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The Wooly Mammoth, the "Kevin Bacon of Wasted Food," and a Simple Request Made to Costco: UPDATED!

Posted Oct 28 2012 7:36am
So, David shows up at the food pantry each week with 400-500 pounds of beautiful produce gleaned from area supermarkets.  He started doing this in February, after we simply needed potatoes with eyes to plant in the garden we created there, where the clients themselves help tend and harvest each week.  

He got two big boxes of potatoes, we planted what we could and gave out the rest, and then we realized that the supermarkets would continue having potatoes with eyes every single week that we could continue to give out. We knew about Anthony Delgado and his gleaning operation . We knew about the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which protects everyone involved with food recovery from liability. We knew about Second Harvest, and Second Helpings, and Second-everything-else-you-can-imagine.

I assumed that every supermarket would already have a food recovery relationship, but no. When David started asking, they started giving, and the bounty has totaled more than 10,000 pounds (five tons), conservatively, from this one person's efforts in just seven months (see how you can make a measurable difference where you live, too , as well as the USDA Let's Glean toolkit )

Each Wednesday, David starts around 11 AM or so and makes the rounds, covering many miles here in metro-Atlanta and visiting the stores where he has relationships in Decatur, Buckhead, and Sandy Springs.  He pulls up at the food pantry at around 2:15 PM like he's coming home with the wooly mammoth kill (as food pantry co-leader Kathy so eloquently described it once) and a bunch of guys gather around (plus Tracy, who has the talking scale-- you remember her-- Lady of the Lettuce ). One starts taking the boxes overflowing with peppers and tomatoes and containers of grapes or greens out of the car.  One starts weighing. One keeps track of the poundage. One gets the carts to bring it all inside where it will be beautifully displayed market-style so that the food pantry clients can choose for themselves. All talk and laugh and connect over this gorgeous "what on earth is wrong with this?" food.  New people come over continually and ask, "What can I do to help?"

If stores would just sell this slightly imperfect food, I'd buy it, but they don't.  They toss it.  We recover it.  And more than 100 different families in need benefit from it each week.  By the way, this is an emergency food pantry so most clients visit just a total of 4 times--there are new families in need all the time in our country and in my city and yours as they lose their jobs, face medical emergencies, and otherwise find themselves in a place they never imagined being.  Because of this food pantry's efforts with food recovery from David and others, the on-site garden and other gardens' donations, and the tons of pantry and frozen food it purchases at 16 cents per pound from the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the inevitability of hunger in my city has been literally eradicated.

So, two Wednesdays ago, a man said to Kathy and Mary Louise, the other food pantry co-leader, "If anyone needs help, I have a van." The earth almost stopped in stunned silence.  We had been asking, praying, searching for someone with a van for months now as David's car is overflowing and he had been wanting to approach the most bountiful market of all--Costco--but simply couldn't accommodate the quantity they must have without a van. 

I love Costco--I even featured it years ago as a Pattie P ick on one of my other blogs (and I was actually just about to write to the editor of its excellent member magazine to see if I could write a monthly column about its many organic items--see photo collage below for a small sample of the products I found there recently). (FYI, I already interviewed the CEO of Ecos and wrote an article about that company here ). I've been a member there for years.  I shop there monthly and get a whole slew of organic staples there--rice and quinoa and frozen green beans and coffee--and I loved the idea of being able to shout it out about their involvement in this effort.  I didn't expect what happened next.

So, this week, David and his new team member show up in the van, and they unload the wooly mammoth, and then we get to talking in the turnip row while people are harvesting for their families.  

He says, "We went to Costco but they said they don't donate produce, as a policy, because of liability."   

"But the Good Samaritan Act--there is no liability issue, and surely a company as big and proactive as Costco knows this," I answer.  

Bob's there, too.  Costco had donated a pile of produce to him to bring to this food pantry after the community garden we helped start was vandalized and food that had been growing to donate was destroyed back in April.  See his post, titled Spirit Reborn, here . We thought of Costco as a good corporate citizen in its local communities.

This didn't make sense.  I tell David we need to find out if this is a local issue or if this is, indeed, Costco's corporate policy. I couldn't imagine this would be corporate policy, from a company like that, in this day and age, and I thought finding an answer would be fast and easy.  But no.

* I Google, but get no clear (or even vague) hit on my simple question: "Does Costco participate in food recovery for its unsellable produce?"  

