Every Tuesday morning around 9 a.m., Stephen Bentley pulls his black SUV to the rear entrance of the West Bloomfield Whole Foods, where he’s greeted by staff member Mario Davis. Bentley pops the hatchback while Davis brings out cartons of prepared salads, loaves of fresh-baked bread, vegetables, quiches, cans of peas and tomatoes and varieties of meatballs.
The bounty represents one days’ worth of excess — perishable foods that were selling slowly, discontinued items and unsold bread from the day before. The bags and boxes fill the rear of Bentley’s truck; a few more bags are stashed into the front seat. He makes two more stops to pick up day-old prepared sandwiches that would otherwise be thrown away at two different Starbucks before heading to his final destination: Lenore Street in northwest Detroit.
There, he’s greeted by Jacqueline Moore, who runs an after-school tutoring nonprofit, SDM2 Project Education, out of a house across the street from her home. She’ll use this day’s offerings to prepare snacks and dinner for her after-school for the week, plus share the bounty with her neighborhood.
Bentley has traveled just about nine miles to the south, but in terms of race and income, it’s a different world. The median income in the neighborhood is $29,200 and the population is 69% Black. In West Bloomfield, the median income is $93,000 and the population is 74% white.
Moore founded SDM2 to offer kids in her neighborhood homework help and a safe space to hang out. She launched the effort while also working full-time as a customer service representative at Sinai Grace Hospital. Then COVID hit, and she was one of those who got infected in the first wave.
“I contracted COVID in March 2020, like so many people, before we knew what was going on. And I was messed up. It took me down,” she said. When she finally did return to her job at Sinai Grace, she found she wasn’t physically able to do the work because her energy level was so low. She decided to retire and redouble her efforts to serve her neighborhood.
In the past several months Moore has begun working with Food Rescue US Detroit, a food waste recovery project that uses an Uber-like app program that uses volunteer drivers to connect food waste donors with recipients. It’s found a way to meet an unfilled niche in the food rescue ecosystem by moving smaller quantities of food that would otherwise go to waste from donors like restaurants and hotels to those in need.
“I’ve dealt with a few organizations that did food rescue, but it was nothing like this at all,” Moore said. “I would have to go to different places because they considered us too small to deliver to. And so I would have to rent a vehicle to go get the boxes.”
Moore points to the quality of fresh food coming through Food Rescue US. With other food rescue operations that she won’t name, “you had to pick through the stuff,” Moore said.
Bentley, a retired postal worker, has volunteered in the community for decades, and he’s seen the good and the bad when it comes to food donations.
“No one ever wants smashed-up bread,” he said. “But if people take care of what they’re doing, if it comes from your heart, and you act as if you were giving to your own family, then you see it in a different way.”
That focus on respecting recipients of food assistance is something that sets Food Rescue US Detroit apart according to Moore.
Darraugh Collins, whose husband works in the hotel foodservice industry, launched the Detroit chapter of Food Rescue US in June of 2019 after realizing how much food goes to waste in hospitality and food service.
The project works with 74 food donors across metro Detroit to provide excess food to 86 social service agency partners. In the last couple years, the organization’s 228 local volunteers have helped deliver more than 6 million meals to food-insecure individuals and families and kept over 7.2 million pounds of excess food out of landfills.
“We don’t have a lower limit; we will pick up any amount,” Collins said, “and because it’s our volunteers picking up in their own vehicle, and they’re delivering it to a specified agency, we’re able to really get into the nooks and crannies of Detroit that are forgotten.”
Food waste and the pandemic
Before the pandemic, 40% of food waste occurred at consumer-facing businesses, with another 43% wasted at home, according to the national food waste nonprofit ReFed. Overall, 30-40% of all food produced goes to waste every year.
The pandemic created massive disruptions at every level of the supply chain. Early panic buys (with grocery spending spiking at 70% in March 2020) created a temporary food shortage at stores, which likely resulted in increased waste at home in the short term.
But even as the pandemic recedes, food consumption patterns will likely continue to shift. As grocers and restaurants adapt to meet shifting demand, the potential for food waste is created.
Research has documented that many Americans have increased home cold food storage capacity since the onset of COVID-19. “But the number of meals consumed at home is likely to decline as people return to pre-pandemic levels of eating out and at the office,” Brian Roe, professor of agriculture at Ohio State University. “That leaves higher stocks of perishable food in newly purchased refrigerators and freezers that may very well be forgotten. And food waste at restaurants is likely to increase as more people frequent foodservice outlets.”
The haul from Tuesday’s Whole Foods run would be too small and contain too many perishable items for larger food assistance programs like Gleaners or Forgotten Harvest to accept. US Food Rescue’s flexible model is one solution for gleaning food waste at small scales in an ever-shifting demand landscape — whether those demand shifts are driven by pandemic, economic shock, or natural disaster.
“These organizations can make meaningful differences in their communities as high-quality restaurant food is redirected to those who may be suffering food insecurity, both offering another degree of freedom for agencies servicing the needs of the food insecure while also diminishing the amount of food that ends up in landfill or compost,” Roe said.”I think there will remain room for more such organizations even if all restaurants become very efficient because there will still be some excess even with best management practices in place.”
A personal touch
Since she started working with Food Rescue US Detroit, Moore has transformed Tuesdays on Lenore Street into a shopping day for the neighborhood. This afternoon, Bentley’s Whole Foods haul is set out on folding tables in front of SDM2’s neighborhood garden. Neighbors, many of them seniors or moms with kids, stop by to peruse the offerings and load up a box of vegetables, loaves of bread, meatballs and salads.
“People love it, especially my seniors, because they don’t have to go into any other market and have to travel, and they get a chance to interact with other seniors,” Moore says. “We put some good music on. Today we’re giving out seeds as well. So I’m trying to encourage people to garden too.”
Moore will deliver any leftovers to neighborhood daycares and a nearby halfway house for men. One neighbor is making bags for seniors who couldn’t come in person today.
A whirling dervish of energy, Moore greets people as they gather and shop. She flits around chatting with neighbors, encouraging this one to take a salad for her mom and warning another not to take more than their share. You’d never know that she had a bad bout with COVID earlier in the year that has left her still struggling to maintain her stamina.
This week, Moore’s energy level is high as she greets her neighbor Myrna Richardson, a senior who lives next door with her husband, Earl Richardson. Moore knows what everyone likes, and tends to put it aside for folks like the Richardsons.
“Miss Myrna is pretty picky, and there’s a certain type of bread that Mr. Earl likes. I kind of know now,” says Moore.
The Richardsons received Meals on Wheels for a while as Earl recovered from a recent stroke. It’s difficult for them to get to the store, so having food available right on their block has been a big help. This Tuesday, Myrna Richardson selects a prepared chicken-and-kale Caesar salad for her lunch.
“We enjoy it every week, we don’t have to go to the markets or anything. And we just go right out here to get our food every week,” Myrna Richardson said. “As seniors, we love it.”
That personal touch reaches back to the “supplier.” Mario Davis, a Whole Foods worker who helps load donations into Food Rescue US trucks, looks forward to hearing Bentley’s stories about where the food goes and who enjoyed it.
“Me personally, I like to hear the stories when they come back the next time,” said Mario Davis, the Whole Foods staff member. “With some food rescues, you just never really hear anything. But the stories they tell us are kind of inspiring, knowing that we can help people through tough times, knowing that people look forward to it. It may be food donations, but it’s still good quality stuff.”
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR 89.3; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN's Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.