Most of the food that ends up in Durango grocery stores is shipped from all over the world. But not all the food makes it to Southwest Colorado unscathed, and stores are often reluctant, or restricted, from selling damaged edible products.
Cue Durango Food Bank and its three-decades-old Food Rescue Program.
“Without the Food Rescue Program, the Food Bank would not exist in its current capacity,” said Sarah Smith, executive director of the Durango Food Bank. “We couldn’t purchase the amount of food we bring in. We’re getting 300,000 pounds of food from grocers each year.”
A variety dietDurango Food Bank staff pick up damaged and aging foods – including a box of bagged cereal with a ripped corner or meat frozen just before its expiration date – from City Market, Albertsons, Durango Natural Foods, Nature’s Oasis and Walmart every morning, Monday through Saturday, Smith said.
Durango Natural Foods Produce Manager Madison “Mads” Root said in the 1½ years he has worked at the store, on average, he donates anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds of produce per week to Durango Food Bank. The store usually donates goods that “don’t look quite as presentable,” Root said.
A grocery store once ordered too much corned beef roast for St. Patrick’s Day, and the store donated it to the Food Bank, Smith said. But most of the time, it is food that grocery stores can’t sell that is donated, she said.
“Bruised bananas; sometimes things get nicks, bruises or dings,” Smith said. “They send dented cans or discontinued products. Canned goods all the way to frozen foods.”
Durango Food Bank receives anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds of unsellable pastries each day, Smith said. Sometimes, they will get up to 600 pounds of produce in a day – but each day is different and it’s not all fit for human consumption.
Produce sold to consumers in bulk – bags of apples, tomatoes, oranges or potatoes, for example – may have one or two spoiled fruits or vegetables in a package full of edible food. Grocers can’t sell that, so they give it to the Durango Food Bank, where volunteers sort the ripe from the rotten, Smith said.
A hungry householdVolunteers may remove wilted leaves from iceberg lettuce to reveal its fresh and edible core, Smith said. Putrid pears or moldy mangoes get composted or, if the produce isn’t too far gone, redistributed as feed to support local animal agriculture, Smith said.
The first priority for any food that comes through the Food Bank’s doors is human consumption, Smith said. But finding the balance between feeding as many people as possible and providing a product that people feel good about eating is often difficult for the organization, she said.
Deciding what is fit for human consumption is further complicated by the range of people who go to the Food Bank for ingredients to cook at home, Smith said. The Food Bank can see more than 100 households in a week; about 12% of people in La Plata County don’t have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, Smith said.
Some may be looking for store-quality food and others might be comfortable picking through the animal feed basket.
“It’s a hard balance when we get stuff deemed unusable by the store,” Smith said. “It’s all a matter of trying to train volunteers. The best advice I give them: ‘If you wouldn’t feel good about eating something, then throw it out.’ ... We try to eliminate the mindset that ‘they’re hungry, so they’ll eat anything,’” she said.
Most people getting goods from the Durango Food Bank have fallen on hard times, Smith said. Those displaced by the 416 Fire and those in construction who couldn’t find work during the snow-heavy 2018-19 winter season used the Food Bank for a couple of months, she said. But once firefighters doused the blaze and the snow melted, she didn’t see those people again.
Seniors on a fixed income are often more reliant on the Food Bank, coming in month after month, and families with children receiving free and reduced-price lunches who are out of school for the summer may use the Food Bank between June and August, she said.
A waste-less worldA goal to reduce waste, in part, drives the Food Rescue Program, Smith said. Whatever isn’t given to humans goes to animals, and whatever animals don’t eat gets composted, she said. The Durango Food Bank uses the compost it makes to fertilize its community garden, she said.
Root said he’s not surprised Durango Natural Foods donates what it can’t or won’t sell to the Food Bank. It is the co-op’s mission to reduce waste and provide an alternative grocery experience, he said.
“The (grocery) system seems a little bit flawed as far as waste to begin with,” Root said. “If we can fight that within the system – the grocery system – we can use the format of a regular grocery store to give people food, but try to do it our way, making change within the guidelines that society let’s us.”