In the full light of a bright January day, Kelzee Tibbetts and Hannah Volkman stride out of the Seward Community Co-op with food they haven’t purchased. Their recycled cardboard box brims with slightly sagging greens and gently roughed-up turnips. There are pockmarked potatoes and ruby-colored pomegranate seeds.
“I’m always amazed how much beautiful food doesn’t make it off the shelf,” says Volkman, “because we all go for the prettiest, shiniest apple and shy away from the tiniest bruise. All of this could have gone in the trash.”
Instead, they’ll transport the produce to a pantry in the nearby Pillsbury United Communities of Cedar Riverside. As founders of TC Food Justice, the two women, along with third founder Sam Friedrichsen, collect edibles that are expired or otherwise undesirable, and deliver them to hunger-fighting organizations.
Where bigger operations like Second Harvest Heartland partner with large grocery stores like Cub Foods, distributing millions of pounds of food each year, TC Food Justice fills in the gaps, visiting co-ops, farmers markets, and bakeries. They box up fruit, vegetables, and bread to deliver to neighborhood pantries and community kitchens.
“If it’s good enough to feed your mother, we take it,” Volkman says as she sorts through donations in the Seward co-op kitchen. Co-op employees get first dibs on expired or unattractive items, but whatever is left is ripe for the taking.
The founders met in the Masters of Public Health program at the University of Minnesota, where in 2015, they watched an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about food waste in the United States.
“It doesn’t make sense that there’s all this food waste and all this hunger in the U.S.,” says Tibbetts. By 2016, they had alchemized their outrage into action, creating a nonprofit and building a network of partners and volunteers. Today, they have 58 active volunteers and conduct 15 to 20 food rescues each week, stocking larders across the Twin Cities. There are 11 “staff members,” but it’s still a volunteer-run organization. “Headquarters is my kitchen table,” says Volkman.
TC Food Justice has grown substantially. In 2018, they rescued around 40,000 pounds of food from the landfill—more than the previous two years combined. This year they’re on track for 50,000 pounds. Eventually, the group hopes to have consistent access to refrigerator space so they can rescue more food and store it overnight, and add meat and dairy and other perishable products to their haul. And they’d like to purchase more bike trailers and encourage pedal-powered rescues to reduce their carbon footprint.
The impact is immediate: The food goes directly into cooked meals or home with patients from Ramsey County Mental Health Services. It feels good, but at the same time, Volkman says, “We don’t want to come across as ‘savior-y.’ There’s food that needs to be delivered, so we deliver it.”
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