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Portabello mushrooms on display during a food show at FoodMaven on November 12, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. FoodMaven takes extra or ugly food that sellers refuse to sell and finds buyers around the state of Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Occasionally, at Regis University’s school cafeteria, there are dishes that sous chef Grant Ruesch calls “monotony breakers.” 

A recent one? New York Strip steaks.

“I bought the steaks for a really awesome deal. I can’t remember, but like $3 a pound,” said Ruesch. 

“$3.49,” someone interjected.  

“We ran a steak night special at the college and we sous vide the steaks with some butter and fresh herbs and fresh garlic,” Ruesch continued. “We didn’t know how it was going to go because it was just something new we were trying. So we’re like, ‘we’ll do 70 steaks to see how it goes.’ We sold out in the first 45 minutes.”

Grant Ruesch, a sous chef at Regis University, makes notes on produce during a food show at FoodMaven on November 12, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. He recently served New York Strip steaks to college students after finding them for $3.49 a pound. (Seth McConnell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The screaming-good deal was made possible by FoodMaven, a Colorado Springs startup that has spent the past few years fine tuning the logistics of getting excess and imperfect food to people who will eat it. While that may sound simple, it’s not. An incredible amount of uneaten food ends up in landfills each year for a variety of reasons, but a big one is when farmers, ranchers and local food producers can’t find a buyer or get the food to that buyer or a needy nonprofit in time.

There’s a long-running stat that estimates 40% of food in the U.S. winds up getting tossed. To reduce that figure, local organizations have upped their game by investing in trucks and distribution centers to move unwanted food to charities that serve meals to the needy. 

Some grocery stores now include displays of imperfect, “ugly” fruit, which tastes the same as “perfect” fruit despite a funky shape. 

And tech companies, like FoodMaven, are focusing on areas from infrastructure to transportation to reduce food waste faster. It’s all about making sure vegetables aren’t left unharvested on a field because farmers can’t find buyers, or that food closing in on its expiration date — which is set by manufacturers and not the U.S. Department of Agriculture — makes it to consumers before time runs out. 

And sometimes it’s cattle without a buyer at the end of a season, which has happened at Rafter W Ranch located outside of Simla. Ranch operator Lance Wheeler works with Food Maven when he has an oversupply of grass-fed beef. His steers yield about 500 pounds of meat.

“Ground beef and things like that always sell very well. But then there’s things that we might have extras of. And FoodMaven’s been a great place to move that product through so it just isn’t dead inventory sitting in our system,” Wheeler said. “This is certainly outside the normal food system, you know, where if it doesn’t get used, it gets tossed.”

There’s a lot of food going uneaten

The 40% statistic of food thrown out by America comes from a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Growers, grocers and home cooks together tossed $165 billion worth of food. American families, the report said, threw out 25% of the food and beverages they bought.

Another report puts the waste at 31% of food produced, though this USDA’s Economic Research Service study from 2014 excludes food lost at the farms. The top three wasted-food groups were meat at 30%, vegetables at 19% and dairy products at 17%. 

Either way, there’s a lot of food not getting eaten. But trying to get that food to the 14.3 million food-insecure households in the U.S. who don’t know when they’ll have another meal has helped raise awareness of food waste. 

NRDC continues to use the 40% stat today, though the value has risen to $218 billion a year.  

There’s also a new number: 86% of surveyed adults agree that food waste is a big problem and most agree that their actions can make a difference. The largest share of food waste — 43% — occurs at home, said Andrea Spacht Collins, NRDC Sustainable Food Policy Specialist. 

“There are other places along the line where consumers are driving waste, like at restaurants where we have too big of portions and so there’s plate leftovers,” Spacht Collins said. 

But, she added, “It’s not just food that we’re wasting but we’re wasting all of the resources that go into producing that food, whether that’s all of the agriculture water that goes to grow our food, the chemicals that are used in producing food, all of the transportation fuel to move food around and to cool it to keep it at temperature.”

Ugly fruit, mobile markets and progress

The city of Denver began working with NRDC last spring through its Certifiably Green Denver program to cut waste at eight restaurants in the Highland neighborhood. The restaurants began composting and found new ways to use extra food. 

That included baking dog treats from leftover bacon, cheese and oats; ordering less food more frequently so ingredients would be used up; and running more specials. Restaurants saved between $300 to $400 a month and they went from diverting 18% of the food waste from landfills to 70%, said Susan Renaud, who runs the food pilot program. 

Grocers are doing much better at using analytics to reduce waste by predicting what to order based on seasonality and weather, said Andy Harig, vice president of sustainability, tax and trade at the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which represents grocery, restaurant and food marketing trade groups. But it’s still a tough business unable to rely on just-in-time deliveries.

“Lots of times there’s a sort of a kind of a force majeure aspect to it where you just don’t have control,” Harig said. “If your local team looks like they’re going to go to the state championship for football so you think, ‘OK, we’re going to have a ton of tailgaters, I gotta order 30 crates of avocados where normally I do two.’ And then that team all of a sudden loses in the semifinals.”

