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An Inside Look at Second Harvest Food Bank's Operations

Food bank staff visit nearly 200 grocery stores a week across 46 counties in Tennessee to “rescue” food and distribute it to food-insecure communities.

Food that sits on grocery store shelves is typically discarded within a week of its sell-by and best-by dates. That means a loaf of bread, for instance, which has two good weeks of shelf life after the best-by date, is thrown out after just a week of being on the shelf. And the same goes for holiday-themed food items.

But at Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, that discarded food gets a second life and feeds the people in the middle of the state who need it most.

During a site tour of the Davidson County facility, Camille Cannada, coordinator of individual and corporate relationships for Second Harvest Food Bank, explained that most of the food that comes into the facility would have otherwise been thrown away by grocery stores. The tour was part of the Solid Waste Association of North America’s (SWANA) largest event, WASTECON, in Nashville on Monday.

In order to retrieve food from the stores before it’s thrown out, food bank staff members go into about 200 grocery stores a week, purchase the food and bring it back to the facility to be sorted. After the food is sorted, usually by groups of volunteers, the organization looks at how food insecure each of the counties it serves are and figures out how to distribute food based on need.

“We call that our grocery-rescue program,” says Cannada. “We also have a farm-to-families’ system, where we have a lot of farms that give us food that’s leftover and food that hasn’t made codes to go to grocery stores for different reasons.”

Food bank staff and volunteers sort pallets of food from grocery stores and check for damaged, expired or recalled items. About 80 to 85 percent of the grocery-rescued food will be distributed among the 46 counties the food bank serves, Cannada explains.

Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee is one of five food banks in the state and is a member of Feeding America, a national network of food banks. This particular organization has been around for 40 years and got its start in the basement of a school. Now, the Davidson County facility is in the middle of renovations, and by next month, Second Harvest will operate three facilities in the area.

Second Harvest partners with nearly 500 nonprofit agencies—soup kitchens, after-school centers, senior centers, churches, etc.—with a mission to feed hungry people and work to solve hunger issues.

One thing Cannada and the team at this facility want to see more of is sustainable practices, like composting. Right now, unused food at the facility is thrown away—not composted.

Cannada explains that though she would like to see more sustainable food disposal efforts, since the organization’s mission is to feed hungry people, it doesn’t have funds set aside for sustainability efforts. However, she says that many of the agencies Second Harvest partners with do compost.

One program that is unique to Second Harvest, however, is its cook-chill facility, where the organization cooks food and then freezes it in an easy-to-prepare way for its clients. The organization also makes 5 pound, boil-in-bag food for soup kitchens.

In addition, Second Harvest started making its own sauce using 10,000 pounds of tomatoes a week that have already been processed by a facility in Nashville. If the facility didn't use those tomatoes, they would end up in the trash, Cannada notes.

The food bank also puts together backpacks for children who may not be eating enough during after-school hours, boxes of special dietary foods for senior citizens, as well as emergency food boxes for disaster relief. Second Harvest built numerous boxes that were sent out to HoustonPuerto Rico and Florida after the hurricanes last year.

But what Cannada is most proud of is how far Second Harvest can stretch its resources to benefit the communities that need it most. “$1 equals four meals,” she explains. “That’s because of the amount of food that’s donated or government funded, so we’re really able to stretch a dollar.”

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