Donations Decreasing the Amount of Wasted Food in Chicago (Waste Matters! Part 9)

The Greater Chicago Food Depository helps to feed more than 812,000 men, women and children in Cook County, Illinois, each year. One in every 6 people within the county turns to a local food pantry or soup kitchen for assistance. The Food Depository gathers food from local grocery stores throughout Cook County - food that may otherwise be excess supply and therefore wasted - and distributes it to these programs that distribute food and prepare warm, fresh meals for those in need.

In previous installments of this Waste Matters! series, we have talked about the amount of food that is wasted in the food supply chain. Today, we talk about one way some grocery stores in Chicago are reducing the amount they may throw out - by donating it to a worthy cause.

Food Rescue

I recently had the chance to talk to Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. She explained the Food Depository's Food Rescue Program has various partnerships with grocery stores that supply food for the program. The depository’s transportation team drives around to these grocery stores to pick up safe and quality foods - anything from meat to dairy to produce.

The program “works like clockwork,” Maehr said, with Food Depository trucks arriving at a specific grocery store the same time and day every week. The first half of the day is spent gathering food from grocery stores, and the second half is spent delivering that product to food pantries and soup kitchens.

“We have a dedicated schedule so that food is flowing out at assigned times and days to various community organizations,” Maehr said.

An important part of the program and ensuring that only safe foods are picked up at grocery stores and distributed by the depository is having knowledgeable drivers. Maehr said the program’s drivers, driver helpers and almost every one in the Food Depository warehouse are trained and certified in safe food handling. They drive refrigerated trucks, carry a food thermometer – they know, Maehr said, how to identify unusable foods.

“So they will never accept food if we cannot safely move it through the supply chain,” she said.

This food is not spoiled, expired or damaged. It is high in nutritional value. It is perishable, and it often is delivered and used by a food pantry the same day it is picked up from the grocery store.

How Do Grocery Stores Decide What to Donate?

According to Maehr, there are a number of reasons grocery stores donate what they do to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. One example she provided is a manufacturer decided to change a food label, including new product information or a new design. Those products with the now outdated label? Those would go to the depository as the grocery store makes way for the new items.

In fiscal year 2014, the Greater Chicago Food Depository distributed about 12 million pounds of food through the Food Rescue Program. That may sound like a lot, but according to Maehr, demand is at an all-time high.

“Never in the history of our organization, have we had so many people struggling to put food on their table,” she said.

Stay tuned for future installments of the Waste Matters! series when we will wrap things up and talk about what some states are doing specifically to limit the amount of wasted food.


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