Food Rescue Ride Connects Denver Communities With Free, Fresh Produce

Fresh produce makes its way across the city by bicycle.
Fresh produce makes its way across the city by bicycle.
Denver Food Rescue

Denver Food Rescue gets fresh produce to Denverites in need by making a simple connection: It gets food that would otherwise go to waste from grocery stores and takes it to community organizations across the city. It's like a food bank without the warehouse, with a bicycle delivery system instead of trucks. Bicycles are also key to the group's marquee fundraiser, the Food Rescue Ride, a bike jaunt that kicks off this Saturday, August 13, at 8 a.m. at Cherry Creek State Park in Aurora.

Since it's a ride rather than a race, all levels and ages of cyclists are welcome. Cyclists can choose between fifteen- and thirty-mile rides, and new this year is the option of pulling a hundred pounds of soil (which will later be donated to local school gardens) to simulate a food rescue volunteer’s weekly delivery of produce. In advance of the fundraiser, Westword spoke with Denver Food Rescue's marketing and development coordinator Amy Moore about what this organization does. 

Westword: Cycling plays a big role in what Denver Food Rescue does throughout the year. Can you talk about that?

Amy Moore: At the center of our food redistribution operation, we use bicycles for a couple of reasons. For one, it's cheaper than having a vehicle, so we use bicycles to keep our costs down. We started really grassroots; we've only had paid staff for about a year and a half, but have been doing food pick-up and delivery in Denver since 2012. We also think about the environment — a lot of times, the communities we're taking food to are already experiencing pollution issues or what is called environmental racism. That means that low-income people of color often live in areas affected by pollution from nearby factories or production industries. Globeville is a great example, or any of the Superfund sites located around Colorado. Using bicycles to deliver food is another way to lower that impact. 

This kind of gets into how food distribution actually works, but the direct model is what makes us able to save more food. Look at a traditional food bank or hunger-relief organization that uses cars or trucks — they go around and pick up food. They take that produce or canned or boxed food back to their warehouse and sort it, and then either have it at a food bank or deliver it to another pantry.... Oftentimes, produce goes bad during this process because it takes a good amount of time to get it where it needs to go.

When we pick up food, we take it directly from the grocery store to the no-cost grocery program, and it's used within a couple of hours or up to two days. We're able to save more food and get more free food to people that way — and bikes make that possible. We have nine trailers that volunteers use for multiple shifts of food delivery every day. That and bikes are more fun!

An average load that a Denver Food Rescue volunteer pulls with a bicycle on a weekly run.
An average load that a Denver Food Rescue volunteer pulls with a bicycle on a weekly run.
Denver Food Rescue

Since Denver Food Rescue has no central warehouse, does that mean you work with grocery stores in specific areas in the city to serve the communities closest to that food?

Right. We have a garage where we keep the trailers in Capitol Hill, so that's central. We've also recently expanded to the Montbello community and were able to set up a place to store our trailers in that area so our volunteers from that community can use them.

My perception of a food bank is that it's a place that mostly works with non-perishable food items. It sounds like the Denver Food Rescue model is different in that it focuses on fresh produce, especially in areas with corner stores or gas stations but no grocery stores.

Our mission is to increase health equity in Denver, which is the bigger picture. But if people want different kinds of foods, literal whole foods, they can have a harder time accessing them. So you're right in that food banks don't traditionally have that. Also, there's the barrier for communities that need to find a way to get to a full-service grocery store because of the food-desert status, and that's why we are picking the particular neighborhoods that we work with.

Since the end game would be to eventually get full-service grocery stores in these areas, where does Denver Food Rescue see itself in that process?

Our director, Turner Wyatt, is on the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council, and we have a partnership with them on the healthy-corner-store initiative — figuring out a way to get food to those places. What happens with corner stores is that they are often independent places and can't afford to buy a pallet of anything, let alone sell-through produce in time, before it goes bad. We're working on trying to be able to buy a pallet of something from a distributor ourselves and break it up and distribute it to corner stores. We're trying to change a little bit of what purchasing power would look like in the community if we couldn't get a grocery store there.

