Behind a Mexican produce market in Northeast Washington on Tuesday, three laborers were stacking boxes of slightly bruised tomatoes, bananas and oranges next to a dumpster. A white refrigerated van pulled up, and driver Brett Meyers jumped out. To him, the imperfect produce was a precious find, and he was just in time to sort the items and salvage them.
“These are great,” said Meyers, inspecting the tomatoes. “A little too black,” he said, discarding some of the bananas. “Look — these are almost blue,” he noted with a scowl as he pointed to a bag of moldy oranges and then tossed it into the trash. “We can’t take the risk of people getting sick,” he said.
Meyers, who runs Nourish Now, a private food charity in Rockville, had already picked up a dozen boxes of chilled broccoli from a Korean warehouse manager across the street. Now he had four more crates to stash in his van. Within two hours, the produce would be boxed with other donations, and by the next day, it would be delivered to needy families in Maryland.
The day’s scavenging success was based on more than luck. Meyers also had some high-tech help from Food Cowboy, an organization that uses a mobile app to link facilities with excess produce with groups that can make sure it reaches hungry people while still fresh.
Food Cowboy was founded two years ago by Roger Gordon, a former community-development activist on the West Coast who is now based in Bethesda. He said he decided to launch the nonprofit initiative after he learned that tons of edible fresh food was going to waste — tossed and left to rot in landfills — because there was no systematic or timely way to match supply with demand.
“We are a country that has a surplus of food and a surplus of hunger,” said Gordon, a 46-year-old lawyer. “Two million tons of fresh produce are wasted every year. There is no reason these two problems should coexist.”
In the Washington region, there are numerous volunteer, church and nonprofit groups that collect donated or surplus food for distribution to needy families and soup kitchens. They include Bethesda Help and Manna Food Center in suburban Maryland, and Food for Others and the Assistance League in Northern Virginia. The federal government also provides surplus food to agencies that help those in need.
Often, though, food charities rely on canned and processed goods, since they are easy to transport and store. Fresh produce is more nutritious and not as fattening, but it needs to move fast, it costs more to ship, it requires extra safety measures and it is easier to discard than to figure out how to use. To salvage and donate it takes commitment, planning and agility.
What is different about Gordon’s project is that through the use of high-tech methods, information about unwanted produce can be shared quickly and precisely so groups like Nourish Now can get to it faster.
A food distributor in Baltimore, for example, can log on to Food Cowboy and say he has just received 10 boxes of carrots that a supermarket rejected because of an imperfection. Then, Meyers or workers for another charity, prompted by the app’s generic donor alert, can respond that they will pick up the carrots within three hours.
“This is beautiful, and it’s all going to waste,” Meyers said while inspecting boxes of half-frozen Mexican broccoli on a warehouse loading dock Tuesday. Some of the heads had yellow spots on them, so all had been rejected by their original customer, probably a supermarket chain. But most were still firm and green — perfect for soups and salads. Meyers loaded as many boxes as he could cram into his van.
Some small suppliers have joined Food Cowboy, including local markets and eateries whose owners are happy to have someone pick up their excess food and put it to good use. Dinesh Tandon, an immigrant from India whose family owns a Punjabi bistro in Northeast Washington, often contacts Gordon to let him know what he has available.
“We always have something left over, especially after weekends and holidays, and we hate to throw it away,” said Tandon. Once, he donated a crate of Indian bread to a District shelter and discovered that nobody would eat it, but Meyers said he has begun introducing some of his charity’s clients to Indian cooking.
To replicate this network on a larger scale, though, takes more than a fast van and a strong sense of personal mission. Across the country, thousands of trucks pick up, move and deliver produce for supermarkets, wholesalers and restaurant chains every day. Most of what they carry is sold and whisked away on arrival.
As a result, there is little economic incentive among larger businesses to find homes for a few crates of rejected leftovers cluttering up a loading dock. And they may have additional concerns about food contamination.
“It’s not easy to change culture, to get people to think of donating instead of discarding and dumping,” said Barbara Cohen, Gordon’s business partner.
But apps like Food Cowboy try to make the process as painless as possible by giving both donor and recipient all the information needed to make a precise handoff. Gordon describes it as air-traffic control for food: No one gets lost or surprised, and nothing gets thrown out.
A similar app, PareUp, to be launched this summer in New York, plans to link grocers with individual customers for discount sales.
So far, Gordon’s organization has signed up about 150 truckers, 40 food banks and 30 meal pantries on the East Coast. In the past year, it was able to salvage about 300 tons of fresh food, including 900 pounds of eggplant from a supplier in Florida that were delivered by truck to Lorton. The trucker went to the Food Cowboy Web site and alerted Gordon in time to have them picked up.
Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, the rescue mission fails. In one case, Gordon said, he got word of a truck carrying 20,000 pounds of green beans to Upstate New York. The refrigeration unit had broken, making them unsellable but still safe to eat for a limited period. Gordon tried to marshal friends with trucks in the region to pick them up but ran out of time. The beans ended up in a landfill.
“What I need is a thousand Bretts,” he said with a sigh.