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FOOD BANKS ON LOCKDOWN

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This story was produced by Maggie Burdge, Maria Chiu, Patrick Gallagher, Eddie Lockhart, Jesus Tapia and Henri Wilson, journalism students at Boston College. Good ones, too.

Hundreds of tons of uneaten food from local restaurants and universities is going to waste each year because the city’s biggest food bank won’t accept it.

The Greater Boston Food Bank won’t take prepared food, even as a proposal makes its way through the legislature that’s designed to encourage that.

“It’s an enormous waste,” says Michael Kann, associate director of food and beverage at Boston College, who says Board of Health rules further complicate the process. “It makes me crazy.”

Matt Gray, the food bank’s food acquisition associate, says accepting prepared food “opens us up to contamination. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Other shelters, kitchens and donation programs say they do take prepared food, but are sympathetic to the food bank.

“I am sure that prepared foods are difficult for them because of a number of reasons, including safe storage and liability,” says Lindsay Wallace, coordinator of a food-distribution program at UMass-Boston known as Campus Kitchen.

“If you don’t do it right, someone is going to get sued,” says Ed Turk, director of food services for the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans.

Demand for food from food banks is up. The Massachusetts anti-hunger group Project Bread says

more than one in 10 Massachusetts households worries about having enough food,

the highest level since the mid 1990s. The Greater Boston Food Bank also reports a 20 percent drop in U.S. Department of Agriculture products it receives.

Major local universities alone compost or throw away hundreds of tons a year of unused food, campus officials say. Only small amounts go directly to homeless shelters and smaller suburban food banks.

At Boston College, for example, 150 pounds of leftover food per week is collected by students and picked up by the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. Other shelters, Kann says, which work with the Greater Boston Food Bank, won’t accept it.

“Last year, the Boston Food Bank said, ‘You have to give us every single ingredient of every single item you’re giving us.’ So then we had to have recipes printed out and all sorts of hoops, but we continued. And then the food bank said, ‘Yeah, we don’t really want to be recovering this food, period. So you’re done.’”

At UMass Boston, student volunteers collect some uneaten food and give it to the Walter Denney Youth Center, a Boys & Girls Club near the campus, says Wallace. It composts the rest.

Babson College also donates leftovers to the Natick Food Pantry. Suffolk gives uneaten food from catered events to the Pine Street Inn.

But other universities compost or throw away their leftovers. Harvard composts 583 tons a year of uneaten food from its 13 dining halls. Northeastern composts more than 700 tons a year. Tufts composts 280 tons of food a year. MIT, Emerson, Wellesley, and Berklee compost all of their uneaten food.

A proposal before the legislature would let food-service establishments donate leftover cooked and nonperishable food to local food pantries and assistance shelters, receive a tax credit or deduction for it and be immune from liability.

“The bill applies to prepared food as well, if it’s good quality, of course,” says the legislation’s sponsor, state Representative Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham.

“An event is held for 800 people but there’s a storm and only 200 show up,” McMurtry says. “If, for instance, they’re serving chicken cutlet, that’s going to end up being a lot of wasted food.”

The bill does not require charities to take prepared food, however. And Gray, of the food bank, says he doesn’t know if the legislation will change its policy of not accepting prepared food.

For more on House Bill 3156 and the fate of those chicken cutlets, stay tuned.

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