Dave Richins

United Food Bank is a vital safety net for individuals and families throughout the East Valley and eastern Arizona who struggle economically.

That net was tested to the max during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we worked to distribute as much as five times our typical volume of food.

We’ve always taken our responsibility as stewards of food resources and donor funding seriously.

In 2020, we considered it through fresh eyes, recognizing that every pound of food is precious and we simply cannot afford to allow any of it to go to waste.

Our affiliation with the Valley’s premier prepared food-rescue organization, Waste Not, also prompted us in October 2020 to begin a pilot program to look more closely at our overall sustainability.

With their insight, we learned United Food Bank could be effective at turning over our food inventory more quickly and efficiently to maximize the amount of food we give to people in need.

We also made significant strides in formalizing and implementing strategies to move toward zero waste as an organization.

We committed to three key steps in that journey:

First, as the team at Waste Not analyzed our waste, they began identifying diversion opportunities to keep it from heading to landfills. Our partnership yielded tangible results very quickly:

  • In the first month, we set a goal of reducing trash going to the landfill by 30 percent from the same month as the previous year.  The team crushed the goal by reducing the food waste by over 79 percent! 
  • A key takeaway is our organization used to fill six bins of waste per week. Now we fill just one bin per week. This saved us more than $600 a month on waste removal costs, which helps fund more food to more people in need.
  • We donated 3,000 pounds of food to another agency prior to expiration which otherwise would have gone to the landfill.  This experience showed us how Waste Not can be used to move food to an agency who can distribute it more quickly than our distribution channels.
  • We diverted 4,939 pounds of food not usable for human consumption to local farms for animal feed instead of going to the landfill.

Second, we maximized our supply chain – in other words, we became a little pickier about the foods we accept.

 Not all of the food we receive is usable, leading to a fair amount of waste. We worked with our food donors to identify three streams of food: usable for hunger relief, animal feed, and compost. Now, foods that fall into the latter two categories go directly to organizations who can make good use of them.

Finally, we found recycle opportunities for the tremendous amount of packaging we receive. Right now, recycling is a tough business. Fortunately, we have clean cardboard that recyclers love. We started selling an estimated 900 pallets to a recycler for $2 per pallet.

We also found ways to reuse and recycle plastic packaging.

That’s just the beginning of our efforts. In 2021, we are exploring other ways to minimize our carbon footprint and reduce energy costs: 

  • We currently have a project underway to decrease the amount of diesel fuel we use by converting refrigerated trailers to electric power when they are parked on our parking lot and storing food.
  • United Food Bank is planning a partnership to utilize solar power.
  • We’re continuing to incentivize our team members to make recycling a high priority.

Setting a course for zero waste is a win/win proposition. Our experience is showing that it is beneficial to our environment, our community, and our ability to feed the hungry in our region.

Dave Richins is CEO of United Food Bank in Mesa.

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