Every year, billions of pounds of food is wasted across the country, but Austin’s Keep Austin Fed is one of dozens of food recovery organization working to stem the tide. What started as a grassroots organization in 2004 has grown to a network of food contributors, volunteers, and nonprofit recipients working together to keep food out of landfills and into the hands of the hungry. Last week, Keep Austin Fed hit a milestone of three million pounds of recovered food.
Moving recovered food quickly is the key. Recovered food tends to be perishable items like produce and unserved, professionally prepared food from events or corporate lunches. Strict rules around what could be considered recoverable food keep them from accepting most home-cooked meals, but within what it does recover, “There’s a little bit of everything,” said Lisa Barden, program director. “A lot of produce, frozen meat, dairy, cheese.” Volunteers pick up food from about 50 locations each week including Trader Joe’s, Snap Kitchen, Upper Crust Bakery, Chick-fil-A and others. They then deliver it immediately to other nonprofits like Foundation Communities, AIDS Services of Austin, Casa Marienella, SAFE Alliance, local food pantries and many more.
“One of the great things about Keep Austin Fed is that our partners can worry less about spending their resources on food for their clients,” said Barden. “Their primary mission is something other than feeding them, so we can fill that void.”
With a staff of just one full-time person and two part-time people, Keep Austin Fed handles partnerships, logistics, outreach, and more, so the work of actually making the 70-75 food runs a week falls to more than 170 volunteers. After going through a training that includes receiving a food handler’s permit and a practice run, volunteers sign up for a food run on their own, using their own cars to make the trip. Keep Austin Fed also has an intake person who responds to calls from potential food donors and reaches out to volunteers for help.
Barden says more volunteers and businesses with eager employees would help them recover more food, and that there’s much more food out there to be recovered. She also points out that there are more hungry people in Austin than people think. In its most recently reported data from 2016, the City of Austin reports that 15.2 percent of the population is food insecure or about 150,000 people. This includes those experiencing homelessness but also those adults and children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“A lot of people think it’s just homeless people. That’s what we picture when we think of someone who’s hungry,” said Barden. “But it’s so many more people that that. It’s people choosing between paying the rent and buying food.”