For the last three years, Sasha Purpura has been a Robin Hood of sorts, taking food from the wealthy and giving it to the impoverished. But she isn’t stealing these items. Instead, she and her colleagues have successfully convinced industry titans and private educational institutions in Massachusetts to donate their excess food to the homeless.
Through the aptly named Food for Free program, Purpura has diverted more than 2 million pounds of leftover food from restaurants and cafeterias to homeless shelters and food pantries in the state. Within that time, the nonprofit has expanded its operations, forming partnerships with nearby Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other businesses in its 12 partner cities.
Each week, Food for Free representatives leave the headquarters in Cambridge and collect nearly 2,500 pounds of fresh and frozen produce — including meat, cheese, vegetables, and other items that can no longer be sold.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to capture as much of that as possible and solve food insecurity in this area,” Sasha Purpura told ThinkProgress. “Our work has allowed some of the agencies we work with to include nutritious food [in their offerings], which is critical because their clientele usually can’t access that. We want to keep this up until that gap is filled or all needs are met. We want to make sure that everyone has access to fresh, healthy food.”
Data from the Envrionmental Protection Agency designates food scraps as the second largest source of waste in the United States, with leftovers accounting for nearly a fifth of landfill space. American consumers and businesses often throw away items, particularly fruits, because of cosmetic issues, like blemishes or small deformities in shape. Other developed nations grapple with similar problems. The total value of food wasted globally stands at nearly $400 billion — enough money to feed all of the world’s 870 million hungry people, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Food for Free counts among a host of food recovery programs in the United States that allow restaurants, cafeterias, and other food preparers to give their excess food to the homeless advocacy organizations. In 2011, Bay Area college student Komal Ahmed founded Feeding Forward, a program that coordinates the donation of excess food prepared in San Francisco. The Food Recovery Network has taken similar steps in transferring leftover food from 150 colleges in 37 states to those who need it the most. Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has done its part, launching its Food Recovery Challenge — a call to organizations and businesses to donate excess food, purchase less produce, and compost
With food insecurity afflicting more than 49 million Americans — nearly one out of 10 people — and food banks experiencing shortages in recent years, local food recovery programs have supplemented dwindling food supplies in homes and shelters across the country. In turn, providers of those services have forged relationships between private businesses and local agencies.
Janet Barsorian, the kitchen manager at Lowell Transitional Living Center (LTLC), told ThinkProgress that the additional boxes of food have helped her staff feed more than 100 people who enter the facility every week. Borsorian told ThinkProgress that doing this work without Food for Free would be a huge undertaking, especially during the winter when officials can’t refuse admission to homeless families trying to escape the frigid weather.
“Before we teamed up with Food for Free, we would only serve food a hot breakfast a couple times during the week. We only had sandwiches, salads, soups, and mac and cheese sometimes,” Barsorian, an LTLC employee of more than 15 years, said. “Now we have different ethnic foods and our people think it’s amazing. Depending on what they pick up, we could get anything. This is like comfort food for some of our homeless because they may have not eaten in a long time. Nutrition is important to those who aren’t feeling too well.”
Reducing food waste through recovery programs also poses great benefits for the environment. Once discarded food decomposes, it releases methane — a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide — into the atmosphere. Food waste counts as the third largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions In the United States and other developed nations, consumers exacerbate the issue by purchasing more food than they plan to eat. A report compiled by the Waste and Resources Action Program in the United Kingdom in February said that, if left unabated, consumer food waste will cost $600 billion annually.
While the concept of food recovery emerged 30 years ago, the fervor among the private sector magnates to serve the less fortunate increased in the mid-1990s — around the time that then-President Bill Clinton signed the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act into law. The legislation protects donors and recipients of leftover food from liability as long as both parties ensure that their donation programs incorporate safe food handling and storage.
To meet the standards outlined in the law, and meet an increasing demand for fresh food, Food for Free has employed the food preservation technique of flash freezing, during which employees store produce to temperatures below water’s freezing point. The process wipes out any chance of bacteria growing on leftovers. However, Food for Free’s innovative transportation system and the aforementioned legal protections haven’t sufficed in convincing some potential partners in joining the food recovery movement.
But Purpura has remained relentless in turning some food vendors around, even compelling them to tweak their purchasing habits.
“I’ve reached out to some organizations and they told me they don’t have waste. I know that’s not true,” Purpura said. “They may not understand the level of waste they have and it does them a disservice to not acknowledge this. For the others, when we picked up the food, it was the first time they had direct insight on how much they wasted. This enabled them to improve their internal service.”