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Waste Not




By Elin Jeffords



            It seems like a simple premise. The Valley’s Waste Not organization harvests the literally tons of perishable food that goes unused by restaurants, supermarkets, resorts, catering companies, delis, bakeries and so forth and distributes it to the hungry. In actual practice, it is an extremely complex operation that executive director Dee Mitten calls, “A logistics marvel.”

In fact, the very existence of Waste Not is somewhat of a marvel. In 1987, one Valley woman with a big heart and a desire to help the hungry borrowed a pick-up truck and began rescuing excess food from a local resort and transferring it to homeless shelters. Operating as a grass-roots effort, in 1990 the organization obtained a 501(c) (3) corporate non-profit designation and with assistance from the Pulliam Foundation acquired it’s first new truck. Now, more than 25 years later, Waste Not boasts a fleet of five refrigerated trucks that pick up an average of 6500 pounds of food daily and deliver it to almost 100 different agencies.

Getting to that point, however, meant building a solid infrastructure able to support a whole lot of variables. Mitten, who has been director since 2002 says, “The Waste Not concept is easy to understand.  After all, wasted food can be considered a national resource and everyone wants to be “green’. But putting it into practice is not easy. The first and most difficult part is creating successful relationships with the food donors.”

Mitten or Judy Rydberg, director of field operations, might cold call a business acting on a tip, referrals are another source and sometimes purveyors hear about Waste Not and step up to the proverbial plate. Once the connection is made, Judy visits the facility, determines what they have to donate and the possible frequency and amount of donations. To make the effort worthwhile, there needs to be enough perishable food to feed 20 – 25 people. That may mean the vendors have to collect and freeze food over a couple of days before a pick-up, which involves proper packaging and storage.

”Then we work really hard at making it work for them,” says Mitten.

Fear of liability is often a concern for donors. Rydberg reassures them that Arizona’s Good Samaritan Law protects Waste Not donors from any potential liability. The primary requirement is that donated food cannot have left the kitchen. Once it has been placed before the public, it can no longer be donated.

According to Rydberg, clockwork scheduling is key. “The drivers have their assigned routes; pick-ups in the mornings, deliveries in the afternoon. Though most of our donor’s package and label the surplus food, in some cases it is up to the drivers to do it. All of our drivers have food handler certificates,”

The drivers then make decisions as to where the food will do the most good and, the needs of the various recipients must be taken into account. Senior centers and after school programs, for instance, don’t usually have the resources for preparing food from scratch, so sandwiches, fruit and healthy snacks are earmarked for them. Raw ingredients go where there are kitchen facilities and cooks.

There are more than 100 food donors in the Valley ranging from little mom and popshops to major companies like Atlasta Catering.  For company president and CEO Steve Short, being involved in Waste Not is part of a way of life and a way of doing business. He says, “It’s a major ethical issue for all food service businesses,

Though Dee Mitten says one of the challenges for Waste Not donors and their employees is that it’s often just easier for them just to throw the surplus food away.  Not for Short and crew, “We train everyone from day one.  For us, there is no such thing as throwing away; there is no ‘away’. We don’t even have trashcans. In fact, we don’t call them ‘leftovers’, we call them ‘extras’ and our goals are to use them in three ways, to feed humans, to feed animals-not-for-slaughter and to make compost.”

Short’s vigilance pays off; last year the company gleaned almost 9000 pounds of usable food for Waste Not.

Capitol Grille, another Waste Not donor, is owned by Darden restaurants, which also owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other chains. According to the Scottsdale store’s executive chef/partner Travis Garner, contributing to programs such as Waste Not is a company mandate. “We are a steakhouse, so most of our surplus is meat.” he says,  “Though it is a team effort, our butcher handles most of what we give to Waste Not. He trims the meat, cooks it, cools it, bags it and labels it. If there isn’t enough to make a pick up worthwhile, we freeze it until we have enough.”

It all adds up, in 2012 Capitol Grille sent 4,675 pounds of usable food to Waste Not. 

Other major donors include The Princess Resort, the Phoenix Convention Center, Arizona Cardinals Stadium, and AJ’s Fine Foods.

The second part of the Waste Not equation, identifying the beneficiaries, is relatively uncomplicated. “When people are hungry, they find you.” says Mitten, “Though Waste Not does not deliver to individuals, the word gets out about where food is being delivered, whether it’s an after-school program, church outreach, senior facility, transition home, rehab center or any similar organization that helps feed the hungry.

Diana Miladin, director of development for Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired says, “We’ve worked with Waste Not so long and so closely, no one can even remember how the relationship began. They are a lifeline for us.”

For 55 years, ACBVI has been a locus for people over 18 who are losing vision or have lost their sight. The Center teaches adaptive skills, provides counseling, training and runs a vision clinic.

“Visually impaired people can be very isolated, so we are also a community center,’ stresses Miladin, “with a social and recreation program. We have exercise classes and provide a hot lunch.”

 The Center feeds from 50 to 75 people a day. A kitchen manager and part-time cook with the help of volunteers prepare the meals, serve and clean up. “We want it to be homey, not institutional.  The menu might be pasta and meatballs or chicken with mashed potatoes. We serve a lot of salads and there is always a dessert. Sometimes this is the only hot meal they get.” says Miladin.

In addition the Center provides coffee in the mornings and if it becomes known that clients are having problems with hunger, the center prepares and delivers them boxes of food. According to Miladin, “Waste Not provides 90% of the food, so it makes a huge difference for us. We would not be able to do it without them.”

Quoting a statistic that 1 in 4 children in the Valley go to bed hungry every night, Mitten expresses confidence that Waste Not’s unique, one-of-a-kind service will continue to be a community asset. And, she says, she is encouraged by the fact more and more people are becoming conscious of the tremendous waste of food in the food service industry and are willing to step up and help those who need it with food that would otherwise be thrown away.