Large institutions including schools and hospitals throw away tons of healthy, uneaten food every day. Most of this wasted food ends up in landfills where it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. At the same time, nearly 12% of Alameda County residents live in households that are food insecure. DSAL, Dig Deep Farms, ALL IN Alameda County, and Stop Waste are partnering to address these issues and fix this wasteful system. Together, they are leading a massive food recovery effort that rescues healthy, uneaten food and then repackages and delivers it to residents in need. We recently sat down with two Dig Deep Farms (DDF) team members: Marquez Byers, DSAL’s Warehouse and Food Recovery Manager, and Etsub Senshaw, DSAL’s Food Recovery Coordinator, to learn more about the intricacies of DSAL’s food recovery initiative and to get a behind-the-scenes understanding of the operation.
DSAL: How would you describe the food recovery operation in the simplest terms? Etsub: We reach out to partner organizations to understand the type of foods that they have to offer, and we coordinate with them to pick up the food, bring it back to the Food Hub, weigh it, and take pictures of it. There’s data for everything that comes in and out of the Food Hub. Then, we recover what we can. Sometimes there’s food we can’t use, so we compost it or find another home for it, like farms. And then we get in contact with people who need the food. We have drivers who deliver the food to them. The bags of food that we are giving out—we call them produce bags—usually include a mix of greens, fruits, and dry goods like pasta or rice, pretty much everything that you would get from a grocery store. Marquez: Sometimes we get little treats and snacks, but we try to feed families with the healthiest food we can possibly get. That’s what we mean by “produce bags.” The bags are usually filled with 75% or more produce items, and then we add some dry goods. If we have a little treat, we'll throw that on top. But the goal is always to get them the healthiest food we can possibly get our hands on. DSAL: Where does the food come from? Etsub: Some of the locations who provide us with regular donations include Hope for the Heart, Alameda County Food Bank, Daily Bowl, San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, Vesta Foods, the Oakland Unified School District, the San Leandro Unified School District, the Alameda County Food bank, local farmers markets such as the Newark Farmers Market, and food distributors all over Alameda County. Currently, we’re working on getting food from hotels, airports, and other tier 2 locations. Marquez: Due to SB1383 (California’s mandatory food recycling law), restaurants, grocery stores, and places that sell food on a mass scale, now have to donate food that they would normally compost or discard. Instead of the food getting composted and tossed away like it normally does, we'll be able to recover the food and get it to the community. DSAL: Who receives the food? Marquez: Literally, whoever needs it. We give the food out to individual families throughout the week for pickups. They can pick up food throughout the week or at the food drive on Fridays. We also work as a middleman to other organizations that have communities of people that need food, like churches, community centers, senior centers, and places where they have their own community of people who need food. DSAL: Why is it important for people to start recovering the food instead of throwing it away? Marquez: Honestly, the amount of food that gets composted every year compared to the number of families that go hungry – it doesn't line up. There are a lot of families out there who could really use the food. And the food that's getting composted isn't getting composted because it's spoiled or because it's bad. It's usually getting composted because restaurants have time limits on how long they can keep their food, and then they have to get rid of it, which is where we come in and get that food to people who need it. DSAL: Do you have a favorite story about your work? Marquez: I have many, to be honest. There have been times where I've had people come up to the Food Hub and just express their gratitude for what we do and tell me their story and how what we’re doing is helping them. I love to help people, but I'm just doing my job. At the same time, it's literally putting smiles on people's faces. Two clients who come every week, ask for me every time they come. It's cool to know that people look forward to seeing me at my job because they know that I try to help them the best way that I can.
Etsub: Like Marquez, I really enjoy helping people in any way that I can. And I also know the struggles, having lived through it and since I know it first hand, you understand completely what some of these people and families are going through. The fact that I can help in any way – it doesn't matter what position I am in at Dig Deep Farms -- it just makes me feel better about my day. It gives me a good feeling and something to happily wake up to every morning. Our job is literally helping people. In my eyes, there's nothing better than that. DSAL: How does what you do on a day-to-day basis contribute to public safety? Marquez: The way I see it is that quality of life can literally determine the routes you take and decisions that you make. Something as small as putting a few meals on someone's table, and them knowing that they have food for the next few days, can really change a lot about a person's mindset. In my eyes, it helps overall with the safety of the community, because the more people that we have feeling healthy and happy and taken care of, the less upset people in the community will be. Etsub: I think it's also about being seen, because when you're going through struggles, only you know what's going on in your mind and the things that you face on a daily basis, and sometimes you feel alone. Sometimes you feel like people don't care, people don't see you. And I feel like another good thing about this job is having the ability to let people know that we're here, we see you, and we want to help—genuinely help. DSAL: Any final thoughts? Marquez: Food recovery is constantly changing. And I don't mean rules and regulations—I just mean what we have to do. It's nonstop, no matter what we're doing. No matter how good we're doing at our job, we can never slow down. It's always constantly evolving, so we're constantly working hard to make sure we stay ahead of the next curve. That's what I've noticed about this position since I've taken over.
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