While the rest of us are just getting ready for the day, enjoying our morning coffee, or commuting to work, volunteers at a small workshop garage in Orange Park feverishly sort cinnamon rolls, cookies, chips, and other packaged edible items into paper grocery bags. Other volunteers at the facility load pallets onto a pickup truck, stacking them into leaning towers of sandwich bread, bottled soda and juice. An elderly couple arrives in their SUV to unload paper bags from a nearby Publix, carrying them inside one at a time and adding them to the workflow. Right on time, a delivery truck pulls into the circular driveway to pick up its share of the bounty. A volunteer checks an inventory sheet and begins instructing others which bags and boxes to load onto the truck.

At 9 a.m., the shelves at Waste Not Want Not are full of food, all of it rescued from grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, and distributors; but by noon they’ll be completely empty. The lights will go out, the garage doors will close, the volunteers will go home, and the whole process will begin again the next day.

Waste Not Want Not’s origins date back to the early nineties with one woman, one grocery store, and one charity. Debra Smyers began rescuing food from her local Publix and delivering it the St. Francis Soup Kitchen in downtown Jacksonville. After recruiting several friends to help, it wasn’t long before more charities and more grocery stores were added to the list. The operation quickly outgrew its original “headquarters” (the Smyers’ home garage), and found a new home in Grace Episcopal Church of Orange Park.

Sandra Staudt-Killea discovered Waste Not Want Not by accident. A computer glitch caused her to stumble upon the non-profit’s information while searching for volunteer opportunities for her oldest daughter. Initially attracted simply by the opportunity to help out and do some good, Sandra developed a passion for the work as she became more and more engaged with the organization’s efforts.

How about just eating the food you buy? It’s literally the least you can do.

A Manhattan-transplant with a degree in law and another in hotel administration with an emphasis on food and beverage, Staudt-Killea helped the organization incorporate and apply for its 501(c)(3) status in 2005. In 2007 she took over as Executive Director and facilitated the purchase of the new building after they outgrew the church’s garage.

The organization’s mission has been simple and focused from the beginning—to use food and other items that would otherwise be discarded to fight hunger and poverty. Today, they make over 140 rescues a week and efficiently distribute between 4,000-7,000 pounds of usable food to soup kitchens, missions, food pantries, after-school programs, group homes, support meetings, and various other needs-driven nonprofits in 10 counties throughout Northeast Florida.

“As a nation we throw away more than a quarter of all the food we produce before it reaches a consumer,” explains Staudt-Killea. “If you add to that what we buy and then throw away, it’s almost half.” The startling revelations regarding our nation’s wasteful behaviors don’t end there. A quarter of the freshwater we consume is used to irrigate crops intended for human consumption that ultimately ends up in landfills where it is converted into methane gas (climate change, anyone?). We clear cut land to grow food we don’t eat, robbing our atmosphere of vital carbon sinks that clean our air. We clear even more land to raise livestock (who require their own grain and water), yet meat, poultry, and fish make up the largest slice of the food-waste-pie at 30 percent. Meanwhile, 40 million people in the United States, arguably the most developed country in the world, go hungry every year.

According to Staudt-Killea, a big part of the problem is cultural. “Our society is accustomed to seeing full shelves at the grocery store,” she speculates. “If you see a half empty shelf, you wonder what the problem is.” We’ve also grown accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it. In many larger grocery stores, suppliers are responsible with stocking the shelves with their own products and periodically rotating stock to maintain the illusion of an eternally fresh and available bounty. Tasked with removing out-of-date product during their weekly visits, they will often clear out items that have yet to expire but will before they return, literally throwing away perfectly good food with as many as six days left before its arbitrary sell-by date. “Putting out fresher items doesn’t mean that the stuff coming off isn’t still fresh,” Staudt-Killea adds. “It doesn’t suddenly become bad on its sell-by date either.”

It doesn’t take an MBA to figure out that we as consumers are in reality subsidizing the cost of such practices. As more food goes to waste, prices inevitably rise, which begs the question: If we wasted less, could more people afford to buy the food they need to feed themselves and their families? It’s a vicious cycle that defies logic considering the magnitude of people affected by the issue.

Although Waste Not Want Not succeeds at keeping usable food out of landfills and connects to those who need it, Staudt-Killea is not blind to the fact that they are not solving the problem on either end. “We aren’t exactly making a dent in the amount of waste created,” she acknowledges. “But we are connecting the dots on what’s out there and we’re proud of that.” Furthermore, her organization’s impact goes beyond eliminating waste and feeding people. For many of the older participants, volunteering provides a much-needed social outlet at a time when loneliness and isolation have become public health concerns of their own. Parents bring their children to teach them about volunteerism, high school students earn their Bright Futures, and those performing court-ordered community service are afforded the opportunity to redeem themselves for past indiscretions.

Short of actively volunteering, there are a few ways individuals can help turn the tide.

First and foremost, consider a donation. Waste Not Want Not distributes $15 worth of food for every dollar they spend on overhead and expenses. By all means, donate the unused items you clean out of your pantry, but recognize that if you couldn’t figure out what to do with that can of Trader Joe’s jackfruit, what makes you think someone with limited means will fare any better? Meanwhile, organizations like Waste Not Want Not have perfected the art of efficiently finding, rescuing, and distributing food to those who need it. 

Short of that, how about just eating the food you buy? It’s literally the least you can do.

This Bold Bites column originally appeared in Void Magazine’s Nov. 2019 issue (vol. 10, iss. 7), “Do Good” under the headline “Waste Not Want Not: Local Nonprofit Connects the Dots Between Food Waste and Hunger.”

Bold Bites is a collaboration between Void Magazine and Edible Northeast Florida. If it’s BOLD and ridiculously tasty in the 904, we’ll try it. Follow @boldbites on Instagram.