Leftovers: A Deeper Look Into the Meaning of Food

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All my life, food was something that transcended differences. Within my family, it was a shared heritage across geographical divides. In my school, lunch time was a time to meet new people and forge deeper connections. Within my social circle, food was a friendly (and yummy) competition. It has been something celebrated, and it has been an area of immense passion for me both in the creation and consumption of food.


Which is why I found it so shocking that right here in this city, which has quickly become “home” to me since I moved here in August, there are people just like me who don’t have enough food in their daily lives. And worse yet, in this very same city I have grown to love, there are thousands of pounds of food dumped into landfills every year. Food wastage existing in a land of food insecurity feels like something far removed from our Midwestern mindset—in fact, the idea of hunger in and of itself seems almost incomprehensible in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And yet, this dynamic of excess and insufficiency is ever present in this community.


Growing up in the Midwest, I never thought about hunger. It was never an issue that affected me directly, and I never thought it was an issue that affected Americans so deeply either. In fact, it wasn’t a topic I became intimately familiar with until I began work with Eat Greater Des Moines. However, even as a young girl I understood the basic concepts of only putting on your plate whatever you can eat so as not to waste food—but many businesses do not follow this logic with their products for a number of reasons, the most baffling to me being the idea of “sellable” food standards versus “safe” food standards.


I never knew there was a difference. The date printed on my milk carton was the last date I would consume it: it would be thrown out the very next day. This common misconception for the American population does not exclude businesses in the food industry. Many such businesses fear possible legal repercussions for pulling food items off shelves that are past their printed date and doing with them anything other than chucking them in the bin.


There are other options, though! Many foods that are unsellable and are also clearly inedible can be composted, which keeps those foods from filling landfills where they cannot have an environmental benefit. Foods that are unsellable but otherwise safe to consume can legally and safely be “rescued” or “recovered” in order to re-distribute it to the food insecure. This idea is where the term Food Rescue came from.


Before I dive into the details of Food Rescue, I want to acknowledge the fact that Food Rescue or Food Recovery initiatives—though popular among the nonprofit sector—are not in the common vocabulary of the average person. And this is okay! I, myself, had never heard the term, much less grappled with the legal ideology of it, until I began my work with Eat Greater Des Moines. Though the terminology and legal aspect of Food Rescue usually evade common dinner table conversations, the motivation and the practice of Food Rescue are not complex in nature. In fact, the idea of using leftover restaurant food as a means of filling food pantries had been briefly discussed at my family’s dinner table several months before I even understood the meaning of those words. The concept of Food Rescue is to use existing resources in the community to improve the community in regard to food access.


What does that mean? Well, in short, it means that wholesome and edible, though unsellable, food is thrown into the hands of organizations operating to alleviate food insecurity, instead of being thrown into the garbage bin. And this comes with benefits for the whole community, not just the food insecure. The donating business—protected under state and federal law from potential lawsuits due to donated food, so long as the donor is following all food safety guidelines—reduces cost of waste removal, and also receives a tax incentive for donations made in good faith. The organization receiving and distributing the rescued goods generates employment and boosts economic productivity in the community. The people receiving the rescued goods have access to wholesome, quality nutrition. And, finally, the community as a whole is strengthened due to a decreased carbon footprint due to waste reduction, a more productive economic standing and a reduction in food insecurity (which increases quality of life for the whole community!)


Food fuels more than just bodies. It connects people socially, being a shared characteristic among all people. It is a means of self-expression for many, a means of satisfaction for others, and a means of life or death to some. Food Rescue serves to alleviate pollution, poverty and even poor economic standing. It is a practice that is essential to the operation of many food-based charities, and it is a means of sustaining the community.


My endeavors with Food Rescue at Eat Greater Des Moines have become a normal topic of conversation at my dinner table every night. Now, I encourage you, dear reader, to make Food Rescue dinnertime talk with the people in your company. After all, food is what links us all—let’s make sure everyone has a seat at the dinner table.

DJ Henson

DJ Henson

Drake Engaged Citizen Corps Student