This issue of Yakima Magazine celebrates food. Essential for survival, we can’t live long without it. But food is much more than nutrients and calories. For millenniums and across all cultures, food is used to mark important milestones, build relationships, show love, offer comfort. Coming together to share a meal as we count our blessings is a universal pleasure and tradition.

At the same time, the Washington State Department of Agriculture points out a disturbing paradox. Approximately 40% of the food grown in the U.S. is thrown away. This comes at a time when 1 in 6 Washington residents are turning to their local food bank, food pantry, or meal program for food assistance. The WSDA acknowledges that a small portion of what’s discarded is indeed actual waste, like peels, seeds, cores and rinds. However, most of it is good food that could safely be eaten.

It’s impossible to point a finger at who is most responsible. Waste is generated at every point in the food system. It can happen at the farm and in the processing facility, or while it’s in transport to consumers. Food is wasted everywhere it’s found. And that’s not just in grocery stores, restaurants, and institutions like hospitals and schools. We’re all guilty. The WSDA reports that the average American wastes over 200 pounds of food each year.

Wasted food emptied into the garbage can usually ends up at the landfill. As the food decomposes, methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is produced. If you add the farmland, water and fertilizer used in growing food that is never used, the environmental impact is even more staggering.

It helps to know that the picture may be not as bleak in Yakima County. In a point-in-time survey in 2015, it was estimated that 14.5 percent of the garbage coming into the landfill facility in Terrace Heights was food waste. No one is certain why we waste less than the national average. It could be because, as a rural community, Yakima County residents have more options to reuse food waste, such as feeding it to livestock or composting it.

Reducing the volume of surplus food generated at the source is the most preferred method of dealing with food waste. Until that happens, redistributing surplus food to feed hungry people is the next best thing. When produce, bakery and other perishable items no longer meet grocery store standards, they’re pulled from shelves. Since grocery stores aren’t in the business of food donation, and many local food banks don’t have the staff or volunteers to conduct outreach with retailers, the Yakima Union Gospel Mission takes care of the logistics, rescuing high-quality food that was destined to be discarded.

Staffers and volunteers pick up surplus food from a network of generous area partners. Collaborating with Second Harvest, it gets distributed to local food banks and feeding programs, including those at YUGM. The YUGM alone served 123,633 meals in 2020, made exclusively from rescued and donated food. It’s estimated it takes $11 in groceries to feed an American for a day, or an average of $3.66 for a meal. That adds up to nearly $452,500 worth of food that the YUGM was able to use.

A large truck leaves the YUGM six days a week, making pick-ups from a roster of grocery store partners. I rode along on one with Buzz Rowe and David Taylor, two longtime volunteer drivers who clearly love their work and are committed to their mission. At each stop, store employees had carts of donations for the day piled in shopping carts, ready for us to load. There were cases of frozen pizza, dozens of pies and bakery items, yogurt and cheese, and crates of fresh fruits and vegetables. On Oct. 2, the YUGM truck picked up more than 1,000 pounds of food.

Additionally, the YUGM can quickly respond to “one-time” donations from an array of sources. For example, a local trucking company with a trailer full of undeliverable food can call the YUGM for a timely food rescue.

The spacious food storage warehouse on the YUGM’s North First Street campus was stocked with pallets of food, stacked high, the morning I visited. Staff member Allysia Woodward noted that almost everything in the refrigeration unit would be gone by the end of the day. After assessing what’s needed to feed clients at the Mission, the surplus is quickly redirected to other feeding programs and local food banks. On the day of my ride-along, volunteers from the Seventh-day Adventist church would pick up what we had collected for their food bank. Other food banks, including Rotary and St. Vincent de Paul, receive regular donations from the YUGM.

When produce is less than fresh, or donated items have outlasted their shelf life, it’s still considered useful. The YUGM has a list of local residents who pick up what’s left and feed it to their livestock.

The need for a hot meal in a safe environment, without judgment or discrimination, is often a client’s most pressing reason for coming to the YUGM. This makes the meal services program a critical gateway to other support services. The YUGM offers low-barrier access to food as an open invitation for shelter, medical care, addiction recovery, job skills training and permanent housing. Kids are engaged through meal programs at Madison House.

A compassionate, creative and enthusiastic kitchen staff of professionals and volunteers takes pride in serving delicious home-cooked hot meals (take a look at their menu), three times a day, every day of the year (two meals on Sundays). They take their vocations seriously, and offer heartfelt testimony that there are few personal experiences more satisfying than preparing and serving a meal to someone in need. It’s a win-win-win for retailers, our fragile environment and the needy in our community.

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