Imperfect produce is marketed as recipe-ready and sold at a discount as part of King Soopers’ parent Kroger’s Zero Hunger, Zero Waste program. In the Lafayette King Soopers, banana bread mix is stocked within a few feet of spotted organic bananas. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Store managers have more flexibility to offer a sale. But in other areas, where the solution seems clear, stores have had to figure out new alternatives. Take ugly vegetables, for instance. A number of the Alliance’s grocery members have run pilot programs to sell imperfect produce, but those faded after a while, Harig said. 

“Part of what (grocers) saw was the more imperfect it was, the harder it was to sell,” he said. “They also found they had to retell the story to people, explain that you know it’s just as good. They had to keep that sort of educational program constant but even with all of that work a lot of those programs really ran into problems after six or eight weeks. I think you have to have a pretty aware consumer who’s willing to come in.”

Grocers are doing what they can, like using the crooked vegetables for pre-made salads, or milk and cabbages nearing their sell-by date for coleslaw at the deli counter, he said.

A number of tech startups are also working on issues around food waste. Misfits Market, which recently raised $16.5 million in venture capital, offers a monthly subscription for a box of ugly fruit. Flashfood in Canada and Food Rescue US in Connecticut have mobile apps that quickly connect stores with extra food to nonprofits. Goodr in Atlanta uses blockchain to help businesses track surplus food from pickup to donation. 

We Don’t Waste, a nonprofit that started in 2009 in Denver, regularly picks up unused food at the Colorado Convention Center, Pepsi Center, Coors Field and other venues. The nonprofit invested in its own delivery trucks and a 11,500-square-foot distribution center to gather food from the source and store it or shuttle it quickly to a user, usually a food bank or shelter. 

“When events are produced, for example, a caterer, if you have a party for 250 people, they don’t bring out food just for 250. They’ll produce for 275. But unfortunately some people don’t show up,” said Arlan Preblud, We Don’t Waste’s founder and executive director. “We pick it all up for the donor and don’t charge the recipients.” 

We Don’t Waste, a Denver nonprofit since 2009, hosts monthly farmers markets in neighborhood food deserts where there are few to no grocery stores. Shoppers can pick and choose items they want and will actually eat, which should cut down on food waste. The food is provided for free. (Handout)

It’s also exploring new ways to get food to people. In August, it partnered with the Denver Department of Safety. It stuffed bags with non-perishable foods for police officers to share with citizens during welfare checks. It also set up mobile food markets after mapping out the city to find food deserts, or neighborhoods without a grocery store, starting with the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea areas.

“We set up a farmers market where people can shop, as opposed to going to some food pantry where they’re handed bag and told, ‘Take this product home.’ They get home and one, they may not even know what the product is, two, they don’t use the product, or three, they don’t know how to prepare it,” Preblud said. “This way, they can shop with dignity. They can take whatever they need at no cost. It’s been very successful.”

Interestingly, because of its efforts over the years, the organization expects to provide about a third fewer meals this year than last year. That’s partly because 2018 was an incredible year, with 11 million meals served. Efficiency is to blame, said Allie Hoffman, We Don’t Waste’s communications manager. 

“More importantly, a lot of our food donors have used the data that we’ve provided them to cut waste,” she said. “As such, many of them have adjusted their operations to be greener and to cut costs associated with waste.”

The dilemma: Too much food? 

Derrick Hoffman, who runs the 100-acre Hoffman Farms in Greeley with his wife, Hanmei, said the farm had an excellent vegetable-growing season this year. But as on any farm, many vegetables don’t look picture perfect, an issue that has hurt small, local growers for years. 

That, combined with difficulty finding workers, meant that the farm left 40% of its crops unharvested.

“We literally had nowhere to go with all the stuff we were growing. We had oversaturated our customer base,” said Hoffman, who may reduce the growing area on the farm by 20% next year as a result. 

Part of the issue is that as a medium-sized farm, he produces too much to rely on farmer’s markets, but not enough for grocery stores that want perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables. 

“When you sell to another distributor, it has to meet certain requirements. Some of our stuff wouldn’t make the grade. ‘No, your watermelon is too small,’ or ‘It’s ugly,’” Hoffman said. “What’s nice about FoodMaven is they’ve got a customer base that is not expecting (top) grade. It can be misshapen. It’s really helped us as another avenue where we don’t have stuff getting wasted.”

FoodMaven CEO Ben Deda poses for a portrait during a food show at FoodMaven on November 12, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. FoodMaven takes extra or ugly food that sellers refuse to sell and finds buyers around the state of Colorado. (Seth McConnell, special to The Colorado Sun)

FoodMaven started in 2015 with a social-impact mission. Its goal was to recover $200 billion in lost revenue caused by wasted food — and it’s since diverted 2 million tons away from landfills.

To do this, it taps local farms and food producers in need of food distribution. It reaches out to chefs and buyers at hotels, restaurants and institutional kitchens who want to support local farms, but must manage their own costs. 

