Eliminating barriers to food access

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Food insecurity is ubiquitous.

“All of us are just one poor step, one medical emergency, one financial reversal, one financial devastation away from food insecurity,” said Arlan Preblud, founder and executive director of We Don’t Waste, which is a food rescue organization based in Denver. “It would be nice to wake up and not have to go to work (because) that would mean we solved the crisis of food insecurity.”

As defined by Letisha Steele, executive director of Denver Food Rescue, a food rescue organization is “any organization whose whole role is to prevent excess waste from ending up in landfill.’’

Denver Food Rescue and We Don’t Waste are just a couple of the many food rescue organizations in Denver. These organizations have a shared mission: to prevent food waste by providing meals for those suffering from food insecurity.

What a waste

According to Recycle Track Systems, Inc., 1.4 million tons of edible food is discarded globally, with the U.S. alone contributing 80 billion pounds annually.

Edible food is thrown away for a number of reasons, including excessive spending behaviors, arbitrary or confusing “sell by” and “use by” dates and because of a culture of perfection — meaning, a consumer expectation of aesthetically perfect produce.

Preblud used a bell pepper as an example.

“At the grocery store, if a yellow bell pepper has too much green on it, it goes to landfill because it isn’t perfectly yellow,” Preblud said.

He added that grocery stores will also reject a bell pepper that is considered flawed. For example, if it only has three chambers, even though the flavor difference between a three-chambered bell pepper is unnoticeable from that of a four-chambered bell pepper.

Though the U.S. throws away 30-40% of its edible food, a 2021 survey conducted by the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment estimates that 33% of Denver residents face food insecurity.

The pandemic shed a light on how many people can be at risk when supply chains fail, Steele said, adding that recent inflation hikes have exacerbated the issue. But in addition to job losses and breaks in the supply chain, there are some areas where fresh food is simply not available. These areas are commonly referred to as food deserts.

“We call them food apartheids,” Steele said.

Merriam-Webster defines apartheid as “a former policy of segregation and political, social, and economic discrimination against the nonwhite majority in the Republic of South Africa.”

According to Steele, food deserts refer to areas where food cannot grow, and food apartheids exist when an area is not being invested in — such as, for example, the result of a failing system or other barriers that have been in place for many years, Steele said.

A solution to a growing problem

“In a perfect world, everyone would have access to fresh, nutritious foods,” said Aditi Desai, vice president of marketing and communications for Food Bank of the Rockies. “It would be wonderful if food rescues were obsolete, if everyone had what they needed.”

She added it may happen “someday.” But for now, Denver-area food rescue organizations have stepped up to help community members in need by taking the problem of food waste and turning it into a solution. They provide free food to the public at food pantries, distribution centers, community gardens, co-ops and even free farmers markets. This is accomplished by partnering with grocery stores, restaurants, convention centers, caterers and even local farmers to receive donated and low-cost purchases of food.

However, food rescues aren’t solely about preventing food waste. Food sovereignty and offering culturally-appropriate foods to customers are additional missions of food rescues.

Free dignity

“People should have the dignity to have food sovereignty,” Steele said, “regardless of race, origin (and/or) economic status.”

Unlike government-provided food assistance programs with strict hours, limited availability and requirements, many food rescue organizations do not request personal information, nor do they set parameters for people to qualify for food donations. As such, they are a stop gap for those in need, filling in where the government programs fall short.

Some people may be afraid to provide personal information, fearful that their insufficient government assistance may be taken from them, Preblud said. By eliminating requirements for demographics and other reporting, food rescue programs honor those who are in a vulnerable position with dignity, Preblud added.

Culturally-appropriate foods

Often, food rescue customers also have the option of choosing what they’d like to take home, rather than being handed a variety box filled with unfamiliar foods.

It’s important to look at the makeup of communities, and the foods that are preferred in that community, Desai said.

“Different regions have different demographics,” she said.

For example, a Spanish-speaking community may prefer items such as masa flour, jackfruit, dried beans and tortillas. Communities with a population of Asian and Pacific Islanders may prefer Thai basil, water spinach, rice, ginger and white and green onions.

Another benefit to curating the foods for specific communities further prevents food waste by ensuring the preferred foods are supplied.

Refugees helping their community

Kaizen Food Rescue is another organization contributing to significant food waste reduction by providing produce donations and meals to community members facing food insecurity. It got its start in 2019 by Thai Nguyen, a Vietnamese diaspora.

“I started Kaizen after volunteering for my children’s school to pick up fresh food. After seeing all the surplus food at Food Bank of the Rockies, the idea came up to open our own food pantry,” Nguyen said. “Many food pantries didn’t have fresh produce and that’s what most immigrants and refugees prefer. So we created a culturally responsive food share program.” 

Kaizen serves as a conduit for community members and specializes in assisting refugees and immigrants in the area. In addition to food rescue, Kaizen hosts workshops to assist community members with building confidence in speaking with local legislators about establishing neighborhood co-ops, advocating for food justice and reducing barriers.

Mu Dah Di of Aurora is a refugee from Burma who began her food rescue journey as a customer at Kaizen Food Rescue. However, she realized there are other underserved people in her community that she wanted to help, so she started her own food share with Kaizen’s support.

“To me, it’s pretty much understanding where you are coming from,” Di said. “Knowing how hard it is to live in this country without knowing the language, among other barriers. Reaching out to them (and) helping them out.”

Di hosts her food share program once a week at New Freedom Park in Denver. She takes great pride in this work.

“It gives me a sense of completion and makes me happy to know that people have food at the end of the day,” Di said.

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