Wasting food is a nationwide problem, but a local agency hopes to stop that practice in Cayuga and Seneca counties.
Christina Ehlers, director of food security at the Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency, is leading the Food Recovery Program, a new initiative funded by the state Department of Health's Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program. Following special handling regulations and protocol, the agency will pick up unwanted perishable and non-perishable food from farms, grocery stores and restaurants and redistribute it to food pantries and soup kitchens around the two counties.
"There's not a whole lot of food recovery programs throughout the state of New York, so this is very exciting that we're able to do this here," Ehlers said.
In 2014 about 29.31 million tons of food and organics went to landfills nationwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ehlers said locally she hopes to recover 75,000 pounds of food by this time next year. The agency's program began on Nov. 1 and will be funded by the state through Oct. 31. The agency serves 22 partner food pantries and soup kitchens in both counties, with Cayuga County stretching north to south from Fair Haven to Moravia.
While it's just in week two, Ehlers said the plan is to hire a food security coordinator. That individual will take an agency van to the various donation sites. The coordinator will be trained and certified in handling and redistributing food, including making sure the items are at certain temperatures and have not been reheated more than once.
Ehlers is already certified in this, and said she has been working with a farm project at the Willard Drug Treatment Center in Seneca County. She collects leftover produce grown there — tomatoes, squashes and peppers — and distributes it to those food pantries short on fresh food. The recipient can even replant some of those items to grow on their own, Ehlers said.
"It's a hand up, rather than a hand out kind of thing," she said. "I want to continue to be their partner and be that person to drop off the produce to anyone in Seneca and Cayuga counties, because it's greatly needed, and it really does help out the families."
The agency isn't working with restaurants yet, as Ehlers said the focus is to collect as much fresh produce at the end of the season as it can. Once winter is in full swing, she expects to partner with more grocery stores and restaurants to keep good food from hitting the trash can.
She hopes potential partners won't be scared to donate. There is a process restaurants and stores have to follow should they participate because food safety is a priority. The agency works with donors on following the protocols. The donors are given an in-kind donation form.
"I love this program," Ehlers said. "It's just a win-win for everyone. It makes sense."
For more information on the Food Recovery Program, call the Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency at (315) 255-1703.