One person’s trash is another person’s treasure


There is an old saying that one mans trash is another’s treasure.

If you talk to someone who lived through the great depression and the war that followed it in the 1930’s and 1940’s they might think nothing of carefully folding the wrapping paper from their birthday gift and saving it. They might cut off the bruises from an apple and approach canning and preserving in times of plenty as a sacred duty, on par with voting.

Talk to a younger person, in their 20’s and they may think nothing of throwing out a bruised or slightly over ripe piece of fruit. For them canning is something they don’t have time for.  And, depending on how and where they grew up, they may shudder at the thought of buying second hand clothes or picking through the trash at the end of someone’s driveway to grab some furniture, or an appliance that maybe needs a little bit of know how to get it working again.

Melissa posted yesterday about some recent work highlighting the wastefulness of society in general when it comes to food.  But, there is a flip side.  Waste is an important source of food for us. A lot of what the food industry and retailers determine is waste is a gold mine that helps feed the people who turn to us each day.

That’s not to say that we give people moldy bread and slimy vegetables. Those things show up in our warehouse, but through the hard work of the many volunteers we have, we are able to separate the bad from the good, and rapidly use up what is approaching the end of its shelf life.

The grocers dilemma

Take the example of yogurt and other dairy products. If you are a grocery store, freshness is very very important for you. You probably spend a lot of time advertising that you have the freshest produce and the highest quality. Now imagine that you are shopping there. Would you buy some milk that says it is best used by the end of next week when you can reach into the back of the dairy case and get a few cartons that are good for two weeks past that date? You’re going to get the carton that will be fresh for the longest period of time.

But what is the store supposed to do if it over-ordered last week and now it has a lot of milk that no one is going to buy because it is a week or less away from its sell-by date?

Have you ever wondered how the food gets to your local grocery store? Well, it starts out in a field or a barn somewhere in Canada, or increasingly, another country or even continent. Just last week for example, we had peppers from Mexico, oranges from Spain and grapes from South Africa in our hampers. By trucks, boats and planes it is shipped to central warehouses, and then distributed to stores. On the way to the warehouses and stores some food is almost always wasted.

Most businesses have to battle waste of some form or another, time, paper, machinery, fuel you name it.  The food industry has to fight a lot of it as well.  If, in transit, tomatoes get too cold or too hot on the way to the stores and they start to rot, what can a food importer do?  Or, what if they get so ripe, by the time they’re unloaded and put on display they’re too wrinkled or soft and no one wants to buy them – what can a store do?  Think of all the different fruits and vegetables you buy each week.  Imagine the care and attention each one would need to get from the field to your table – it’s a big job!

Food systems are complicated!

The challenge, is that if you are a managing a large chain of stores, you are also managing the quality of a vast amount of food coming from all over the world and going to hundreds of stores all over this patch of Ontario. If something goes wrong at any point in the long journey you’re going to lose some money. Wasted food is also wasted time, wages, and fuel to move it around, not to mention the cost of putting it in the landfill. If a pallet of tomatoes goes bad in transit, there is probably going to be some good stuff still on there, but often it is cheaper to accept the financial loss of writing off the entire thing than to spend more money trying to save what you can. This is how pretty much all business works. You have to make a lot of tough calls and you work very hard every day trying to minimize waste and the impact it has on your ability to make a profit, and thus, create jobs for the community you do business in.

Volunteers and communities in action

Now, what happens to that pallet of tomatoes? Well, thanks to the hard work of our friends at the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, it doesn’t get thrown out. In fact, it gets saved. Before food is shipped to stores the large food retailers assess the quality of the food. If they determine it’s not good to go to the store they set it aside and the food bank picks it up twice a week and shares it with local agencies like us.

Using the patience and skill of our volunteers we remove any spoiled product and get rid of it via compost or other proper disposal methods. Then we share what is still good to eat with the many people who turn to us each day. The time that it takes us to receive, sort and distribute food is very short. The people who receive the food are coming to us when they basically have nothing, so the hamper they receive gets used quickly. And, as we’ve already posted (here), the people we help are extremely thrifty, cooking from scratch, actively looking for ways to prepare new foods and sharing what they know. Waste is minimized and people are helped with one of the most basic necessities: food. It’s an amazing partnership!

The same happens at the stores as well. Again, the Food Bank of Waterloo Region drive their trucks to many local food stores and they pickup bread and other goodies that are close to their sell by date. We and many other organizations benefit from this. Some days there is a lot, some days not. We plan as best we can and fill in with donations from the community, again, mostly collected and distributed by the Food Bank.

And we are not alone. Most communities that have food banks have similar relationships and work closely with the community and local food businesses to help divert waste from the garbage dump and share what is good with those who can really use it.

So what trash have you turned into treasure?  We’d love to hear your stories of finding curbside gold or ways your business has saved money by reducing waste!

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2 Responses to “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”

  1. Tweets that mention One person’s trash is another person’s treasure « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cheryl Ives, Jennifer Gough, Food Bank Waterloo, Pam Salisbury, House of Friendship and others. House of Friendship said: Food waste has a big impact but not the one U think #thankyou #kwawesome donors + @FoodBankWatReg […]

  2. melissabrosowski Says:

    Preserving over-ripe produce by canning. This is a somewhat lost talent in my generation but I’ve found it a lot of fun. And I’ve been able to share some of the jars with my friends, which is a unique gift (that people enjoy). It takes a little work to sort through all the stuff but it’s nice to enjoy this all year round.

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