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In Maryland, rescuing food that might otherwise be wasted

Baltimore Sun logoBaltimore Sun 7/16/2017 Jean Marbella
Baltimore Free Farm © Baltimore Free Farm via Facebook Baltimore Free Farm

On one end of this particular food chain are boxes of dinged-up tomatoes, spotty avocados and other perfectly edible yet rejected fruits and vegetables that pile up at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup.

On the other end are the estimated one in four residents of Baltimore who live in food deserts, where lack of money or transportation limits their access to fresh, healthy fare beyond what little might be carried in their corner stores.

Matt Burke, at the wheel of a Kia with the back seat folded down, is helping to connect the chain.

Burke is among a growing group of activists, government agencies, nonprofits and private companies that have joined the food recovery movement. While they represent disparate interests and methods, their shared mission is to cut down on food waste, and divert what previously was thrown away to feed those who might otherwise eat less nutritiously - or go hungry.

"Some challenges in society are seemingly unsolvable," said Burke, 29. "But this is one that is not."

Burke, a pizza delivery driver, volunteers with the Baltimore Free Farm, an urban gardening collective that in addition to growing produce on several city lots also conducts weekly "food rescues." Volunteerspick up donations from the Jessup market and distribute themin the city

Baltimore Free Farm is one of several area groups working in the food recovery movement.

Some, such as the Maryland Food Bank - which supplies pantries at churches and community groups throughout the state - have developed relationships with farmers who allow volunteers to enter their fields after harvest and glean what's left over.

Others, such as Hungry Harvest, have made food recovery part of their business model. The for-profit company, founded by a Pikesville man, delivers produce to paying customers throughout the mid-Atlantic region. It also makes charitable donations and runs weekly markets selling fruits and vegetables at half-price to people who live in food deserts and often are on food stamps.

College campuses have become particularly active: In 2011, three University of Maryland students noticed how much food was thrown away at their dining halls and started what became the Food Recovery Network. Now more than 200 campuses across the country partner with community groups to distribute their schools' surplus food.

One day lastmonth, Burke and fellow Free Farm volunteer Sarafina Harper, 23, drove separate vehicles to pick up an estimated 850 pounds of produce that had been set aside on pallets at the massive Jessup wholesale market. They ferried it back to the city, where the group hosts regular giveaways. On this day, it was at the Dovecote Cafe in Reservoir Hill, where people started lining up about an hour in advance.

Cecilia Cheek, 57, lives near the cafe. She picked up grapes, asparagus, baby spinach, zucchini and Campari tomatoes.

"There's no fresh markets here," she said. "This is fresh."

The federal and local governments increasingly are trying to reduce waste and get the food instead into consumers' hands - or, if it's too far gone for that, into feed for farm animals or composting to enrich the soil.

Beyond the obvious humanitarian cause of feeding people, there are economic and environmental reasons to reduce food waste - from conserving precious space in landfills to saving the planet.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture joined forces two years ago to target food waste, setting a goal of reducing it by half by 2030.

In Maryland, the Department of the Environment has been working to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills.

"It helps with climate change," said Kaley Laleker, deputy director of land management at the Maryland Department of the Environment. Food decomposing in landfills creates methane, a greenhouse gas.

The department estimates that 850,000 tons of food is wasted in Maryland every year.

State officials gathered about 200 representatives of farms, supermarket chains, wholesalers, government agencies and nonprofits in November for the state's first-ever food recovery summit. They discussed ways to reduce waste - everything from linking those with extra food to those who need it, to changing the permitting and regulation of composting facilities.

The Department of the Environment long focused on composting to reduce the amount of solid waste sent to landfills, Laleker said. That effort has yielded results:The state is now composting more food scraps than ever before - 127,000 tons in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, up from 85,000 tons in 2005.

Now the department is hoping to focus more on food recovery efforts that divert excess food to people who need it, Laleker said. The department hopes to begin tracking how much food is recovered in such ways, and promote the potential benefits.

"A lot of it is more outreach and education," Laleker said. "It needs to be presented as a resource, rather than as waste."

Indeed, the food that groups such as Baltimore Free Farm rescue from distributors and groceries would not be out of place in the kitchen of a sophisticated restaurant or a gourmet cook.

On this particular day, Burke's haul included hydroponic lettuce, baby spinach, several varieties of peppers, kale, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, peaches, mangoes, asparagus and yellow, orange and purple carrots. Some produce was organic, others quite exotic - such as Romanesco cauliflower, pale green instead of the usual white, and with spiky rather than rounded florets.

