ANNAPOLIS — Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Mill Valley General Store’s back refrigerators are filled with stuffed Ikea blue bags.
For $6, a customer takes home a blue bag containing 25 to 45 pounds of fruit and vegetables, and sometimes the occasional bag of chips or crackers — enough to feed a family of four for a week, said Cheryl Wade, owner of the small, family-owned natural foods grocery store.
“We’ve had folks from every ZIP code in Baltimore City, and some from outside the city even, coming here every weekend for these blue bags,” Wade said.
Wade’s store hosts the blue bag initiative for Gather Baltimore, a volunteer-based local food recovery program that sells organic food overflow from local farms, farmers’ markets and stores at an affordable price in low-income neighborhoods at farm stands across the city.
“Literally billions and billions and billions of pounds of just produce are thrown out in this country every year,” Wade said. “Americans don’t understand, we pay the cost of the produce we throw away in the prices we pay at the supermarket — we ought to put it to good use.”
Fifteen percent of Maryland’s municipal waste consists of food, according to Maryland’s Department of Environment. At the same time, 757,430 people are food-insecure in Maryland, with the highest level of food-insecure homes in Baltimore City at about 23 percent, according to Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief organization.
To address the national food distribution and waste problem, organizations across Maryland are taking the initiative and going straight to the source of extra, edible food: supermarkets, farms and colleges.
Arthur Morgan, founder of Gather Baltimore, said that he takes unsold vegetables, fruit and bread from Baltimore City’s farmers’ market and local grocery stores like Wade’s and redistributes the surplus to meal programs, faith communities and others in need. The blue bag initiative, just over 3 months old, is the newest installment.
“There’s so much extra food, and people are hungry and don’t have food,” Morgan said. “I’m just trying to eliminate a lot of the food waste and feed some of these people that are hungry.”
Morgan’s organization’s outreach mainly spreads by word-of-mouth, Wade said, allowing Morgan to keep up with the demand. Even so, the number of bags sold at her store has increased from 50 to 200 since it began early this year — and that number grows every weekend. Anyone may purchase the produce, and the store offers a sign-up sheet for recipes and updates on what will be in the bags on a given week.
“We have not found anyone else in the Baltimore area that does what Arthur does, which is actually get fresh fruit and vegetables into people’s hands,” said Wade, whose store is in the Jones Falls area of Baltimore.
In its 2014 Zero Waste Plan, the state set an interim goal of 15 percent food waste reduction by the end of 2015, but it’s not yet known whether the state will reach this goal, said Jay Apperson, communications director for Maryland’s Department of Environment.
As of 2013, the state had recycled 10.7 percent of its food scraps primarily through composting and animal feed according to the state’s environment department. Apperson said the state does not take into account source reduction programs like Gather Baltimore or Food Recovery Network when calculating its food scrap reduction, but completely supports their efforts.
“The Zero Waste Plan included some strategies for (Maryland’s Department of Environment) to support and enhance these existing food donation activities,” Apperson said, such as surveying large food generators to determine quantities and locations of available food and connecting them to food banks, kitchens, pantries, shelters and organizations.
“Surplus edible food that cannot be prevented should be donated for human consumption,” Apperson said.
For Ben Simon, co-founder and executive director of the startup Food Recovery Network at the University of Maryland, College Park, the idea to transfer excess meals from college campuses came from seeing how much was left over at the university’s dining halls and after big sports games.
“It really came out of that need of seeing hungry people in Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C., and also seeing the surplus at the same time and connecting the dots,” Simon said.
The nonprofit organization, which started in September 2011, now extends nationwide to 129 college campuses and is completely student-led, delivering meals that were going to be thrown away to local homeless shelters, transitional homes and women’s shelters, said Mika Weinstein, a Food Recovery Network staff member.
“In the United States, almost 40 percent of the food that’s produced ends up in a landfill,” Weinstein said. “Some of that is actually food scraps, like banana peels, but a lot of it is perfectly good food.”
Weinstein said that the whole organization has collected 731,145 pounds of food since it began, with about 117,708 of that amount collected in 2015 alone. The University of Maryland chapter has recovered 116,115 pounds of food since its launch.
Pastor Ben Slye from the Christian Life Center in Riverdale said his center receives 25 to 30 trays of meals three times a week from the Food Recovery Network–enough to feed between 50 and 75 people per meal–as well as 10,000 pounds of fresh produce each week from national food processor Taylor Farms, and Coastal Sunbelt, a mid-Atlantic food distributor.
Slye said his organization also receives college sports games’ leftovers that could feed up to 500 people at a time. His center redistributes the free food to local soup kitchens, recovery programs and other ministries, only paying for transportation costs.
“We always say that it’s not a food shortage problem in our nation, there’s a food distribution problem in our nation — so we’re trying to solve that problem,” Slye, 53, said. “We’re grateful to be a part of something that’s going to become huge.”
How does Maryland Measure Recycled Food Waste?
Because it keeps waste from being generated in the first place, food recovery does not count toward reducing the state’s food waste footprint.
Instead, to achieve its statewide goal of 15 percent reduction in food waste by Dec. 31, Maryland’s Department of Environment is focusing primarily on composting.
The Department of Environment calculates food waste reduction, measured as a percent, accordingly:
Food scraps recycled (tons)
Food scraps generated in Maryland (tons/percent)
Each jurisdiction annually submits a report outlining its tons of recycled food waste, Apperson said. The department adds these counties’ totals together to determine the tons of recycled food scraps.
Meanwhile, the state’s food waste generation is calculated by the amount of total waste generated in Maryland multiplied by the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of the quantity of food as a portion of the overall waste stream, Apperson said. The current estimate is 14.5 percent, according to the federal department’s website. (Tons of food scraps generated in Maryland = Maryland’s total generated waste in tons x 14.5 percent.)
As of 2013, Maryland was recycling 10.3 percent of its food waste, Apperson said, but it is still unclear whether they will reach the 15 percent goal by the end of the year.
Apperson said that the next step to reducing the state’s food waste footprint is to connect generators of food scraps with established composting facilities.
In Maryland, local governments are responsible for establishing solid waste and recycling programs, he said. Howard and Prince George’s counties are the current leaders in food scraps composting pilot programs, with Howard County attempting to recover food scraps from residential curbsides in certain areas.
The Maryland Department of Environment has information about composting on its website’s Organics Diversion and Composting page.