Keep It, Toss It, Donate It
The Kroger on College Mall Road in Bloomington, Indiana, turns over a lot of produce with the help of people like producer clerk Greg Phillips. He's spent thousands of hours scanning shelves to make sure customers like what they see.
"We have really high standards here," he says. "We want everything to look really pretty and to be perfect, and if it's not up to that standard then we have to pull it off the floor."
Phillips picks up a cluster of on-the-vine tomatoes. "It's a constant battle, especially with something soft. You can stock tomatoes out, and an hour later half of them are mush." He notes the oozing, broken skin on these tomatoes. "These, I would discard these. By the time they get to a food bank someplace they're going to be ten times as bad." So, it's to the trash.
Kroger has definitive policies on what they'll sell and what they won't. Consider popular foods, like bananas. Customers purchase tons of those, and Greg says they'll sell even if they're a little spotted.
Foods that are wounded, dripping or showing other damage present a safety risk and must be thrown away.
Then, there are lots of foods that don't sell as well once they've ripened; those are donated. "People tend to not buy soft avocados, even if they're perfect inside," he says. "That's what we want to donate."
Ugly Foods Welcome
Once a food is chosen for donation, it is sent to the back of the store and picked up by the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.
Hoosier Hills director Julio Alonso says he and his staff are happy to accept donated produce, even if it's starting to lose its youthful beauty. "We are rescuing food pretty much at the very end of its lifespan. That's why it's being donated to us, because it's not something these stores can sell," Alonso says. The fruits' appearance does not matter so much to Hoosier Hills, but the staff work hard to ensure that the food they send out is safe.
Casey Steury has been involved with Hoosier Hills since he was a kid. He remembers sorting through truckloads of donations to find the small amount of food that was edible. "Nowadays," he says, "the majority of stuff that comes in we can use."
Before The Dinner Plate
From the food bank, it's off to pantries, kitchens and other member organizations. These are the places where the final and most important safety checks are performed. This is the last stop before meals are served to hungry patrons. At this last step in the life of a piece of perishable food, it is critical that the food being served is cleared for safe eating.
Adam Sommer is kitchen supervisor at the Community Kitchen of Monroe County. He and the other workers screen donations before they even enter the building; if food is too old when it's brought in, they do not even accept it. Food that passes the initial test is used as quickly as possible -- usually within the week.
When produce comes in, and especially when there is a surplus, Sommer and his crew find creative ways to make sure no food goes to waste.
He recalls how he and his staff handled huge influx of tomatoes last year: "We would core them, freeze them, we used them in salads, we've even done stuffed tomatoes, which is fantastic. When you have something like that you have to become creative."
Today, the Kitchen is serving chicken and collard greens. Next week it could be completely different. It all depends on what gets donated and how long it will last.