* I tweet the Costco corporate Twitter account (@CostcoTweets) because I have found that that's often the fastest way to action, but then I discover this account has been inactive since June so there doesn't seem to be a social media employee watching the shop.

* I call Costco's corporate office in the Seattle area and am connected to a man named Aaron Sato in Community Giving, with whom I leave a message.  I could have just as easily been connected to Waste Management or Accounting or Corporate Social Responsibility, because, as you can see from this EPA overview of food recovery , this topic touches all those areas.  

* I write to Jonathan Bloom, author of the truly outstanding book titled American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food, whom I interviewed for this article two years ago, asking if he had some additional insight on the Costco question (I haven't heard back from him yet)

* I send an email to the Community Food listserve out of Tufts University, an excellent list of people involved nationally that I often access when researching stories such as those I wrote for Urban Farm magazine.  I ask if anyone involved in gleaning is able to access produce from Costco (not bread and pastries, which do seem to be donated regularly and which our food pantry already receives from other places).  I get no confirmation of anyone receiving produce from Costco.

I was posting about all of this on Facebook, and one of my Facebook friends happens to be the person referred to as the "Kevin Bacon of Wasted Food" in the current issue of Whole Living magazine in the excellent feature article titled Spoil Alert.  Holly Elmore.  She commented and we emailed and then talked on the phone. Could this be true?  Could Costco have a corporate policy against donations of past-its-prime produce?  Could tons and tons (and tons and tons) of perfectly edible food be going to landfills all across our country every single day?  As creator of one of the largest Zero Waste Zones in the United States and a nationally-renowned expert in the environmental, social and economic benefits of reduced waste, Holly knows this topic inside and out--see her excellent blog post here which includes the link to the Spoil Alert article (and, yes, the food pantry mentioned in the article is the one in which I'm involved!). Holly agreed to call her Costco contact and see how she could help facilitate change, if indeed, it is needed and this is not all just a misunderstanding.

So I'm about to walk out the door Friday night and the phone rings.  It's Aaron.  I ask him about food recovery regarding produce and Costco's national policy and he says, "Well, I assume that we donate produce."

I say, "Aaron, you can't assume this.  I assumed, too.  I love Costco.  I'm a member.  I shout out good things about your company all the time, but here's where I'm at with this question so far."

I fill him in.  He gets intrigued.  He tells me he's going to make some calls internally and get a definite answer.  I tell him I'm writing this post, and that I'll let FoodShed Planet readers know that Aaron is working on this.  What I don't tell Aaron is that I may be naive sometimes.  I'm often almost pathologically optimistic.  I do believe in the impossible.  I may actually "live on another planet (that would be our shared FoodShed Planet).  But, for some odd reason--his voice, maybe, the fact that he returned my phone call, perhaps--I trust Aaron.  And I trust Costco. And I think that if there is an oversight here regarding the company's potential for good, that it will be remedied before this Wednesday, when David and his new friend with the van make their rounds.  

To be clear, I don't expect Costco or any supermarket to recover all its surplus food right away.  I know that takes time, and I know that it most likely takes Holly and a whole lot of other people working together.  But I do think it is realistic to ask that if people show up at your Costco warehouse location with the appropriate paperwork indicating their alignment with a local food pantry, and if you have perfectly edible produce that you are about to trash, you give at least some of it to these volunteers in your community instead. Especially if they finally, finally, have a van. 

So here's the simple request: 
Costco, would you please give permission to the manager at the Sandy Springs, Georgia, Costco location to do this on Wednesday?  You'll like David. You'll feel good about giving.  Trust me.  I trust you. (And then, maybe it's possible to allow this nationwide?)
Thank you, David and Kathy and Mary Louise and Bob and Tracy and Holly and Aaron and Costco and the man with the van and everyone else (James and Ann and Mia and Patrick and Charlene and Connie and . . .) who takes the time to make the connections from hand to hand.  Thank you for taking a moment in your busy day and making things just a little bit more right.  It matters.

UPDATE: Monday, 10/29/12: Aaron just called and told me that he has confirmed that it is not a corporate policy to not donate produce to local food pantries.  He suggested David try again, and he said he would send an email to the regional manager encouraging donations like this.  I greatly appreciate Aaron's call, especially since he is currently very involved tracking Hurricane Sandy and preparing to help where needed on Costco's behalf.  Thank you, Aaron.  You're a good man.
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