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Zero Food Waste: Ithaca's Food Donations Network Works

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Sara Pines

There’s a lot of so-called trash out there which is perfectly good for the taking and the eating. Long before America knew that a freegan was someone who didn’t see the need to buy food when edibles fill dumpsters behind grocery stores, Sara Pines was plucking that perfectly good food from the trash and giving it to those in need. 

“What do you mean, do I know what ‘dumpster diving’ means?” the 78-year-old Pines said during a recent interview. “That’s my middle name.” 

After she founded the Friendship Donations Network in 1988, Pines said she learned when to go looking for food put out for the garbage man by grocery stores who didn’t understand the value they were wasting. 

“I’d go to the back of supermarkets that are no longer in existence, and they’d have these 4-by-10 foot sheds where they put the day-old food. Day-old cake and bread, produce, dairy, delicatessen,—everything,” Pines said. “They’d pile it up in a mountain and later in the day the garbage truck came and took it all away. Only I preceded the garbage truck. [The stores] had no idea I was doing this. 

“Every food source culls the food in the morning so everything is beautiful by 8 o’clock,” Pines continued. “That’s a good time to go, after they cull it. But for the rest of the day it keeps coming in. The truck never caught up with me. I’d come back later that day, at night, in the morning. They kept throwing food out the whole day.” 

The Friendship Donations Network (FDN) for years was nothing more than Pines picking what she could and coordinating volunteers to pick up food donations and take them to pantries, to Loaves & Fishes, to wherever they could be distributed to the needy or stored for soon-enough use. Transport was and is provided by volunteers—Pines’ own old Volvo station wagon could hold 18 banana boxes full of food, she found. 

FDN now has its own storage space in the Just BeCause center on West State Street, created by Jerry Dietz of CSP Management in memory of his wife Judy. There’s a modestly-sized cooler, now crisp with the smell of apples donated from Cornell’s orchards. A truck-sized trailer built into their space is rich with the smell of root vegetables and holds some canned goods in reserve for emergencies. The space allows FDN to take on overflow items when big donations happen. When the colleges go out on breaks, FDN picks up what it can from dining services that would otherwise be thrown away. A “new foray” for FDN has been taking prepared food donations from the Statler Hotel, which had been composting everything until last November, according to current FDN director Meaghan Sheehan Rosen. 

FDN started the “Food Hub” program three years ago, which allows people who might have a little extra produce in their garden to donate to a local drop-off location. FDN now touches on six counties in about a 40-mile radius and provides about 30 programs with food, Rosen said. 

The local food-saving program is growing, but there are no plans to “create anything big and extravagant,” Rosen said. “We all want to stay true to the mission Sara created. There’s a lot of food still being wasted, and we want to stay close to that mission. Because we’re small, we have a lot of flexibility to respond quickly.” 

Though Pines and FDN have made progress in educating retailers and consumers about how much of our abundance goes to waste that is just fine for eating, there’s a long way to go yet. 

“We have to continue to connect with food donors and make sure we get more than just bakery items,” Rosen said. “There’s something of an ugly fruit and vegetable movement going on. We have to teach how to use imperfect foods, that with use-by dates there’s not really a connection to whether the food is good.” 

Pines, for her part, won’t be satisfied until all the waste is eliminated and all the people who are hungry get their share of the abundance that we can be thankful grows in this region. 

 

Give Us Your Milk, Your Yogurt, ...

FDN began in 1988 when Pines visited migrant labor camps in the Sodus area and saw the need for food and everything else there. 

“I had a verbal agreement with a migrant advocacy group that I would collect whatever they needed,” Pines said. “The catch is you need to come and get it, because they were 88 miles from me. That hobbled along for two or three years, but they couldn’t get the gas money, the transportation, the drivers, and I was sending volunteers constantly to Sodus. I frantically looked for other pantries or other sources that would take the food, and it drew a lot of media attention that got the word out. Slowly, slowly, slowly, we built it up.” 