And some was just odd to Harper, on her first food rescue for the Free Farm.

"These look like spaceships," she said, running her fingers through a box of pattypan squash.

The produce was donated by Hungry Harvest. The company shares warehouse space at the Jessup market with Coosemans Worldwide, a specialty produce distributor that also donates to the Free Farm.

"It is the same produce that we deliver to our customers," said Will McCabe, food access manager for Hungry Harvest.

The company was started by Evan Lutz, a competitor last year on the business-pitch reality show "Shark Tank."

Lutz, from Pikesville, received a $100,000 investment from one of the celebrity businessmen in exchange for a 10 percent stake in the company. His business model includes using the for-profit side of Hungry Harvest to support donations to Free Farm and other groups in the state, as well as Produce in a SNAP, the weekly markets that offer fruits and vegetables in food deserts at a discount.

As Harper helped Burke sort through the produce in the Jessup market, she contrasted the bounty that surrounded her with the need she sees in the city.

"You can't drive through Baltimore without seeing people asking for food," said Harper, who graduated recently from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "That's screwed up."

Jessica Weiss directs GrowingSOUL - Sustainable Opportunities for Universal Learning, which promotes a zero-waste food system. She works as a contractor for Coosemans, helping the company qualify for tax deductions for finding ways not to waste food that has been rejected by buyers for any number of reasons - the fruit is larger or smaller than ordered, or a percentage of it is overripe or damaged.

Weiss will find something to do with it. Maybe it can be sold at "pennies on the dollar" to someone at B-more Kitchen, the food incubator that offers commercial cooking and storage facilities to entrepreneurs. Or the produce can be donated to soup kitchens or groups such as Free Farm.

Even if it's not quite fit for human consumption - kale that's gone yellow, for example - it won't go to waste: Weiss maintains a list of farmers who will come pick up the stuff to feed their animals.

If the produce is too far gone for even animal feed, Weiss will compost it, creating a soil enrichment that can be used by gardeners and farmers to start the whole food cycle over again.

"Our mission is zero waste," she said. "We donate to people, we donate to animals, we donate to the planet."

The mission has been helped by federal tax incentives for companies to donate rather than throw away less-than-perfect food, Weiss said. While companies have always been able to write off losses from produce that has gone bad as a business expense, an enhanced tax deduction was introduced in 2015 for businesses that donate food to nonprofits that feed the needy.

"There's no hunger problem due to lack of food," she said. "There's a hunger problem because of logistics."

That's where groups like Free Farm step in. After sorting through the Hungry Harvest donation, Burke made one more stop, to Roots Market in Clarksville in Howard County. There, he picked up what he estimated to be more than 300 pounds of donated grocery items - cereal, Annie's brand macaroni-and-cheese, toaster pastries, banana-kiwi-spinach juice and such.

Then he drove to the Dovecote Cafe in Reservoir Hill. Volunteers set up the items on tables outside the cafe, and with music coming from inside, the atmosphere turned festive and neighborly.

Cole, who uses just one name, runs the cafe with her wife, Aisha Pew, and Pew's mother, Gilda. She doesn't like calling the event a giveaway - she considers it more a community market for everyone, regardless of need. And, indeed, the 38 people who showed up were a mix in many ways - some on food stamps, others more middle class, black and white, young and old.

"All of us need access to fresh produce," Cole said.

Neighbors visited with one another, and cooed over Morgan Horvath's smiling 6-month-old daughter. Horvath, 34, lives next door and works as a program director with an early childhood education organization. She browsed the tables, picking up some of her daughter's favorites - an avocado and carrots.

"We don't have a grocery store near us," she said, "and we're a one-car, city family."

Janet Atkins, 41, who lives around the corner, picked up salad greens, tomatoes and an avocado.

"Right now I'm on food stamps, and it helps out a lot," Atkins said. "They're so expensive in the stores, and I love vegetables."

Grace Daniels, 57, volunteers with the Free Farm and picked up a couple of items for dinner as well: a box of whole wheat fusilli that she planned to top with sauteed kale and vegetables.

"It's beautiful," Daniels said.

"This is about love," she said, blissfully. "It's nice to come together, to get healthy food."

Burke hopes the model can be expanded. For now, the Free Farm distributes produce on Wednesdays at its own warehouse and Thursday at Dovecote, as well as the occasional church or other location.

Like Daniels, he sees the effort as feeding people, but also souls.

"It's really just to show a little bit of kindness. Everyone struggles in their own way, we can all use a helping hand," he said. "Small acts of kindness can have a profound effect on people. That's part of the goal, to bring people together from all walks of life."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

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