Nothing wasted

Features - Operations Focus: Organics

We Don’t Waste of Denver has successfully recovered millions of pounds of food destined for landfill and redistributed it to people in need.

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September 4, 2019

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Of all the times to start up a nonprofit organization, most would not venture to do so on the brink of a major economic recession.

But in 2009, “right when the economy was in freefall,” Arlan Preblud says he began noticing a trend when he volunteered for nonprofit agencies that provided meals to those in need. The agencies were struggling to keep their funding, demand for meals was ever increasing as more people fell on hard times, and all the while, food waste continued to pile up.

“As a foodie, I started asking people in the restaurants I visited what they do with the food at the end of the evening. They said they had to discard it,” Preblud says.

Preblud soon realized that the problems were primarily caused not by a lack of possible solutions, but by a lack of streamlined services neatly tying the issues together to tackle them all at once.

Preblud’s involvement in nonprofits soon transformed into establishing his own called We Don’t Waste. Based in Denver, the organization collects uneaten food from restaurants, caterers and other establishments and redistributes it to organizations that provide free meals.

Since its founding in 2009, the organization has done more than provide tens of millions of meals to those in need—it has also made a significant environmental impact, all of which is tracked fastidiously by Preblud and his staff of 10.

Food with integrity

As the seedling of Preblud’s idea began to take root, he discovered chefs would be willing to donate uneaten food if they had the resources available to do so.

“Chefs and cooks across the board hate to throw food away,” Preblud says. “That [thought helped begin] the process of developing some systems and checking what regulations I’d have to overcome.”

Preblud says his largest challenge when starting up was fear of liability. It’s a common problem among food donors—in a national survey conducted by America’s Second Harvest, more than 80 percent of the companies surveyed responded that the threat of liability for food-related injuries was their greatest deterrent for not donating excess food.

However, Preblud found that as long as reasonable steps were taken to maintain the integrity of food, both he and the donor would have liability protections from the national Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996.

“I used that as the answer to any food donor. I told them there is no liability as long as they do everything necessary to protect the product,” Preblud says.

With that, Preblud was in business. From his Volvo station wagon, he says he “put the seats down, bought a tarp at Home Depot and started calling caterers.” Many entities Preblud contacted began keeping their unused food, labeling it and storing it in their fridge for him to pick up.

Preblud’s operations quickly grew from working with caterers and restaurants to larger food generators, such as sports stadiums and arenas. Some days, We Don’t Waste staff is constantly on the move tracking pallet donations and delivering them to one of nearly 60 different community agencies the organization works with. On others, volunteers are scanning kitchens in the suites of the Denver Broncos Stadium at Mile High in search of unpurchased wings, pork tenderloin and other game-time grub to repackage and redistribute.

The We Don’t Waste staff also coordinates regularly with the nonprofit agencies on the opposite end of the receiving line to assure they do their part in maintaining the integrity of the food. Everyone on We Don’t Waste’s staff is certified to handle food by ServSafe, a food and beverage safety training and certificate program administered by the National Restaurant Association.

“When we get a call from an agency that wants to participate, we send staff out to do a site visit to make sure they have the proper storage and utensils, they maintain polices and they follow strict guidelines,” Preblud says. Once that happens, the agency gives staff an idea of how many servings it typically needs, and the staff gets to work trying to meet that need.

Coordinating between taking food in and distributing it to those who need it is a delicate balancing act of supply and demand that requires the staff to determine where each product should go without draining inventory.

“If we don’t get fruits and veggies in today, we won’t be able to put fruits and veggies out tomorrow,” Preblud says. “We have to be nimble in recognizing what we do have, who can use it and what we put out.”

Data tracking

Managing the wealth of food coming in and being redistributed out from We Don’t Waste is only possible through meticulous data tracking, Preblud says.

We Don’t Waste uses Salesforce software to track the details of each donation it receives, including the number of servings, when it perishes, when it was delivered and its value.

This data has two uses. The first is to give a receipt to the donors, which they can use for tax records. The second, and perhaps most vital to the operation, is to track the constant influx of inventory to maintain food quality and assure minimal waste.

Preblud’s staff uses the data to color-code each donation received based on its shelf stability. Pantry items that are shelf-stable, for example, are coded green, while food that needs to go out in less than five days is coded red.

Just a few years ago, We Don’t Waste didn’t need to keep such detailed inventory records. As the organization had no warehouse, all food needed to be redistributed the same day it was picked up. But in November 2017, the team finally found a space to call home—an 11,500-square-foot distribution center with 1,000 square feet of refrigeration and two freezers.

“Each morning, the staff goes into the computer and looks exactly at what we have in the warehouse, how much we have and where it is with getting [shipped] out. For example, if we’ve got five pallets of product and take two out today, the computer shows there are three pallets left,” Preblud says. “Before this facility, we didn’t have to worry about inventory because it went out the same day. Now, we know exactly what we have at any given moment.”

For more detailed data tracking, We Don’t Waste also uses a program called Domo that assesses the environmental impact of donations. In addition to detailing exactly what food the donors provided, Preblud provides donors with a Domo report, which outlines the carbon dioxide equivalent they diverted from landfill, how much water they saved and more.

“Not only are we providing stakeholders with information on what they’ve donated to us, but they’re also provided information pertaining to the total impact of their donation,” Preblud says. “We think that’s a very valuable piece of our organization.”

The future of food

We Don’t Waste has come a long way since Preblud began hauling food in his station wagon a decade ago. The organization now works with nearly 150 food donors and reaches roughly 100 different community agencies around the Denver area.

Since 2018, the organization has provided nearly 33 million servings of food to about 200,000 individuals.

In addition to the warehouse, We Don’t Waste now has three refrigerated trucks to transport inventory.

They’re additions that have been instrumental in the organization’s fight against both food insecurity and food waste. According to estimates, 63 million tons of edible food are sent to landfill each year. Preblud is working to change that by targeting not only excess food, but also food that never made it to the consumer stream to begin with because of its appearance or other minor issues.

For example, Preblud says he recently received a call from a company with an 18-wheeler “packed with fresh produce” that was destined for a distribution center. When the dock master checked the temperature of the first two pallets loaded on the truck, they weren’t up to code and couldn’t be sold. But even though the other 25 pallets of food on the truck were an adequate temperature, the dock master declined the entire shipment.

“That happens, unfortunately, all too regularly,” Preblud says.

In another case, several pallets of water bottles that were destined for a casino were headed to a landfill instead, all because they were mislabeled with an incorrect logo.

In both cases, Preblud recovered the imperfect but edible products and redistributed them within days.

Another venture Preblud is working on is mobile food markets. Preblud has begun taking one of the organization’s trucks to a local food desert—an area of a community where nutritious food has scant availability—and sets up banquet tables with shelf stables, fresh produce, dairy and protein. “Folks take whatever they need, and we don’t charge for any of it,” Preblud says.

Even after a decade of operations, We Don’t Waste is continuously working to overcome pain points related to food and fiscal sustainability in the region.

“We have to compete with other nonprofits in the community, but as you grow, you become more nimble with that,” Preblud says. “You build within your organization the key people you need to facilitate development of grants and the like.”

The organization’s continuing perseverance has paid off. It recently received a Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce 2019 Business Award for Large Nonprofit of the Year. But for Preblud, We Don’t Waste’s greatest accomplishment to date has not been the recognition, but instead its service to the community.

“I think the proudest accomplishment for me is the fact that we took an easy and obvious need and found a supply,” Preblud says. “Now, that supply meets that need on an everyday basis so that we’re feeding more and more people, we’re recovering more and more product, and we’re keeping it out of the landfill.”

The author is the assistant editor for Waste Today magazine and can be reached at tcottom@gie.net.