It’s also created an online marketplace for buyers to see what’s in stock and place an order. The company regularly donates a portion of food to charities.

“The food distribution industry really builds out a model from the ‘50s where it’s about mass distribution, so let’s get as much as you can get into the full truckloads, ship it to one point and then big deliveries everywhere,” said Ben Deda, who became FoodMaven’s CEO in September. “Well, that’s hard to do with oversupply. And so you have to be able to be more agile, you have to be able to have a just-in-time system where small orders are picked up and delivered quickly.”

Food with impact

At a food showcase earlier this month at the company’s distribution hub near Denver’s RiNo neighborhood, a variety of overstocked food was on display for buyers to see, touch and taste: Wild coho salmon from Love the Wild in Boulder, at $5 per pound. A 20-pound box of long grain rice from Denver-based Trinidad Benham, $5.19. Grass-fed Angus ribeye from Legacy Meats in Kersey, $7.99 a pound. Portobello mushroom caps from Boulder-based Green Chef, $5 for a 5-pound case.

“It’s really hard working with 17 different suppliers, and I’ve been there. Seventeen different vendors for produce, for meat, for fish, and all the other stuff. This (FoodMaven) kind of consolidates everything,” said Ruesch, the sous chef at Regis. “These portobellos are the nicest ones I’ve seen, much nicer than the ones I get from my produce company. And they’re $5 a case, as opposed to maybe like $18 a case.”

Sarah Lair and Sean Beattie of Five Eggs Meals chat with Tim Harris of Food Maven about their food needs during a food show at FoodMaven on November 12, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Most of FoodMaven’s meat and produce for sale is not imperfect or oversupply, but since about 15% is, the company is able to price food at a 30% discount or more, Deda said. 

And it’s been accelerating growth to reach its goal. It’s taken on investors who’ve put in at least $18.6 million in two years. It opened a distribution center in Denver last year and is expanding to the Dallas area in 2020. It acquired Denver-based Anderson Boneless Beef in January so it would have a local meat-processing center. The purchase meant the company’s overall “impact food” sales shrunk to 15% of overall sales. Deda wants to get that number to 50%.

The growth has garnered some critics. In an editorial last April, Colorado rancher Mike Callicrate, an advocate for local farms, wrote in The Colorado Springs Independent that FoodMaven is forcing lower prices on local producers that “will only make it more difficult to re-localize, re-humanize and regenerate healthy food systems in the long run.”

Deda said FoodMaven, which now employs 74 people, offers small farms and ranchers access to distribution they didn’t have before. The company promotes the local brand in its marketplace and on packaging so buyers know where the meat and produce is coming from.

Dry sweet sopressata, an Italian dry salami, was cured for months in a process that could last indefinitely in a refrigerator. But as it approached a manufacturer’s use-by date, it made its way to FoodMaven, which can resell it to chefs who can get a discount and use the sausage so it doesn’t go to waste. (Seth McConnell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“For local suppliers that already have existing distribution and don’t have any oversupply or imperfect products, we may not be a good fit,” Deda said. “For those that struggle to find distribution or that want to generate additional revenue from product they aren’t selling today we can be a great additional outlet.”

Sous chef Matt Butler at Colorado College’s campus dining system understands lower prices can affect suppliers,  but said he returned to FoodMaven as a customer in the past year because he had to get his program’s costs under control and keep prices affordable for college students on a budget. (“I can’t just go crazy and say this is a $37 hamburger,” he said.) He didn’t want to cut employee hours either. If he can get chicken for less than what the same local chicken farm charges, he has a fiscal and moral responsibility to do so.  

“I tend to use the phrase food morality,” said Butler, who works for Colorado College’s food service contractor Bon Appétit Management Company. “There’s no shortage of homeless people walking by the campus and let’s face it, I’ve got a certain number of employees here that are working poor. It kind of hit me that I have to do as much as I can to do right by not only my employees but by the food we’re bringing in.”

Colorado College in Colorado Springs gets a report card from FoodMaven each month to show how the school’s food ordering has helped reduce food waste. This is the 2019 report so far, as of mid-November 2019. (Provided by FoodMaven)

Saving money with FoodMaven has allowed him to spend more on locally-sourced food, he said. Plus, FoodMaven’s distribution system exposed him to new vendors.

“I had a spice guy that was literally right down the street from me that I would have never known about but he popped up on the Mavens,” Butler said. “I buy a few of his products and then before you know it, I’m picking up the phone calling him and saying, ‘Hey, I’m right down the road.’ We’re working out a deal.”

Employees at the Colorado Springs college liked the sustainability too, he said. Every month, FoodMaven shares the school’s impact.

“My team just loves the idea and every month they go, ‘Chef, have the numbers come out?’ Yes, and we fed this many people, this many dollars went to local purveyors and we kept this much food out of the landfill,” said Butler, who now regularly buys 75% of his proteins from FoodMaven. “It became a thing where I actually started posting it in my cafe and the students were like, ‘This is awesome.’”

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...