Partner community organizations help Denver Food Rescue fill community food needs.
Partner community organizations help Denver Food Rescue fill community food needs.
Denver Food Rescue

Denver Food Rescue partners with community organizations in the areas where you deliver food to make sure you're connecting with the right people and through channels that have a direct connection to that community. What are these partner organizations, and how do those relationships come about?

The most important thing for us is that we never reach out to the community; we want to the community to reach out to us. We don't want to go in and tell people how to be healthier; we want to be respectful and culturally appropriate. We want to work with a community that's already working toward demanding better access. A lot of times we're focused on where people already go — like picking up their kids from school. So, for instance, we work with no-cost grocery-store programs already established at schools. We work with two different boys' and girls' clubs and after-school programs in Five Points. We work with the Growhaus, which does huge food work; we work with the Birdseed Collective. We're not using any of our staff or volunteers for any of that, because we want it to be appropriate for the community.

These are places or programs that the community trusts.... No one has to sign in or sign up; it's all anonymous. Every other quarter or so, we try to do a survey to get some data together for fundraising, but we really want it to be the most community-driven program without stigma. That's another thing about food banks: We found that sometimes they weren't even located in the communities that needed it, so people had to leave their community to get food. There's a stigma with waiting in line for food and it being, like, a can of creamed corn from someone's holiday drive.

What is the frequency of food deliveries to these community organizations and programs from Denver Food Rescue? Can you walk through what the process looks like from the grocery pick-up to the delivery?

Some community organizations and programs have us come two times a week, but most of the time it's once a week: same time, same place. Then it's up to our staff to coordinate with the grocery stores that are donating. For instance, we'll always pick up food from a Sprouts location on a Saturday at 10 a.m.; that way volunteers know that they need to be there with the trailer. They bike that food at the same time every week to the same organization; that way our volunteers know they have the same route and same shift each time.

Sometimes organizations will reach out to us and say, hey, it's spring break, and we know a lot of kids will be going home instead of being at school for lunch — would we be able to get an extra hundred pounds? Then we look at our schedule and maybe redirect a hundred pounds of food based on availability.

On the grocery-store end, what sorts of food are you getting from them, and why would they be coming to a food-relief organization?

Great question. That's what got me involved initially: I was working at a grocery store and saw how much food was going to waste. At the grocery-store level, produce comes to Denver Food Rescue because it gets bruised or it’s slightly wilted. As the consumer, we have this idea that when we walk into a grocery store, the produce aisle is supposed to look a certain way — gorgeous and perfect. But the thing is, because of that consumer expectation, a vegetable that looks a little off just gets pulled from the shelves.

The other thing is, if a new order of food comes in, often grocers pull what's there and put out the new produce. Every grocery store is different, but in my experience with working for a big chain, most food that doesn't look perfect doesn't sell. Denver Food Rescue does take some prepared foods and some other things, but most of it is produce. We also take things that are affected by "sell by" or "eat by" dates, which is also being addressed on a bigger level. Some people are working on figuring out how, on a systematic level, we reduce food waste for everyone — and one of the things with that is the "sell by" and "eat by" dates.

It's alarming what food gets thrown away and how good the food that gets thrown away is. So much food is perfectly edible, it just doesn't look perfect — but there are people who need it and want it, so it shouldn't be thrown away.

The second annual Food Rescue Ride rolls out at 8 a.m.  Saturday, August 13, at Cherry Creek State Park; riders are asked to meet at the Smoky Hill Parking Area. Registration is $150 for adults, $100 for kids, and breakfast and lunch will be provided free to riders by local food trucks Manna From Heaven and Arepas House; brand-new bicycles and trailers will be given away in a raffle at the end of the ride. BYO bike or rent one on site from Bicycle Doctor starting at $17; those wishing to do the thirty-mile trailer pull must supply their own trailers. Cyclists are encouraged to go bananas and dress up as their favorite fruit or vegetable. For more information or to register, visit the Denver Food Rescue or call 720-675-7337.

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