A little cup of chocolate chip cookies had reached the end of its gas station shelf life at QT.
Normally, its story would end in a landfill, along with the 100 billion pounds of food Americans toss every year.
Instead, that cup of cookies took a short and interesting journey.
First it went into the back cooler at the QT at 130th and Q Streets — a way station for perishable items that QT collects from its Omaha stores.
Next, it was grabbed by a guy named Randy, who drives a refrigerated truck for a local group called Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue. Randy tossed that cup of cookies into a plastic bin along with chopped-kale salads, big, crumbly muffins and about 150 pounds of sandwiches, fruit cups and other still-good but not good-enough-to-sell fare from QT.
Then that cup of cookies bounced east on Q Street to a Hy-Vee at 96th, where it was joined by the grocery’s donated perishables, including tubs of beautiful, cut-up fruit.
Finally, the cookies were taken across town to the Heart Ministry Center at 22nd and Binney, where Omaha’s second-busiest food pantry bustled with volunteers and shoppers. In minutes, that cup of cookies had reached the hot little hands of a 5-year-old boy in a Superman T-shirt named Lewis.
This was an example of perfectly good food being rescued and not wasted. So far this year, Saving Grace has “rescued” some 114,000 pounds of food that otherwise would have been dumped by gas stations, grocers and caterers.
The nonprofit organization hosted a Sunday event to raise awareness about the importance of reducing food waste. Held along the downtown riverfront, the event featured local chefs, soup made with surplus vegetables, live music and educational activities.
Leftover food doesn’t have to mean rotten food. There is a window of time between sell-by and spoil dates. A picture-perfect consumer culture that expects every apple to be Disney shiny on store shelves means stores give perishables an untimely death, said Beth Ostdiek Smith.
Beth is the founder and director of Saving Grace. On a trip to Phoenix to visit her sister, she saw a food-rescue group and decided that Omaha needed one. In 2013, Beth started a small nonprofit called Saving Grace. Beth hit up old contacts, applied for grants and got a truck and an office and hired two people: a program manager named Judy Rydberg and a driver, Randy Hansen.
The shoestring organization operates on a $350,000 budget, which pays for Randy to make daily trips during the week to places like QT, Hy-Vee, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and other vendors, including caterers. Then Randy drops the food at 17 different nonprofits. The food never sits in a warehouse. It goes from a store cooler to Randy’s truck to food pantry coolers — then to people like Lewis.
Lewis lives with his mother and 12-year-old sister in Omaha. His mom, Christine Campbell, worked long summertime shifts as a road construction flagger. She’s the person who waves the “SLOW” signs on the road and sometimes put in 70-hour workweeks. She also was an Army reservist.
But the seasonal work ended, she completed the Reserves and now is between jobs. Money became tight. Christine showed up at the Heart Ministry Center on Wednesday, grateful to find fruit and cookies among the typical offerings of pasta, cereal and canned goods.
“We got bananas, too,” she gushed while loading what looked like $150 worth of groceries into her car. The free food could be stretched over two weeks, Christine said.
The donated food gets Christine over her financial hump. The Saving Grace collection helps Heart Ministry Center feed record numbers of people — last week, the center’s pantry chalked up 607 households.
“We pride ourselves on giving out fresh fruits and vegetables — healthy food,” said program manager Mark Dahir.
Indeed, pantry visitors on Wednesday could get avocados, Granny Smith apples, cut-up fruit, squash and 10-pound bags of potatoes. One woman carted off a giant bag of carrots.
“I’ve got to get to chopping,” she said.
Lewis got cookies through Saving Grace. He also got that Hy-Vee cut-up fruit, which Christine had grabbed for her cart and fed to Lewis that day for lunch.
About one-third of Saving Grace’s collections are day-old bread and other grains, another third is produce, and the rest is meat, dairy and miscellaneous foods, including Lewis’ cookies.
Saving Grace aims to do something about our American paradox of having more than we need and not enough. Food is the largest contributor to Omaha landfills. Yet some Omaha children go to bed hungry at night.
The food industry itself is making waste reduction a priority, not only because of the needy but also because of concerns about conservation and climate change. Growers, producers and grocers have taken steps to reduce the amount of food that might otherwise get thrown away.
The Hy-Vee at 96th and Q, in fact, has a manager in charge of perishables. Jeremy Mahon, who holds this title, said the store works with other nonprofits who take perishables. But he said Saving Grace is the most reliable. Mahon said the nonprofit has helped the store reduce its food waste by a third. Instead of filling three dumpsters a week with wasted food, the store is filling two.
After watching Randy unload the truck, Christine load a cart and Lewis trot to his mom’s car with his cookies, I asked Heart Ministry Executive Director Jim Clements if he was bothered by the idea that the food otherwise would have gone in the trash.
“What slays me,” Clements said, “is that people don’t have the money or resources to buy their own food.”