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Costco, You Are Invited to the Table

Posted Mar 02 2013 8:06am
So there was a big preview of the new documentary, A Place at the Table (about hunger in America), Thursday night and several of my social media sustainability buddies thought for sure I'd be there. Starting at 8 pm? (Did you not notice I get up at 4 AM?) A long night-time drive away? (You clearly missed Warby Parker, Where Are You When I Need You? ) And frankly, I've kind of had it with the doom and gloom that most of these documentaries deliver, but, yes I wanted to see it, mostly because my new friend Jeff Bridges is involved. ("Mom, you know you're not really friends, right?" my younger daughter reminded me. "Not yet, hon," I replied, pathologically optimistic, as usual.)

I see that it's opening in select cities nationwide on March 1 (yesterday). "Select cities"," when I lived in New York, meant "let's go see it." "Select cities," here in Atlanta, is usually code word for "not here" but, lo and behold, there it was on the list. Atlanta. As I had seen Twitter mentions of how sold out the preview was, I assume opening day will be packed as well so, in true Virgo style, I purchase two tickets online, taking the chance that Gleaner Extraordinaire David Skoke would be available to join me.  He is. We're trying to crack the Costco case (see "nut graph" below*), and I think maybe the movie will provide an idea we hadn't considered.  


So we get there, and join the, oh, five other people who rushed to see this as well.  

"Where is everyone?" I ask David. We shake our heads.  

And then I tell him about my conversation with a friend of mine, when I shared that I read somewhere that some supermarkets don't want to donate, even with that Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act supposedly protecting them from liability, because the bad press if someone got sick from a-bit-too-old fresh produce would be worse than even a potential lawsuit would be (as I believe that act apparently has not been tested yet in court). My friend, oh wise one, replied, "But wouldn't the bad press from not donating be worse?" to which there was only one reply, "Yes, I believe so, but they are not getting bad press about that."

As I look around at the empty movie theater lobby, I realize the cold, hard truth that maybe the folks with the time and power and money to change things just don't care. My shouts from the mountaintop are somehow landing on deaf ears. "Costco, co, co, coooooo." The echo is starting to fade in the nothingness of Costco's response.

It has been five months now that I've been sharing what is truly incredible to me. Here comes the nut graph, which is apparently a basic journalism term that I didn't learn until I wrote that prison garden article ( Young Inmates Doing Thyme --check out the reduced recidivism rates when folks get involved with gardens) when the editor asked me something about it and I had to email my friend, Rebecca, to ask "What on earth is a nut graph?" Well, here it is--it's the paragraph with the basic facts about a topic:
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Click to make larger so you can read it easier

*(nut graph alert--this whole bolded section)

Costco appears to be the only national grocery chain that is not donating its edible but somehow unsellable fresh produce to a food recovery effort (I'm not talking about bread and canned goods here--I'm talking about stuff like what's pictured here with David--this is the amount of fresh food he brings each week, in one carload, to our food pantry). 

It's corporate community outreach employee, Aaron Sato, told me when I called him and we spoke at length that he would email the managers of the southeastern region (where I live) to let them know that this is not national corporate policy (as the local produce manager claims) but that the individual warehouses (there are 447 of them) can decide for themselves what they want to do. To the best of our knowledge, they currently trash usable fresh produce daily. 

Just then Hurricane Sandy hit, I know Aaron got busy, and the email never happened. When I tried to reconnect with Aaron, even asking that he pass me on to someone else if this is just not his thing, he never replied to my calls or emails. I have since emailed and called the regional manager, the head of sustainability for Costco, and the CEO but have heard back from no one. My friend, Holly Elmore, a national zero waste consultant who was just featured in an excellent article about recovered food in the national magazine, Whole Living, has been working her network as well, to no avail ( here's Holly's post about it , with a link to the article, Spoil Alert).  Several other folks have dipped their toe into this sea of Seattle (Costco is headquartered right outside there) mystery as well, but so far, no cigar.

Here's the part that nags at me: if Costcos nationwide would allow one carload of usable but somehow unsellable** fresh fruits and vegetables to be redirected from trash to a local food pantry each week, that would be 12 tons of food going to those in need each and every week of the year. Do the math--this adds up really quickly. How hard could this little national pilot project be? And how can I sleep at night knowing the difference one person and one carload in 447 communities can make?

**Please note this fresh produce is usually considered "unsellable" because it's not perfect--we see what comes in when David gleans and most of it is truly gorgeous stuff that I would happily serve my family. Think potatoes with the slight beginnings of eyes, tomatoes with a slight bruise, and packs of strawberries where maybe one has started to turn. This photo collage shows some of the gleaned produce David brought this past week to our food pantry (plus you can see some of the fun we had planting). Yes, those are $6-a-pound practically-perfect heirloom tomatoes.
_________

Okay, so that's the nut graph. But there's more.

