In our history, local food drives, collecting nonperishables purchased by community members, were a vital part of filling the shelves in Our Neighbors’ Table’s food pantries. Early partnerships with local stores like Stop & Shop and Vermette’s yielded a trunk full of surplus bread or desserts. But for most of our 27 years, most of our food came either from food drives, direct purchases or from a food bank. Today, things look a little differently. More than 25% of the food that stocks our markets is “rescued” from local retailers and wholesalers, redirected from landfills to our shelves and ultimately to neighbors who can really use it.
Our Neighbors’ Table, based in Amesbury, has been providing dignified food assistance to northeastern Essex County since 1992. In 2016, we turned the traditional food pantry model on its head, replacing it with a one-of-a-kind grocery market that guests and community members have likened to Stop & Shop or Whole Foods. In 2018, more than 4,000 people living in the greater Newburyport area shopped for groceries in our markets, now located in Amesbury, Newburyport and Merrimac. In 2018 we declared Amesbury a Food-Secure City and now set our sights on doing the same in Salisbury, Merrimac and Newburyport by the end of 2020.
While serving our neighbors in need is our primary mission, “rescuing” food and being good stewards of our land has also become an important part of our operation. Here are just a few of the ways ONT is lessening the impact of waste on our environment.
- Keeping food out of landfills. Every year, the US food system throws out billions of pounds of perfectly good food. These foods are rejected because of packaging, restrictive guidelines and because we’ve been trained to only take a perfectly red apple. Since January, 1, 2019, ONT has already diverted 250,000 pounds of high quality, wholesome food (mostly meats, vegetables, and other valuable perishables) from the landfill to our market shelves.
- Minimizing our own waste. ONT partners with local pig farmers for food waste and recycles its paper, metal and plastic waste. We are selective about the food donations we accept and work to educate our volunteers, donors and guests on the truth about “ugly” fruits and vegetables. We hope this will foster their own smarter shopping as well.
- Minimizing household waste. Traditional food pantries often ration and pre-determine the selection of foods. This approach actually encourages shoppers to stockpile from week to week until they have enough of an item to have enough to feed a family. At ONT, shoppers are welcomed to take what and how much they need and can trust that the food supply is consistent and accessible every week. As a result, guests have reduced the amount of food they take each week by over 10% and, most importantly, they use everything they take.
- Incentivizing re-usable bags. Like everyone else, we also hate plastic shopping bags. But not everyone can afford re-usable bags – and sometimes we just forget them at home! We’ve distributed thousands of re-usable bags and use fun incentives like gift card raffles to encourage our shoppers to bring them each week. We’re a long way from the finish line, but I’d guess we’ve since cut our use of plastic bags by more than 50%.
There’s still a long way to go for the mainstream food industry, from restaurants to grocery store patrons, to become better shoppers and reduce waste in our food supply chain. For now, ONT has been able to put that surplus and rejected food to good use. I’d also like to think we can serve as a model for us all to change the way we take food for granted and lessen our own footprints in the vast land of food waste.