Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County is a prominent organization in Ithaca that many know is excelling in feeding the hungry, but are not aware of the impressive strides they are making behind the scenes. Located at 210 North Cayuga Street, this Christian ministry has been serving free meals and providing advocacy to those in need, regardless of one’s faith, beliefs or circumstances, since 1983. While they have been successful in this mission of feeding the poor – serving nearly 2,700 meals per month (loaves.org) – many have not appreciated the strides the organization has made in reducing food waste.
In the US, it is estimated that we waste between 30% and 40% of our food each year, according to the FDA. This has economic, environmental and social implications. In 2010, for example, this cost Americans $161 billion (FDA), wasted the energy used to grow the food, and led to increased methane released into the atmosphere. Not to mention the hungry people to whom the food could have been served. Our community is no exception, as shown by the amount of food sent to landfills each year, and the large number of hungry people Loaves and Fishes serves each week.
Loaves and Fishes does a lot to reduce food waste beyond accepting donations from local businesses and organizations. I visited the organization last week where I enjoyed a delicious meal and talked to one of the kitchen managers, Katy Noonan. Katy talked about how Loaves and Fishes plans the meals, especially regarding portions. Based on previous meals, they create estimations of the expected crowd, and plan their portions accordingly. Other logistics they must consider include food safety and the number of times dishes can be reheated. The nutritional value of the food they are serving is also important in reaching their goal of feeding people. Katy said they consider seasonal variety to cook healthy, nutritious meals. This also makes for a lower carbon footprint. In fact, she mentioned that the chili I had recently enjoyed for dinner was made with local tomatoes and vegetables.
Next, Katy and I headed downstairs for a quick tour of the storage room which included a large pantry and walk-in refrigerator. Much of the food was donated from local grocery stores, farms or restaurants and all looked high quality. She explained that having enough food is almost never an issue for Loaves and Fishes. The hard part is the logistics of putting a meal together. It must be as healthy as possible while using the available food thoughtfully and in a timely manner so as to waste the least. Thus, information about the donated food, such as when it was harvested and when and how it was prepared, is paramount to guarantee its safety and freshness. At the end of the evening, as the kitchen crew was cleaning up, one of the other employees proudly showed me the amount of food left from the meal: a small metal container of chili and salad. All unusable food scraps are composted at the end of the night, so very little ends up in a landfill.
I was surprised at how efficient the organization was at both producing healthy meals and conserving it. They went beyond normal restaurant or at-home operations by not cooking to have abundance or surplus, but by cooking enough food for everyone to have a full stomach. With food waste being such an important issue in society today, we need more organizations like Loaves and Fishes to lead the way in reducing waste while providing more.
You can make a monetary or food donation to Loaves and Fishes by following the instructions on their website, https://loaves.org/ways-to-give/donate-now/. You can also volunteer by following the instructions at the following link: https://loaves.org/volunteer/how-to-volunteer/.