When Pines approached Wegman’s Ithaca location for donations in the early ‘90s, they had “never given food to anyone. It was an alien word to them,” she said. “I suggested they try it for one month to see how it works. They took it to corporate and said ‘We can try it.’ It never stopped. That doubled or tripled our quantity, with them giving us three, four, five, 600 pounds of everything every day.” 

When Pines came with her request, Wegman’s manager Gary Woloszyn told her, “We had many worthy organizations that requested the same things, and it was difficult for us to say yes to one organization but have nothing left for the others.”

“Sara offered to become a “hub” for the redistribution of the products, and we began our decades-long relationship,” Woloszyn said. “She created a systematic ‘daily pickup’ system with hundreds of volunteers to help the program be so successful.” 

From about 1993 until FDN found their own space a couple years ago, volunteers sorted every day’s take on the Wegman’s loading dock. Where Pines and Rosen say there’s still work to be done is that Wegman’s is the only store around to donate “everything”—not only bread and sweets, but produce and dairy too. 

“We’ve never had any problem with the donations, and we feed 2,000 people a week,” Pines said. There are Good Samaritan food-donation laws on both the state and federal level that protect retailers who donate produce in good faith from liability if someone might get sick. Other retailers have stopped giving out dairy and produce, leaving only the less nutritious breads and cakes. 

“They throw out all of their day-old fruits, vegetables, dairy, and deli,” Pines said. “They refuse to look at the Good Samaritan Act. If you’re saying no, let’s examine why.” 

Pines admits it might “take a lot of time to cull food and set it aside in a cooler” and to train three shifts of staff. 

“The worst thing is they throw it out. They pay to throw it out,” Pines said. 

Woloszyn makes the process sound pretty easy: “Our produce and bakery employees cull their departments every morning of day-old or bruised products,” he said. “These products don’t meet our standards for sale, but they can certainly be used.” 

Retailers letting FDN have at more of their waste is a “win-win-win,” Rosen said. “The businesses get a tax write-off, and they’re not paying to get waste hauled away.” 

Volunteers also need to learn that they “don’t need to be so perfect and picky,” Pines said. 

“Picture-perfect food that can be put in a magazine is what Americans are trained to look for,” she said, “which is why we have to use so much insecticides and chemicals. One of the problems with organic food is it has no insecticides or chemicals, so it won’t last as long and won’t look as good a day or two later, which is when we get the food. That’s an excellent byproduct of people wanting organic food.

“You have the kind of volunteer who looks at the food and says ‘That apple has a little speck in it,’” Pines continued. “I said, ‘Sweetie, if we began to throw out the apples with specks, we’re going to have nothing. You take a little knife and just take out the bad spot, and it’s beautiful. Or you put it in a pot with several quarts of water and a bouillon cube and make a soup out of it.” 

Another large part of the FDN mission, besides educating stores and volunteers, is giving cooking lessons to the people who receive the food—preferably fresh—for they may have no idea what to do with a bag of onions or leafy greens. 

 

You Can Add the Salt and Fat

“From the beginning,” Pines said, “my emphasis was on rescuing good food that would be dumped. Of course I was going to go to fresh, perishable food, because it’s perishable. I don’t think I would’ve got into rescuing food if it was all cans.” 

While she had “no qualms about diving anywhere,” Pines said she “scrupulously checked” with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their food safety guidelines. Getting fresh food to people who don’t have much of a shopping budget not only saves waste, it increases the nutrient value of the fuel folks are putting into their bodies. 

“Cans contain a lot of salt and don’t taste that good,” Pines said. “Fresh, perishable food is nutritious, and tastier, and you can do so much with it. You can put in as much salt, sugar, and fat as you want, but prepared food usually [already] has a high quantity of sugar, salt, and fat.” 

Pines has been looking for years for a dry cereal that takes it easy on the sugar. 

“One of the reasons poor people tend to be so fat is every dry cereal I’ve seen contains sugar. There’s something in our brain that gets addicted to sugar early on, so every company puts sugar into their food. The worst enemy of nutritious food is the food industry: every time someone’s tried to publish on the industry effects [on nutrition], they’ve killed it through lobbying.” 

