Program prevents commercial food waste and feeds the hungry

Every little bit helps when it comes to reducing the amount of food that’s thrown away.

Throwing edible food in the trash or even the compost is not ideal — not for the environment, not for the community and not for the bottom line. One Bellingham organization has a solution.

This spring Sustainable Connections launched its food recovery program, where restaurants or other businesses can donate their leftover prepared food to feed hungry people in Whatcom County.

Food waste is a big problem in the U.S. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30 percent to 40 percent of the food produced in the United States is ultimately wasted. In 2010, that meant approximately 133 billion pounds of food — worth $161 billion — was thrown away.

Sustainable Connections, along with local nonprofits, is working to reduce that, locally at least.

Last fall Sustainable Connections received a grant from the state Department of Ecology to move forward with a new initiative.

The entire program is aimed at reducing the amount of food that’s thrown away — both in businesses and individual homes.

The initiative is called Squatch Food Waste and involves several programs: individuals can take a pledge to try to reduce the amount of food they throw away, and get tips, including shopping smarter, storing food better, using food scraps and, finally, donating unwanted food.

On the commercial side, restaurants have a built-in financial incentive to only buy the food they need.

“They actually do a pretty good job of making sure they’re not wasting food,” Mark Peterson, sustainable business manager at Sustainable Connections, said.

However precise they get, however, there’s no way restaurants can predict exactly how many customers will show up on a given night, and how many of those will want the special or soup of the day.

Try as they might, most restaurants have at least a few servings left over at the end of the night.

When combined with the leftovers from other restaurants around town, that can add up to a big impact for people who are hungry.

Volunteers from Sustainable Connections and the Ferndale nonprofit Miracle Food Network pick that food up and distribute it to organizations that feed people. Usually, the food is served to someone who needs it the same day it’s picked up, sometimes even within hours.

So far more than 16 businesses have signed up for the food recovery initiative, and Peterson said they’re actively recruiting even more. Any local business that makes prepared food is eligible to participate.

“I think we have a compassionate business community,” Peterson said. “And I don’t think any of them feel good about throwing away edible food.”

Nonprofit recipients of the donated food have included Lighthouse Mission Ministries, Northwest Youth Services, Miracle Food Network, Ferndale Food Bank and Foothill Community Partnership.

Businesses also have a financial incentive.

If they donate leftover food instead of throwing it out, they get to deduct the cost, plus some of the margin as well.

Peterson said the Whatcom County Health Department has been very cooperative in offering guidelines on what food can be donated and what can’t, and how businesses can best follow food safety guidelines when dealing with leftovers, to ensure the food stays safe to eat.

Peterson is also working to assuage business’ fears about donating prepared food. Businesses face little liability, he said.

A federal law protects donors who, in good faith, give food to a legitimate nonprofit organization.

“Once we knew that they had the health department’s blessing, that was the green light and off we went,” Janet Lightner, general manager of Boundary Bay Brewery said.

Boundary Bay has been participating in the program for more than two months.

“The barriers were just so low,” Lightner said.

Boundary Bay has undertaken other sustainability efforts, including things like recycling and diverting food waste, that required training the whole staff, and took a little bit of time to adapt to.

But with Sustainable Connections’ food recovery program, Lightner said, it was easy.

The only people impacted were a few members of the kitchen staff, who barely had to change their routines at all.

Boundary Bay simply bought a dedicated rack for the refrigerator, and staff knows that that’s where to put leftovers for donation.

“They make it real easy,” she said. “They’re respectful of your space. It’s just really great.”

On a regular night, the restaurant doesn’t have that much leftover anyway.

“By design you want to limit your food waste,” she said. “Consistently, it’s more like rice and potatoes and things like that that we just can’t dial in the right batch amount at the end of the night.”

But the beauty of the program is that businesses on a regular pickup route can donate as few as five servings.

When Boundary Bay caters an event, however, there usually ends up being a lot more left over.

“In a restaurant business it’s such small margins anyways, and food waste is something you’re constantly looking at … But in a buffet or catering event you want to have more than enough,” Lightner said.

“It’s just nice to know it’s going to a good home.”

The Bellingham assisted living facility Mt. Baker Care Center was the first business to sign onto the food recovery initiative.

“We’re actually really proud of the food we make,” Jozef Bosman, dining services director of the center, said, “and it feels horrible to throw our really good food away.”

This is just the latest in the center’s sustainable efforts.

They’ve previously signed onto Sustainable Connections’ Toward Zero Waste Program, and are diverting as much waste as they can away from the landfill.

“It’s just a shame to throw something away that’s perfectly good,” Boseman said. “And this way we can help our community.”

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