Feed the hungry, fight climate change: The campaign to curb food waste in South Florida
Published in News & Features
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Ellen Bowen is on a mission to combat food waste in South Florida — a campaign that not only feeds the hungry but, perhaps surprisingly, can also help curb climate change.
Bowen is the founder of the South Florida chapter of Food Rescue US, a group of 1,000 local volunteers that collects perfectly good food that would otherwise be thrown away at grocery stores, restaurants and events and delivers it to churches, shelters and food pantries across the region.
They’ve salvaged wagyu beef sliders from the VIP suites at Miami’s Formula 1 race, filet mignon from a medical conference at the Fontainebleau and an untold number of eggs, waffles, bacon and other unused food from the end of Sunday brunch services at upscale restaurants across South Florida. They take it all directly to places like Camillus House, Lotus House and the Miami Rescue Mission.
Bowen estimates her group has saved more than 5.7 million pounds of food since it started in 2018 — and that’s just a tiny portion of what gets tossed nationally. Roughly a third of food in the U.S. is wasted, according to a 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That wasted food “contains enough calories to feed more than 150 million people each year, far more than the 35 million estimated food insecure Americans,” according to a 2021 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But wasted food carries other hidden costs. It all has to be fertilized or fed, harvested or slaughtered, packaged, transported and often refrigerated. That’s before the uneaten food is trucked off to a landfill to rot and belch methane — a planet-warming greenhouse gas that, over the course of a century, is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Roughly 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste, according to the EPA. That’s more than the aviation industry, which contributes just under 5% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
“I started this…four years ago, primarily to rescue unused food and get it to people that are hungry,” said Bowen. “What I’ve learned is that that’s not the only benefit of reducing food waste. Actually, the environmental impact has really become my focus.”
Volunteers to the rescue
Food Rescue US relies on volunteers like Jane Marie Russell, head legal counsel for a tech company called OpenText, who has been volunteering with the group since Bowen started the South Florida chapter in 2018.
On a recent Saturday morning, Russell backed her car into the loading dock for a Trader Joe’s in Coral Gables. Trader Joe’s employees greeted her and began carting out boxes and boxes of groceries. She crammed as much as she could into her trunk and backseat: bread, eggs, milk, cold cuts, strawberries, lettuce, carrots, pasta, rice, baked goods, chips, prepared sandwiches — all of it still fresh and unopened, but pushed off the shelves by newer inventory.
On this day, Trader Joe’s workers even brought out bouquets of flowers still in full bloom.
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