Pines is not so much of a zealot for healthy food that it obstructs her mission of saving waste. One friend who volunteered for Pines was fired “on the spot” after she turned down 500 pounds of Ghiradelli chocolate. 

“She was very addicted to sugar, and it made her sick,” Pines said. “There was a Wegman’s representative for Ghiradelli who said ‘I have 500 pounds of chocolate I’d like to donate.’ She said, ‘Oh, no, we don’t take sugar.’ I had a fit. I told her, ‘Don’t ever make that judgment. People have a right to eat sugar, if they want to have a treat and rot their teeth.’” 

Teaching people how to use unfamiliar but healthy foods is part of the mission for FDN, both Pines and Rosen said. The Groton “Healthy Tuesday” at the village library is one example Rosen gives of a program that educates through cooking up a dish for people to try. Pines said she’s always an advocate of pantries and other food providers giving out samples. Booklets with instructions and recipes, like the one put out by Cooperative Extension on how to use kale, are also helpful. 

“Greens like kale and spinach are very expensive in the supermarket,” Pines said. “If people aren’t used to it, they’re not going to touch it. There are people who don’t even know how to use a potato unless it’s in a can. Spinach, what does it take? You wash the damn stuff, put it in a pot with a minimal amount of water, steam it or cook it for two minutes, and it’s done.” 

 

Leave It On The Porch, Please

FDN’s newest venture is the “neighborhood food hubs,” which are nothing more than a cooler put out on a volunteer’s porch or yard as a drop box for food which needs using. 

“If you’re growing food in a garden, and you have a little bit of extra tomatoes or peas, you’re not going to bring them here,” said Linda Myers, editor of the FDN newsletter. “Or if you have a CSA share and you can’t get it that week, the hubs are great.” 

The program started three years ago with four hubs, with volunteers bringing the coolers full of produce and other donations to the Just BeCause center for sorting and distribution. Over 11,000 pounds of food have been donated through the program so far—which is still just a sliver of the more than half-million pounds of food FDN saves every year. 

“The hubs have got us a little bit more on the map,” Rosen said. “FDN has always been working out of the back entrances of stores.” 

The hubs have also increased neighbor-to-neighbor sharing, Rosen said; with 15 of them now, food that comes to the hub in Lodi stays in Lodi, and that which comes to Danby stays in Danby. 

“It allows people the joy of donating a gift of their labor, knowing it will give to people who need it, right in their community,” Myers said. 

Over her whole life, Pines has kept the memory of growing up poor. She had a “single, somewhat incompetent mother” from the age of 4 when her father passed, and said she “looked around and said, ‘This isn’t fun. I’m not going to be poor.’” 

Pines completed a doctorate and married “someone quite educated” in her husband Aaron, which suddenly put her “in the middle-class world in my early 20s.” 

“I never wanted anything. I’m not a material person,” Pines said. “I always had a consciousness of people who don’t have resources. I don’t like waste, I never liked waste, and if you don’t like waste, what are you going to do about it?” 

Though Pines is “retired,” she still gets calls from Rosen for advice. 

“She has an amazing ability to hone in on where there’s a need and how to serve,” Myers said. “Sara talks to you as a lifelong friend and says, ‘Do you know anybody who needs this?’” 

“Wherever I am, if I’m going to stay there a few months or more, I’ll start a donations network,” Pines said. In 1986 she visited Nepal and asked tourists for their excess food, medicine, and clothing, which she took to one of Mother Teresa’s homes for sick and dying children in a taxi. And now that she’s living at Kendal at Ithaca, she has advertisements on the in-room television network asking people to donate food to a box she leaves in the coat room, which then goes to FDN. She also comes into a goodly number of mattresses from Kendal residents who are moving, since they can’t be sold by reuse stores under state law, and she gives those to people “who are sleeping on the damn floor.” 

“I wouldn’t dream of buying new. It’s against my principles of sustainability,” Pines said. “I believe in peace and not violence, and I believe throwing out food is violence. It’s taking it away from people who need it, whose health is going to be impaired because they’re not getting what they need.” 

You can call the Friendship Donations Network at 216-9522, email info@friendshipdonations.org, and visit the website at friendshipdonations.org. •

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