Feeding America, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization with a network of food banks to feed the hungry, began almost 40 years ago when John van Hengel founded the first food bank in Phoenix.
Van Hengel saw grocery store employees tossing food in a dumpster while right down the street was a St. Mary’s pantry that was handing out food to the needy. He went into the grocery store and asked if he could distribute that food to the community instead. From this effort, food banking was born.
As more food banks became established, van Hangel created a national organization to unite them and later established Second Harvest, which changed its name to Feeding America in 2008. Over the years, Feeding America has worked hard to recover edible food from waste streams to distribute it to the nation’s hungry.
Karen Hanner, managing director of Manufacturing Product Sourcing for Feeding America, has been part of that effort for almost eight years. Hanner is also a Feeding America representative on the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, a cross-industry initiative that’s committed to reducing food waste in the U.S. and increasing the diversion of edible food to food banks.
Hanner is speaking about best practices for recovering edible food waste from the waste streams at WasteExpo’s new Food Recovery Forum in June, and Waste360 recently sat down with her to discuss Feeding America’s efforts to end hunger and minimize the amount of edible food going into the waste streams.
Waste360: Can you provide some background on Feeding America and your role with the organization?
Karen Hanner: Feeding America is the nation’s largest hunger relief organization and the nation’s largest food recovery organization. About half of the food that we source and distribute is actually recovered from waste streams across the food industry. We also support a network of 200 food banks, which are located in every state.
We serve each community through a network of 60,000 agencies, which is what we call our partners. The food banks are the large warehouses and our partner agencies are the soup kitchens, food pantries, Boys and Girls programs, senior centers, etc., where the food is actually distributed. Through this network of agencies, we ensure that food is distributed securely to about 48 million people each year. The other half of the product comes from our partners in retail as well as manufacturers and farmers who have food that is unsellable for whatever reason but is still edible and safe to consume.
It’s really about making sure that food that is produced but hasn’t been sold or distributed can be eaten by people before it’s used to feed animals, the Earth or to create energy. We ultimately find the best use for unsellable foods before destroying it.
I have been with Feeding America for seven-and-a-half years, and I spent almost 30 years in the for-profit side before coming here. My marketing and supply chain background has worked really well here because we work with our manufacturing donors as partners. We want to make sure we create ongoing, sustainable relationships and that we provide just as much benefit to our donors in terms of avoiding waste when they cannot sell food as we are to feeding the hungry and fighting hunger in this country.
I lead a manufacturing product sourcing team of seven people who work with all of the large national manufacturers across the country, including Kellogg’s, General Mills, PNG and food and grocery product manufacturers. We work with these manufacturers to make sure that anything that they cannot sell within their production system or distribution system isn’t destroyed but is given to help support the communities in which they operate.
We often talk about us being a triple-line benefit because we help our donors avoid waste hauling fees, disposal fees, etc., which makes us a financial benefit. In many cases, these donors can benefit from the enhanced tax benefits from donating. At the same time, we are helping keep food out of landfills, which is an environmental positive. And lastly, we are able to feed the communities across the country and serve food, which is a social benefit.
Waste360: What are the different ways that Feeding America is helping both families and children in need?
Karen Hanner: Our largest structure of programs to distribute food to families and children in need would be our food pantries, which are designed for boxes of food to go home with families to empower them to feed their families.
We used to call this program a temporary emergency feeding system but since the economy has been bad over the last few years and employment isn’t where it was 10 years ago, a large percentage of our families are relying on food from the food banks as part of their ongoing, sustainable source of food. Besides Snap dollars, this has become one of their coping mechanisms to put enough nutritious food on the table.
Recently, we have worked to put some pantries in schools, which have allowed us to reach families where their children are. It also benefits the community side because parents can come to get food and pick up their kids, which helps encourage the community around the school.
We also have a couple food banks that are piloting food pantries in VA hospitals, which are communities of food insecure individuals who have served in the military. Being able to set up food distribution where vets are coming for medical needs and support has been another really positive program for us.
In addition to those efforts, we have direct child feeding programs, such as our after school program where we provide nutritious snacks to children before they get picked up and our kids cafe program where we provide full, hot meals as a dinner opportunity for children who may not have access to food sources at home.
The backpack program is also really popular. This program provides children with a backpack filled with lightweight and easily consumed food for them to take home on the weekends so that they will have something to eat at home. The bags may vary, but they are all nutritious and include things like individual peanut butter cups, fruit and granola bars.
In the summer, we partner with organizations like boys and girls clubs for summer feeding programs. Some children depend on school breakfast and lunch and when school is not in session for summer, school vacations, snow days, etc., they may not have access to food. We are working on bridging the periods of time when food isn’t available for children who are dependent on the school feeding programs.
Waste360: How does Feeding America recover edible food from the waste streams and use that food to solve the issue of hunger?
Karen Hanner: We have programs that work with farmers to capture food that is left in fields because it’s ugly, not the right size, not the right color or the fields may have produced too much. For example, there was a great harvest this year and there’s not enough market for it so there’s leftover food.
We also capture larger quantities of products that have been harvested but are just sitting in packing sheds because there’s no market. We are then able to take that product and distribute it to food banks. The food banks are also able to compensate the farmer or packer for just the cost to harvest the product and package it. The farmers and packers don’t make a profit, but they do get compensated for their efforts to distribute products as a donation. This process still qualifies as a donation from a tax perspective, and it covers them for the cost to get products out of the field.
For example, we worked with the canner Seneca to capture about 800,000 of sweet corn from passed fields in Minnesota. Seneca can only harvest as fast as their canning lines can work so we worked with them to save that extra corn that would have been tilled under. We compensated the farmer for running a combine through the fields, and we worked with a local company to pack the big bulks of corn into totes and load them on the trucks. We then worked with Supervalu to take the field heat out of the corn by cooling it overnight. This process allowed us to distribute the corn to food banks to be eaten by people in several communities.
We also worked with Del Monte to can small, off-colored pieces of peaches that are out of spec to the company’s branded product. The fruit they are unable to use actually has the same nutritional benefits as the full-size, colorful pieces that they use for branding purposes. Again, the food banks only compensate Del Monte for canning the peaches, and Del Monte can take advantage of the tax benefits for making a donation.
Below is a video that showcases a food recovery project for green beans in Nashville:
In addition to those efforts, we have been working with our partners on the manufacturing level to start taking items that are unsellable from a regulatory perspective, such as underweight or mislabeled items. We have been working with the USDA and FDA to get donation-specific labeling guidelines, which has enabled us to take unsellable food and relabel it so it can be distributed to people who need it.
We also work in partnership with major retailers and grocery stores to pick up food that is getting close to the code date so we can take it to the food banks for distribution. This is our largest single source of food for our network right now, and we are extending this practice so we can pick up even more products at the consumer-facing retailers in the foodservice sector, such as restaurants and hotels.
Waste360: What are the organization’s goals for 2016?
Karen Hanner: Our short-term and long-term goal is to leverage our scale and our programmatic strengths in the food recovery sector. We want to be a better partner in the food industry so that we can safely recover more wasted food.
In many cases, we are kind of a well-kept secret. Everyone knows that we feed people and that we are trying to end hunger, but they are less aware of the scale and the percentage of the product that is critical for us to achieve these goals.
We also hope to engage more donors, stakeholders and technology partners to help us do a better job, and our goal to eventually end hunger in the U.S. will continue on.