Table Scraps

Table Scraps: Why (and How) This Mesa Food Bank Took on Reducing Its Food Waste

Reduce food waste by 30 percent? How about 79 percent?
Reduce food waste by 30 percent? How about 79 percent? Lauren Cusimano
Welcome to Table Scraps, a monthly series on food-related waste and sustainability, and what some eateries, farms, institutes, and households are doing right. This isn’t a guilt trip, just a way to unpack initiatives attempting to reduce food waste, maybe address climate change. We explore backyard composting to city programs, restaurant tips to technology, and anything related to this global issue. Heat up those leftovers, and settle in.

United Food Bank in Mesa does the opposite of wasting food: It rescues about 8 million pounds of food from grocery stores every year. It then collaborates with more than 200 partner agencies that oversee more than 260 separate programs to feed those in need. Still, its CEO Dave Richins says the organization recently began thinking about how it could waste less food.

UFB started a pilot program in October 2020 to “look more closely at our overall sustainability,” he says. This played out in three steps: Analyzing warehouse waste, maximizing their supply chain, and recycling more packaging waste.

The roots of this effort go back to 2019, when UFB partnered with Waste Not, which Richins, an affable dude and dad who has a degree in sustainable community development, calls “our food waste division.” Waste Not is another local nonprofit organization that focuses on prepared food rescue, connecting unsold food with agencies feeding people that evening, for example. (UFB is also backed by Feeding America, its national parent organization, which also assists sister agencies in Arizona like St. Mary's Food Bank.)

click to enlarge UFB went from three, 8-yard dumpsters that were picked up three times a week to just this guy, picked up once a week. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
UFB went from three, 8-yard dumpsters that were picked up three times a week to just this guy, picked up once a week.
Lauren Cusimano
Results of the pilot program were almost immediate.

First, the UFB warehouse team set a goal to reduce what they sent to the landfill by 30 percent from the same month as the previous year. They hit 79 percent. They also used to fill three 8-yard dumpsters that were picked up three times a week. Now?

“We're down to one dumpster. One time a week and it's not even full,” says Randy Land, the warehouse manager who was celebrating six years with UFB on the day of this interview. He’s the man behind the 79 percent food reduction. He also oversaw the 4,939 pounds of food that were shipped to local farms for animal feed or compost.

UFB also donated 3,000 pounds of food to another agency before its shelf life was up. “This experience showed us how Waste Not can be used to move food to an agency who can distribute it more quickly than our distribution channels,” reads a blog written by Richins. All that would have gone to the landfill.

Second, UFB got a little pickier about what foods it accepted — the "maximizing the supply chain" part.

“Our first thing we knocked out was citrus,” Land says. Apparently, every year, well-meaning people want to do something with fruit from their citrus trees. By April, it comes to UFB all gamey, with barely any shelf life. UFB reduced the window it would accept citrus and started encouraging people to donate it directly to a food pantry. UFB also started being pickier about what they took from grocery stores.

click to enlarge These bags save money, space, time, and tape. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
These bags save money, space, time, and tape.
Lauren Cusimano
Third, UFB set to recycle more packaging waste, as well as take on other sustainable practices.

To quickly rattle those off: A UFB driver knew about a place recycling plastic waste, so they started taking shrink wrap and other packaging material over there. The warehouse got new Toyota forklifts with regenerative battery power. They added a Nissan Leaf to the fleet for quick food pickups. They just completed a “power drop project” at the end of January to plug in their refrigerated trailers/excess storage areas to hold temperature versus using diesel fuel.

They also switched to recyclable, reusable bags with an Environmental Claims Validation by SCS Global Services instead of boxes to package food. That lowered cost to about $0.13 a bag from $0.50 a box (which also saves on tape and assembly time). The bags also save warehouse space.

Richins says the organization has done all this for two reasons. One is obvious: It's good for the environment. The second?

click to enlarge Richins inspects the now electric refrigerated trailers. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Richins inspects the now electric refrigerated trailers.
Lauren Cusimano
“We do this because it's smart business," he says. “We've saved money on every step and it hasn't been that hard. It doesn't cost you more to be environmentally wise, it just takes a little bit more thinking.”

Richins says he also has to think about a return on investment for his donors. "If I'm spending extra money on diesel fuel and boxes, I'm feeding less people."

And UFB is still going. They’re shooting for zero waste. And there’s a partnership in the works to utilize solar power.

For Land, he thinks they could even do more in the warehouse. They could put less in the one lowly dumpster out there. And they can hopefully be an example to similar organizations.

“If we can get the word out,” Land says “If people read this, they're going to go, ‘That’s smart. If a food bank can do it. We can do it.’”
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano