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Issues Of The Environment: Connecting Washtenaw County's Hungry With Extra Food Before It's Wasted

Food Gatherers
Food Gatherers

The holiday season is here, which leads to big get-togethers with lots of food.  Sadly, those less fortunate don't have that luxury, but there are ways to help them out.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks to Eileen Spring, president and CEO of Food Gatherers, about donating uneaten food to help the needy, which has some postive environmental impacts as well.


  • The amount of food wasted in the United States is staggering, 400lbs per person is thrown away annually.  That’s 40% of all food!  (Source: (www.ReFED.com)
  • More appalling is the fact that 1 in 7 Americans is considered food insecure, with 15% of those in Washtenaw County falling under this label.  Food insecure residents are often children and the elderly, but in Washtenaw County, there is growing recognition that college students from impoverished circumstances are often food insecure.  EMU and UM have both established food pantries for such students.  
  • Food Gatherers is one of a network of organizations in our county that takes on the monumental task of rescuing extra food, keeping it safe, and distributing it to the needy.  In the 2019 fiscal year, Food Gatherers distributed nearly 6.3 million pounds of food to the hungry.
  • The main challenges to connecting excess food (and diverting waste), lie in:
    • Ensuring that food collected meets strict state and federal guidelines for food safety. (See examples for different types of food accepted by Food Gatherers below)
    • Maintaining the safety and integrity of food, particularly fresh or perishable items, during collection, storage, and distribution.
    • Getting food safely to those who are hungry, who often lack transportation to visit food pantries or other food resources.
  • Eileen Spring, President and CEO of Food Gatherers, has chosen to challenge their organization to not only meet the caloric needs of the needy, but to focus on nutrition with an emphasis on fresh produce and protein. 

Challenges with types of food accepted (rules and regulations)

  • Canned and dry goods, unopened and in their original packaging, labeled with ingredients and allergens, in good condition (no dents, bulging or rust) and which are within 1 year past their use-by date.  For food drive information, please click here.
  • Fresh produce that is uncut with no signs of mold, spoilage or severe bruising. May be purchased or from your own garden: Plant a Row for the Hungry
  • Dairy products that are unopened and within 5 days past the sell-by date, must be received at 41F.  Milk, juices and similar products must be pasteurized.
  • Baked goods within 2 days past the sell-by date, that are prepared in a licensed, inspected food establishments, in their sealed packaging with allergens and ingredients. 
  • Meat products that are unopened and have been frozen on or before the sell-by date, labeled as for commercial sale.  Items should be less than 3 months old (having been kept frozen the whole time). 
  • Deli Products — We accept deli products (salads, sandwiches) in their original unopened containers, labeled with ingredients and allergens. Must be received at 41F or below, donated or frozen on or before the sell-by date.
  • Prepared/Catered food - We accept prepared foods that have not been previously served to the public (buffet/family style).  Items must be properly packaged, stored at 41F or lower and donated before sell-by date. Must be prepared in a licensed kitchen. Full labeling with ingredients and allergens is required. Please contact us if you have not donated such foods to us in the past. 
  • Livestock/ Wild Game - Under certain conditions, we accept donations of frozen, processed livestock and wild game meat.  There are specific guidelines for these donations, which you can find here.  We recommend that you contact us to confirm your donation plan after reading the document, so we can answer your specific questions.  

Please bring all food items to Food Gatherers' warehouse, 1 Carrot Way, Ann Arbor, MI 48105,  Monday through Friday between 9 AM and 4:45 PM, Saturday between 9 AM and 3:45 PM, or take advantage of our extended drop off hours on Wednesdays until 6:45 PM. For directions, click here or call 734-761-2796 

Additional drop-off locations for nonperishables only (see their websites for open hours): People's Food Co-op, 216 N 4th Ave, Ann Arbor; Sweetwater's Coffee & Tea, 3393 Plymouth Rd, Ann Arbor; Dixboro United Methodist Church, 5221 Church Rd, Ann Arbor; and Cultivate Coffee & Taphouse, 307 N River St, Ypsilanti. 

