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'Rescued' food helps feed the hungry in Minn.

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Food shelf volunteer
Bonnie Opheim, a volunteer at the Manna Market at SonLight Church of the Nazarene in Blaine, Minn., sorts through food rescued from Twin Cities grocery stores on May 5, 2011. The market gives fresh food away free to low-income Minnesotans.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

In Minnesota alone, we throw out more than 715  million pounds of food each year. State officials say that's how much we send to landfills or garbage burners. 

Hunger relief organizations are increasing their efforts to save the portion of that food that's edible -- and get it to hungry Minnesotans. 

It's Rick Gruber's job to collect that food from grocery stores in the Twin Cities metro area.  Every weekday before dawn, Gruber starts his rounds. 

On a recent morning, he pulled his truck up to the back door of Cub Foods in St. Paul. Then, he loaded boxes of fruit, vegetables, and nearly-expired meat and dairy products onto his truck. Most of this food would otherwise be thrown away. 

Gruber worked in the grocery business for four decades. He used to be the guy who tossed this stuff. 

"You just kind of shake your head and say to yourself -- wow, I just can't believe this," he said. 

Now Gruber collects donated food for Second Harvest Heartland food bank, which has the largest food rescue program in the state. 

Produce donations
Rick Gruber collects produce from Cub Foods in St. Paul, Minn., on May 5, 2011, to take to the Second Harvest Heartland food bank or local food shelves. The grocery store donates items that it can't sell -- food that is bruised or close to its expiration date -- but is still safe to eat.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Over the last four years, Second Harvest Heartland more than quadrupled the amount of perishable food it gets from grocery stores like Cub, Walmart, and Target, to 12.3 million pounds in 2010. That's enough for more than 9 million meals.

Food rescue, as it's called, started in the 1980s, and today it happens all over the state. Some groups pick up leftover food from restaurants, hospitals, and schools. People even harvest crops that would otherwise be left in fields. 

Janet Poppendieck, the author of "Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement," says food rescue is not like it used to be.

"What may have started out 30 years ago as well-intentioned volunteers picking up leftovers and dropping them off at a shelter has become much more professionalized," she said. 

That's because rescuing large amounts of food requires money and expertise.

When Second Harvest Heartland ramped up its program in 2007, the number of hungry Minnesotans was on the rise. The food bank needed more -- and different -- sources of food.

Redistributing groceries
Second Harvest Heartland driver Rick Gruber collects grocery items from Cub Foods in St. Paul, Minn., on May 5, 2011. In 2010, the food bank rescued enough perishable food from Twin Cities grocery stores for more than 9 million meals.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Historically, food banking has been built on the back of manufactured food, food that's in boxes, cans, and bags. Processed food," said Bob Chatmas, chief operating officer of Second Harvest Heartland. 

Those donations were leveling off, Chatmas said, because companies are better managing their inventories. Second Harvest saw rescued food as a new, and often healthier, food stream. 

But that required a big investment. The food bank now has seven refrigerated trucks, at $90,000 each, and a renovated warehouse with more refrigerator and freezer space. 

The big challenge is -- how do you make sure the food is safe? The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, a federal law passed in 1996,  protects donors giving food in good faith. But Chatmas doesn't want it to come to that.

"Our paramount concern here is to not distribute food that would make people sick," he said. 

That's one reason why the food bank has focused its program on grocery stores. They have the help of people like Chuck Lynch, who calls himself a "food safety geek."

Lynch, senior vice president of operations for Cub Foods, says the food his stores are donating is perfectly good. It just doesn't look great.

"Maybe just a corner of a pineapple is bruised. If a steak gets a brown edge on it, it doesn't have buy appeal. Eye appeal is buy appeal," he said.

It won't sell, but Lynch says it's still stafe. Cub provides guidelines on how to care for the food after it leaves the store. That means keeping it at a certain temperature, and knowing when to throw it out. 

Second Harvest Heartland drivers are trained in food safety. Their warehouse is inspected by the Department of Agriculture and private food safety inspectors. State health and agriculture officials say they can't remember a time where rescued food in Minnesota caused illness. 

At the end of his day, after picking up at several grocery stores, Second Harvest driver Rick Gruber dropped 7,500 pounds of food at the Manna Market in Blaine. The market provides free food for low-income Minnesotans. Trained volunteers sort through the food, making sure it's safe and edible. 

The Manna Market can store large amounts of perishable food with the help of a new refrigerator. That's a luxury not all food shelves in Minnesota have.

Second Harvest Heartland hopes to be rescuing 20 million pounds of food by 2013. Other organizations around the state are also increasing their efforts. 

Even so, Ginny Black, who oversees organics recycling at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, says they're just scratching the surface.

"I would say a very small part of the food that could be rescued is being rescued," said Black.

That's because it's expensive for small organizations to buy the trucks and storage facilities, she says, and because some companies still worry about liability.

Black adds one other limiting factor: Only some of the food we throw away is fit for human consumption. She says nobody knows exactly how much of our food waste could be rescued for people to eat. But as one in 10 Minnesotans struggles with hunger, relief organizations are determined to save as much of it as they can.

Return to Ground Level: Hunger »