Wal-mart, Sam's Club, Kroger, Target, Publix, and especially Whole Foods--they all donate often and generously. And this is not just altruism, folks. As Holly informs me, redirecting so-called waste reduces rising tipping fees that companies pay to send things to landfills and thereby saves money, and it can be a tax deduction, if documented correctly. It's just smart business. Plus, goodness knows, if you're making any kind of triple-bottom-line (people, profit, planet) sustainability claim (which Costco makes in spades), it counts on so many levels. And, let's be honest here, at the end of the day, in the quiet of night, when you talk to your Higher Power or just reflect on the stone-in-the-pond daily impact of your life, sharing what is possible to be shared with others is just plain old-fashioned the right thing to do, the kind of thing we used to do instinctively as a society.

These kinds of stories just don't sit well with me. I don't like something that simply doesn't make sense, especially when there are easy and proven solutions. I don't like wasting my time trying to talk anyone into the blatantly obvious. And I really don't like to be pushy. (Okay, my friend, Bob, is laughing out loud now at that one.  Bob, can I claim "persistent" or possibly "doggedly determined" or maybe even "fully trusting of the journey" instead?) And so you can see my problem.  I can't seem to get this done, yet I can't walk away.

Okay, so back to the movie. Other people have already written about the details of it--you can find lots of info and links here . I did scribble ferociously in the dark, but there's one line that jumps out at me and smacks me across the face. My dear friend, Jeff, says it: 

"Maybe an increase in the problem is part of the solution."

To paraphrase him (I can only write down so much in the dark), he said that maybe more people being hungry makes it more visible and then harder to avoid, which then makes the need for action more inevitable. 

And, keep in mind, giving those in need more garbage processed food that corporations dump on food banks is not the answer. In fact, it's the elephant in the room, if you ask me. The movie touches on this as it profiles several people who really work their way into your heart (most of the buzz is about a girl named Rosie, although Barbie and a few teachers and the story about Tom Colicchio's mother will hit you smack in the ticker as well). The movie, which is focused more on policy change, doesn't talk at all about how gardens change lives (except for one quick glimpse of the White House garden and a pile of chefs), but I can tell you for sure they do and that and how local ordinances can actually help facilitate that . Our food pantry is a place of abundance of fresh food that folks in need select for themselves (choice matters to people), connections across generations and socio-economic levels as everyone has something to give of themselves, and most importantly, dignity.  

See the Naked Truth about Hunger website here
Dignity, dignity, dignity. If you don't think there's dignity in being able to put a salad on your family's table, then you have not seen what I've seen. (I never miss a chance to drag out Lady of the Lettuce again, so here goes .) As I was picking turnip greens (yet again) from my home garden for my family that night, I thought of all the land I saw in the movie that was not being used to grow food, and the fact that Fred at the Atlanta Community Food bank gives out seeds for free, and that if more cities would just compost their green waste and give it out for free to be used for gardens, and that if . .  . . . 

Yes. Yes, the solution lies within the problem, and yes, many people are already working on all this, and yes, the pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together.  But . . .

* Did you know that hunger in the United States was literally eradicated by the late 1970s and now 50 million Americans are food insecure every single day, and that in spite of all the efforts to change this, this number keeps growing? 

* Did you know that only 25% of our youth would even qualify to serve in the Armed Forces because the rest are so obese and unfit? 

* Did you know that 1 out of every 2 children born today will be diagnosed with early-onset diabetes if things don't change dramatically? 

* Did you know that the price of fruits and vegetable has risen 40% in the last 30 years while the price of common ingredients for processed foods has dropped 40% in that same time frame due to government subsidies? 

* Did you know that $3 buys about 300 calories of fresh food and almost 4,000 calories of junk food in our current system, and that 25 million Americans live in "food deserts" where they wouldn't even be able to find those fresh fruits and vegetables even if they had the money?  

Yeah, this is all in the movie. The facts will bombard you, but it's the people who are profiled who will stay with you, as, my goodness, they are trying. They are really trying. A group named Witnesses to Hunger comprised of those in need mounted an art exhibition in Washington titled 40 Women 40 Cameras and testified in front of Congress. They have the same hopes for their children and the same dreams for their own lives that we all do. But they don't have enough good, healthy food so that their children can grow strong and learn effectively and change the cycle.

So David and I leave the movie, wiped out, me still drying tears from my eyes (yes, it's got its share of doom and gloom), and I say, "What we're doing matters." 

And he replies, "Does it? I feel like it's never enough." 

I remind him that he brings 500 pounds of fresh food each week and we help feed about 125 families, which amounts to about 500 people. That's a pound a person. That matters.

Yet . . .  

The short-term answer to getting more fresh fruits and vegetables onto the tables of more people in need is not brain surgery. It's logic. It's Costco.

1 carload full of recovered fresh produce
Maybe you can help. I'm not getting anywhere. I still think this has the potential to be a positive, joy-based story, and that once Costco donates once (in a pilot project at the Sandy Springs, Georgia, Costco with David and the food pantry where we have the garden, Malachi's Storehouse ), they will love it. Please share this story with your social and professional networks and let's get less garbage and more "waste" (i.e. fresh fruits and vegetables) to America's table.

How hard could this be?

Here is the post that started this all, with some updates along the way, including David's video:
 Keep FoodShed Planet coming. See here .  



 
eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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