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Keeping food out of the landfill

by Sophie Albert
| March 20, 2024 12:00 AM

It’s 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning at the North Valley Food Bank.

One of our tireless food rescue squad members, Donnie, starts the NVFB van for the daily rescue mission to our local grocery stores. Our food rescue volunteers are essential to the success of our operations and on most days operate quietly before dawn. 

Their Wednesday route, for example, includes food pick-ups at Safeway, Super 1, Starbucks and Third Street Market. Routes on other days have additional stops, such as Costco, Markus Foods and Montana Coffee Traders. We are grateful for all of these businesses to participate in the food rescue program that keeps thousands of pounds of high-quality food that is close to its expiration date out of the landfill every year. 

In 2023, our rescue drivers, who are all consistent volunteers, rescued a total of 207,109 pounds of food. Across the country, food pantries in partnership with Feeding America rescued four billion pounds of groceries. 

By 8.30 a.m., Donnie has completed his round and returns with hundreds of pounds of produce, baked goods, dairy, meat and other food items. We never know ahead of time what arrives on any certain day. Sometimes, it could be two pallets of milk. Other times, it could be only a few boxes of tomatoes and avocados. 

Back at NVFB, our volunteers and the Warehouse Coordinator, Katama Vorsheim, are ready to start their gleaning shift. Three days a week, they sort the rescue food in order to ensure we only provide items that are healthy for consumption through our distribution services. Food safe for human consumption is then separated into food bins with time stamps to ensure we have a similar variety of food available during all grocery store hours. Expired and moldy food items are composted. 

On the days we don’t distribute food through our Whitefish services, NVFB still ensures that our rescue food makes it to the table of someone in need. Lauren Jarrold, our Director of Operations, and Larry Vanmersbergen, our Driver, established an efficient strategy for mobile pantries and rural pantry deliveries. 

Every Friday, our rescue food goes to our mobile pantry customers in Trego. Food rescued on weekdays, when we do not host an on-site distribution or mobile pantry, is immediately delivered to and given out by a partner rural pantry. When you see our truck around town, Larry is likely on his way to one of our partner pantries: FAST Blackfeet in Browning, the Tobacco Valley Food Pantry in Eureka, the Troy Food Pantry, the Libby Food Pantry, or the Yaak Food Cupboard. 

Since January of this year, NVFB has an exciting new strategy to rescue even more food that would have been composted previously. Rachael Broom, our Culinary Arts Manager, has been experimenting with transforming rescue food into delicious meals for our customers. Some highlights included a mushroom quinoa soup, pesto from salad mixes, and all things bananas, including banana pancakes, banana carrot soup, banana peel pulled BBQ “meat” and banana ketchup.

Lastly, NVFB works closely with local farmers and Dirt Rich to divert food waste. In 2023, we composted 21,211 pounds of food at our facility. If you haven’t heard of Dirt Rich, check out their website dirtrichcompost.com. They do an incredible job reducing waste in our communities. Last year, they diverted more than 870,000 pounds of organic material back towards local soils.

Join us in reducing food waste in our communities. Pick up a rescue, gleaning, or culinary volunteer shift and help us transform food. Get creative with your leftover foods. Or compost at home or sign up for a weekly food scrap pick up service with Dirt Rich.

Sophie Albert is director of the North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish.