bowdish appears, wearing a tall toque and American Culinary Federation Pikes Peak Chapter chef's jacket. He says beyond the obvious altruistic element, working with CSFR "helps cut down on my waste" while helping his staff "step up its game" with its food inventories. He then produces his phone to show off photos from an elaborate holiday catering gig days prior. It's clear from the exchange that the 60-plus volunteers, split between 50 weekly CSFR shifts across town, have forged community relationships beyond simply nabbing leftovers for "direct just-in-time" deliveries, requiring food to be re-refrigerated or consumed within two hours.

CSFR usually takes less than 30 minutes in transit, about double what we need this day to cover two-and-a-half miles to Partners in Housing's Colorado House, where it will help feed homeless families. Before this year, this food would have landed in the trash bins behind the hospital, like so much other perfectly fine and nourishing food discarded daily worldwide.

The federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 encourages just such food recovery by protecting donors. Ever since, food rescues have popped up on nonprofit landscapes in many large cities, with ours inspired directly by Boulder's. And since its initial founding as a student club at Colorado College in 2013, CSFR has experienced exponential growth.

In its first year, CSFR rescued 1,545 pounds of food, says Zac Chapman, a 2013 CC grad and CC farm manager of two years. He became CSFR executive director in 2014, the same year it gained 501(c)3 status — and saw its rescue numbers jump to 91,737 pounds, he says. As of Dec. 21, the haul in 2015 had reached 232,515 pounds.

That sounds like a lot, and it is, but not when compared to Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, which with 300 partner agencies last year, distributed 21 million pounds of food across 31 counties. But bear in mind that Care and Share only accepts nonperishable food items, often working with large manufacturers and grocers. Kendall says it's a huge challenge to deal with smaller entities and the inconsistency of prepared foods, where at each rescue shift you aren't sure what you'll get.

"CSFR serves a market and a need that we cannot, and vice versa," says Care and Share Chief Development Officer Stacy Poore, who initially connected CSFR with Penrose. "I cannot accept anything that has been on a serving line, although it is great food." Plus, she says, it's just not practical to schedule her drivers to pick up less than 100 pounds, when in that time they can grab several thousand from other donors. "I have to consider the size of the donation in a different way."

Some of Care and Share's partner agencies do pick up would-be waste from 100-plus restaurants and small retailers in Southern Colorado, and, she says, "believe me, there is room for everyone in the fight against hunger."

CSFR has identified an important niche, perhaps akin to mopping up the gravy after the potatoes are gone — well, not all of them, as our bike bundle attests.

click to enlarge Penrose chef Brett Bowdish works with CSFR's Elsa Kendall (middle) and Meg Smeltzer. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Penrose chef Brett Bowdish works with CSFR's Elsa Kendall (middle) and Meg Smeltzer.

When we arrive at the Colorado House, we stuff the bounty from Penrose into two fridges in a common area. The agency provides one-year transitional housing and support services to homeless families, and according to executive director Mary Stegner, the donated food mostly gets used during weekly "life skills nights," which are volunteer-supported classes where as part of their training, clients "learn how to look in the pantry, see what the food rescue has brought, and decide what to make out of it. So we use it not only as a meal, but a training opportunity."

To CSFR's 15-plus recipient nonprofits and low-income spaces, this also means a huge boost to their budgets. Take Urban Peak, which Chapman says has received close to 30,000 pounds of food since 2013.

Urban Peak executive director Shawna Rae Kemppainen says based on a low-cost plan on the USDA's food-cost calculator, it would require $240 monthly to feed each of the 20 homeless youths with whom Urban Peak works. So, $4,800 normally. Thanks largely to CSFR, which is "a really regular source for nutritious food," her actual bill is only $1,200 these days, she says. The $3,600 saved funds everything from youth bus passes and GED testing to direct-care counselors who work 24-7 with the clients to help them get off the streets.

Since its inception, Chapman says CSFR has offset around half a million dollars in food costs for its recipients — this in a state where nearly one in seven people struggles with hunger, according to USDA data.

A play-by-play of food waste nationally gets ugly quick, wherein Environmental Protection Agency data shows that we don't eat upward of 40 percent of what we produce, valued at a $165 billion loss. Internationally it's just as bad, with one-third of all food wasted, and 805 million hungry people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That group notes that food waste, if saved, could feed everyone.

Environmentally, the EPA says food comprises 21 percent of our municipal solid waste, creating a major methane-release problem. Plus, behind all those billions of pounds of food refuse, you'll find enormous wasted expenditures in water, fuel, energy and labor, as well as unnecessary and harmful pesticide and fertilizer use.

For its part, CSFR runs nearly 40 percent of its rescue routes by bicycle in order to contribute no further to the food's carbon footprint.

At a Chefs to the Rescue fundraising dinner in mid-November with partnering Indy Give! nonprofit Seeds Community Café, to which CSFR donates, guests enjoy a beautiful spread of plates collaboratively compiled by area chefs, using both donated and rescued food.

Of CSFR's 19 donor organizations, Whole Foods supplies meat and dairy goods, while Trader Joe's and Asian Pacific Market gift fruits and veggies. Ranch Foods Direct, Venetucci Farm and Larga Vista Ranch also share their sustainably produced goods.

By the second course of smoked pork belly with black-eyed peas and kale, we're already feeling half-guilty, as if drinking Champagne at a funeral, for enjoying the lavish spread while simultaneously discussing food insecurity and waste.

I clean my plate extra well, while Chapman throws the necessary numbers at the crowd during his speech. Later, he gives me a breakdown of CSFR's budget, only $73,000 this year, most of that from individual donors, plus a little grant money, such as a recent $3,500 Pikes Peak Community Foundation award. In addition to him and Kendall, CSFR relies on the work of six paid CC work-study positions, its volunteer base, and an active board of directors that includes Shane Lory and Sanjay Roberts, who co-founded the group as sophomores along with fellow student Meredith Bird.

With future growth, should Indy Give! and grants provide a windfall, Chapman wants to enlarge CSFR's grocery programs in low-income areas as a primary mission. Currently four operate, but by 2016's end he wants 10 in motion. Using Atlas Preparatory School, a Harrison District 2 charter school, as an example, he illustrates how two CC students mentor four Atlas students who get credit to organize a Friday food pantry, distributing both CSFR and Care and Share goods to the those in need in their area.

"They're tasked with being promoters of health for their peers and the community," he says, adding that CSFR has been approached by other Springs schools for partnerships that can "dovetail into education projects and outreach, not just food rescue," by incorporating other groups like the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' "Flying Carrot" food literacy project.

Because ultimately, with a dire problem like rampant world hunger, paired with obscenely negligent food waste, it's the revolution and reinvention pieces of the puzzle that will hopefully have rescue groups counting their daily poundage backward, as it recedes someday. As the whole system achieves greater efficiency. When we can get back to rescuing kittens from trees and all that, instead of our food from landfills — facepalm.

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