Photo of Bread Furst by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Bread Furst by Darrow Montgomery

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Inside a parking garage, kitchen assistant Brandy Turner sorts food rescued from restaurants and grocery stores. Each piece will contribute to the more than 350 meals made each day at Miriam’s Kitchen. Turner does a two-step dance for at least an hour, inspecting each piece of food and then placing it into one of the crates, sorting by vegetables, fruits, and grains.

“The chefs come up with the most creative things to do with rescued food,” Turner says. “They use rescued pico de gallo to create a salad dressing.”

Restaurants are one of the largest contributors of food waste in the United States. Locally, the D.C. Council is trying to make it easier for the city’s more than 2,000 restaurants to donate food. The “Save Good Food Amendment Act of 2017” also applies to grocery stores and community gardens and sets safety standards for food donations. The bill was introduced by Councilmembers Mary M. Cheh,David Grosso, Charles Allen, Jack Evans, and Brianne K. Nadeau. All other councilmembers, reached by phone or email, say they support the bill.

“You would love to say that in restaurants you’re only going to produce enough for the volume that you have,” says Eun Yim, the general manager at Bread Furst, a neighborhood bakery in Northwest D.C. “Some chefs will say they have zero waste, but I have yet to work with a restaurateur that produces 0 to 5 percent waste.”

“We buy, cook, and clean the food,” Yim continues. “The last thing we want to do is waste it.”  She describes waste as something that is unwanted, and argues for using different terminology to change public perception. Calling leftover food “a surplus of edible food” that can be rescued may encourage more to donate.

“We’re not donating scraps,” says Derrick Jones, the general manager at the Pret A Manger located at 1275 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. “Our food is a donation of the same quality food that is sold throughout the day. We keep our cold items like sandwiches, salads, and yogurts refrigerated. During the evening we do not place any new items out, so any extra food is picked up by ThriveDC every night.”

ThriveDC is a nonprofit organization located in Columbia Heights that provides meals and social services to the community. The organization originally began in 1979 to feed homeless women, but has since expanded. Their meals feed more than 250 people a day.

Pret A Manger’s system seems like a no-brainer for socially minded restaurants looking for something positive to do with their leftover food, but there are several reasons other restaurants don’t participate in such programs. Many are dissuaded by liability concerns and a lack of education on how best to donate.

“All it takes is for one person to say they got sick from food they received from a certain restaurant, and that starts a whole big to-do,” says Cheryl Bell, the executive chef at Miriam’s Kitchen. “The people donating the food really need to be conscientious. If food has not been kept at proper temperatures, it can put the people who receive it at risk.”

The bill before the D.C. Council would amend prior legislation by giving restaurants one hundred percent liability protection; prohibit the Department of Health from requiring date labels on food products that would limit the donation of past-date food products that do not pose an increased safety risk; allow any individual or business to claim a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the market value of the food donation; and require city agencies to create guidance for D.C. restaurants and health inspectors.

There are still obstacles to donating, such as logistics and resources. At CAVA in Chinatown, all of the food is thrown away at the end of the night, according to manager Maria Madrid. This is because of temperature and safety concerns, as the food has been sitting out for long periods of time by closing. Another barrier is that some restaurants are concerned about supplying pans to store extra food and the extra resources needed to transport it accordingly.

Amy Kelleyand Catherine Plume from (r)evolve, an organization focused on environmental sustainability, along with the DC Food Recovery Working Group’s policy subcommittee, gathered more than 80 letters from restaurants in support of the bill. Both Kelley and Plume are a part of the Food Recovery Working Group, which is made up of representatives from 40 organizations. These organizations include government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses that meet monthly to discuss food waste reduction. The group also assisted in drafting the bill.

During the monthly meeting in May, Cheh’s legislative counsel Ona Balkustalked to the group about lobbying for the bill. “Find ways to educate these councilmembers,” she said. “I think there is squeamishness because they don’t know what food waste is.”

Forty percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste, and the economic implications of food waste costs America more than $160 billion a year according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Some D.C. organizations have already laid the groundwork for food donations locally. They include University of the District of Columbia, Miriam’s Kitchen, and the D.C. branch of Food Rescue US. The latter organization utilizes volunteer drivers to collect surplus meals across the city and delivers them to community organizations in position to feed the food insecure. 

At 10 a.m. on a Wednesday in March, a young woman from Food Rescue US walks into Bread Furst. She exchanges a smile with the chef before he heads to the back and then reappears with a large brown bag. “It’s heavy,” the chef instructs as the woman hugs it to her chest and takes the recovered food to feed others. Later in the day, Bread Furst pulls any salads or sandwiches that have not been sold and prepares them for donating. “They can still sell this food, it is nothing that the staff would not eat themselves,” closing shift manager Terry Portsmouth says.

Bread Furst currently donates between 5 and 25 pounds of food four days a week, but Yim’s goal is to donate daily. In order to do that, the bakery needs to identify additional organizations with the capacity to pick up more often. With the proposed new bill, they would be able to donate daily and directly to any individual in need because the bill eliminates the need for a middleman. 

Some organizations prefer prepared foods, whereas others want only raw ingredients. DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) and Miriam’s Kitchen prepare meals from scratch and are more interested in raw ingredients, such as proteins and fresh produce.

Amy Bachman, DCCK’s director of procurement and sustainability, says it’s not beneficial for the organization to collect less than 50 pounds of food. They produce 5,000 recipe-based meals each day and supply them to homeless shelters, schools, and other nonprofits. The amount of people they serve is too large to benefit from smaller quantities. It directs such donations to Food Rescue US, and from there the food is distributed to a kitchen that accepts prepared foods, like ThriveDC.

ThriveDC Executive ChefTerrence Brown never turns down a donation. ThriveDC receives 7,000 sandwiches from Pret A Manger every month. Donations of produce received from Whole Foods, pastries from Starbucks, and bread from Panera Bread allow the guests to have something to take with them after their meal.

“The barrier in donating is the manpower, lack of employee time,” says Kelley, managing partner at (r)evolve. “The extra food restaurants generate is so small, some feel it is not worthwhile. That is absolutely not the case. It is important to create the right link.”

Food waste recipient organizations agree that the proposed bill would have a positive impact on the donations they receive. Though a date has not been set to vote on the bill, people in community along with the the D.C. Food Recovery Working Group are pushing for a vote to take place at the end of the fiscal year in September. It’s currently in Councilmember Evans’ office waiting to be approved by the Committee on Finance and Revenue. Whatever the outcome, D.C. is moving forward in making food recovery a daily practice.

Kate Urbank, the D.C. site director for Food Rescue US, says they are already collecting prepared foods like tin pans of lasagna, chicken marsala, shrimp scampi, and crab cakes. “We are able to pick up that food within 10 minutes, take it to an agency, and it can feed 80 people. The community has become reliant on this food.”