Mountains of Food Wasted

Noelle Bowman, from Washtenaw County, says that first and foremost the scale of the food waste problem must be addressed.  She provided the bulk of data from the ReFED study (www.ReFED.com), which is the most recent and comprehensive study on food waste in the US ever conducted.

The study reveals, for example, that about 40% of ALL food is wasted in the US, which amounts to about 63 million tons (126 billion pounds) per year. Per person, that’s about 400lbs for each person per year.  The sheer magnitude of this problem can be difficult for most to comprehend. For those for whom “dollars” make more sense, an economic equivalent to this level of waste is over $210billion dollars annually, which is about 1.3% of the US GDP.

With food waste comes the issue of food packaging waste

Food plays a substantial role in our lives during the holidays. Local surveys show roughly 40% of what residents throw away is food, presumably more during the holiday season.  Also, about 40% of all food wasted annually in America comes from consumers.  This is useful information that we as individuals and our families, friends, colleagues can use to prevent and reduce food waste.

Food waste can be prevented and reduced through:

  1. Planning ahead to only purchase as much food as needed,
  2. Donating edible food where possible, and
  3. Composting otherwise inedible food.

Food Gatherers

Noelle says, “We are fortunate to live in a community in Washtenaw County where we have Food Gatherers which is a true asset to the community because they are doing just this on an impactful scale locally.  In 2016, through their “Food Rescue Program” saved more than 2.8 million pounds in in Washtenaw County from being wasted and entering the landfill. In 2019, they rescued 6.3 million pounds!

That sounds like a lot, and it is.  But, for scale, If we compare that to the national catastrophe of food waste occurring in our nation per year, Food gatherers through their work is only addressing about .0030% of the problem.   

Environmental impacts of food waste

Food waste impacts us in some unforeseen ways. It contributes negatively to natural resource conservation, climate change and also national security. 

What is Washtenaw County doing to address food waste?

Washtenaw County’s solid waste plan and its zero waste goal both help to make a dent in the amount of food wasted locally.  There's also the City of Ann Arbor's food waste collection program.  Statewide, the governor has recognized the need to increase our state recycling rate to 30% (from its current 15%), and as a part of that initiative, it is recognized and accepted that in order to achieve that 30% goal, food waste must be addressed.  

EMU and UM Student Food Pantries

LaTerricka Osborne could recite the figure without provocation.  $90 a month.  That’s how much Osborne, an Eastern Michigan University junior, plans on setting aside for food as she navigates a full class schedule while working a couple of jobs at any given time.

The money is set aside with the idea that financial emergencies are expected, Osborne said, from purchasing books at the beginning of the semester to $30 Lyft trips to work because she doesn’t have a car.  With a demanding daily schedule that includes classes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by work from 3 to 10 p.m. at the Residence Inn, Osborne is one of about 36% of university students who experience food insecurity, according to an annual Wisconsin HOPE Lab survey that included EMU. “I’m so tired, I don’t do anything but literally ‘Go to work, go to school, go to sleep,’” said an exhausted Osborne, wiping her eyes as lunch approaches inside Engage EMU’s offices.  “School is so tiresome mentally, and I don’t think a lot of people recognize that."

EMU has seen its Swoop’s Food Pantry begin to take on a significant role in meeting students’ growing demand for necessities, ranging from produce to pasta, to canned goods and toiletry items.  Since Swoop’s opened on campus in 2015, visits to the food pantry have increased by 193%, while the number of pounds of items distributed annually has increased from 14,187 to 71,258 for 2018-19, with a 56% increase in pounds distributed in just the past year.

