EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a series of solutions stories addressing food waste and food rescuers in Richland County and beyond.
BELLVILLE — Every week, volunteers from the Bellville Neighborhood Outreach Center (BNOC) rescue truckfuls of food from chain grocery stores around Richland County.
These businesses donate food that is still good but would normally get thrown out. Some products may have been overstocked, some may still be fresh but nearer to its expiration date.
“It’s an extensive amount of food,” said Matt Merendino, a pastor and the president of the BNOC. “It is enough food to fill our truck and then some. Thousands of pounds of food.”
The BNOC collects food from retail partners on behalf of the Cleveland Food Bank, then divides it between its Bellville-based pantry and other organizations like Catholic Charities’ Mansfield location and Grace Episcopal Church.
“It’s been roughly four years or so. We partnered with Feeding America and the Walmart Corporation and they granted us a truck through the Cleveland Food Bank so that we could keep more of the food from Richland County in Richland County,” Merendino said.
The practice of collecting excess food from retailers and producers is known as food rescue. Food rescue has benefits for donors and recipients alike, but it can also help fight hunger and food waste simultaneously.
Americans throw away a lot of food, from unharvested crops left to spoil in fields to unused or excess products in homes and grocery stores. The USDA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the American food supply goes to waste.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more food goes into landfills than any other type of municipal solid waste. Food made up 24 percent of municipal solid waste that ended up in landfills in 2018, compared to 11.78 percent paper products and 18.46 percent plastic.
Meanwhile, one in ten Americans faced food insecurity in 2019. Feeding America estimates that those numbers have grown slightly due to the pandemic, with one in seven Americans facing food insecurity in 2020 and one in eight in 2021.
BNOC volunteers visit retailers like Walmart, Sam’s Club, Aldi, Kroger and Panera Bread with their 16-foot refrigerated box truck multiple times each week. The Cleveland Food Bank sends another truck on the off days.
The BNOC isn’t the only local pantry engaged in food rescue efforts. Matthew 25 Outreach Center also collects excess food from smaller chain stores across northeastern Ohio.
Every week, volunteers drive a 26-foot truck to sites in Wayne and Medina counties, the Akron and Canton areas and even downtown Cleveland.
Food rescue can be a win-win for pantries and store owners, who don't have to deal with the labor of hauling excess food and disposal fees at the dump.
“When we do the recovery piece, it saves them all that expense so they're happy to give it to us," said Matthew 25 president Jeff Wright. "From a business perspective, they obviously receive some tax benefits as well, but they also know it's going to good use.”
Matthew 25 only visits sites that aren’t currently working with the Cleveland Food Bank to avoid competing or duplicating efforts.
“If you think about the big groceries, that's where the food bank would come into play; at the small satellites, that's where we come into play,” said Wright.
The organization partners with five or six vendors for its food recovery efforts, Wright said. He estimated that about 30 percent of the food Matthew 25 distributes comes from food rescue; the rest is obtained through the Cleveland Food Bank and Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank.
Matthew 25 holds pop-up food distribution events in Richland and Ashland counties each month. Volunteers also deliver boxes of shelf-stable foods to nearly 1,600 seniors in Richland, Ashland, Wayne and Holmes counties.
While food rescue can be a great way to reduce commercial waste and stock the shelves at pantries, there are logistical challenges.
Coordinating routes and volunteers takes time and effort. Some food pantries like Last Mile Food Rescue in Cincinnati use an app to connect volunteers throughout the city with nearby donors and drop-off sites.
Merendino said storage is the biggest hurdle. He’d love to do more pickups, but his and other local pantries only have so much space.
“Ultimately for us we would love to be able to make as much usage of that truck as we could,” he said. “It would be wonderful to see more people branch out and start food pantries.”
Building collaborative relationships with retailers also takes time and effort.
“Good partnerships. That’s a huge part," Merendino said.
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: How a non profit in Wayne County, Ohio fights hunger and waste by partnering with area farmers.