A growing demand

On average, Swoop’s spends about $4,800 per month to keep pantry shelves stocked as average daily visitors have increased from around 10 in the pantry’s first year to 25 last year.  “More students are starting to realize that (food insecurity) is an issue that not only they're experiencing - they watch other people experience it and it does make them comfortable (visiting the pantry),” Swoop’s Food Pantry graduate assistant worker Joelle Summers said. Much of the food received by Swoop’s and the University of Michigan’s Maize and Blue Cupboard comes from local food banks and nonprofit Food Gatherers.

Swoop’s and the Maize and Blue Cupboard are just two of 170 community food pantries that partner with Food Gatherers, with the majority of food items collected through weekly pick-ups at “retail rescue” partners, Director of Community Food Programs Markell Miller said.  Food pantries like Swoop’s are able to purchase food in bulk at a lower price from Food Gatherers once a week, while other free items are available inside its warehouse.  Overall, Food Gatherers distributed about 6.3 million pounds of food last year to help feed the hungry.

Much like EMU, UM has seen more students reach out for support with food insecurity.  Food Gatherers’ distributions to the Maize and Blue Cupboard have increased from 7,350 pounds in 2015 to more than 81,000 pounds during the 2019 fiscal year.

Washtenaw Community College’s campus food pantry saw 30% growth from the previous year.  The community college recently participated in the first-ever study by the Government Accountability Office on hunger at American colleges, which showed food insecurity to be higher at community colleges than at four-year universities.  “I think we’ve normalized this behavior of the poor college student eating Ramen, and I don’t know if that’s what we really want our students to be eating if we want them to be able to engage in learning” said Alex Bryan, UM’s Sustainable Food Program assistant manager.  “Research done in our School of Public Health shows that as food insecurity increases, students’ GPA decreases.  We want to think about how we make sure that our students are getting that full Michigan education – they shouldn’t be having to worry about where they’re going to get their next meal that evening.”

Retail rescue contributions account for about half of all donations Food Gatherers distributes, Miller said, while much of its produce comes from a national network of food banks, including Feeding America and the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

Food Gatherers Focuses on Nutrition

Food Gatherers believes that access to nutritious food is a basic human right.  We connect the dots between hunger and health, and for many years focusing on healthy food has been a driving feature of our work.  In January 2019, our board adopted a formal nutrition policy that prioritizes procuring and distributing nutritious and economically valuable food to our 50,000 neighbors facing food insecurity.  Nationally, one-third of food banks have formally adopted a nutrition policy like this.  The types of food prioritized in our policy are considered “Healthy Picks*” and they include:

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Eggs, fish, meat, poultry, and plant-based protein
  • Whole grains
  • Milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Convenience foods (ready to eat) that are low-sodium and low-sugar

A leader in hunger-relief for more than 30 years, our commitment to nutrition is demonstrated in our governing values, our strategic plan, and our operating procedures, programming, and community partnerships.  Every day we work to build the capacity of our program network to distribute healthy food in the following ways:

  • We ensure that more than 60% of the food we distribute is protein and fresh produce.
  • We do not charge a fee for distributing donated food to our partner programs; instead, we absorb the cost of food collection, storage, and distribution.
  • We partner with local farms, individuals, and community growers to encourage the donation of fresh produce.
  • We provide Carrot Credits to partner programs to purchase items from our inventory, including low-sodium canned goods, whole wheat pastas, or frozen fish.
  • We use a Go, Slow,Whoa labeling system in our inventory database to easily identify healthy foods.
  • Our Shoppers Pantry in the warehouse models best practice strategies to promote healthy food choices.
  • We provide technical assistance, nutrition education, and resources to partner programs through direct service programming including: Healthy Pantry Conversion Project, CookStars Nutrition Ambassador Training Program, and Community Cooks.
  • We offer training and outreach so our partner programs can connect clients to SNAP and other federal food programs.
  • Our Healthy School Pantry Program provides fresh fruits and vegetables for families at participating schools.
  • The Health Care and Food Bank Partnership Initiative creates strategic relationships with health care institutions to increase food insecurity screening and referrals, and raise awareness of food insecurity as a social determinant of health.

To learn more, visit foodgatherers.org

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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