Giving Thought: Feeding locals with would-be waste from stores and restaurants
As a ski and snowboard instructor, Gray Warr remembers countless interactions when, at the end of their Aspen vacation, his clients would offer him a favor.
“When they would arrive, they’d go straight to the store and buy a whole bunch of food — usually way more than they needed,” he recalled. “Then when they’d leave, they’d ask me if I wanted it. I always said, ‘Sure.’”
The whole exercise got him thinking about food waste in general. Over time, he began to envision an actual food-recovery operation to aggregate all these second-hand groceries and distribute them to Roaring Fork Valley residents who genuinely need them. Then, when COVID-19 hit the valley and several mobile food distributions sprang up between Glenwood Springs and Aspen to serve the unemployed and needy, Warr decided to act.
His idea at the time was collecting the leftover food from tourists until Katherine Sand, executive director of Aspen Family Connections, suggested to Warr that he was thinking too small. She urged him to talk to local grocery stores about rescuing their throwaways.
“I had no idea how much food gets thrown away,” he admitted. “It’s mind-boggling. Here I am picking up random cans of food from tourists, but to go to an actual grocery store and see what they’re getting rid of.”
Since then, Warr’s nonprofit organization, Harvest for Hunger (www.harvestforhungerco.org), has delivered nearly 35,000 pounds of food that he and his team of volunteers have rescued from City Market stores up and down the valley, Clark’s Market stores in Aspen and Snowmass Village, and Roxy’s at the Aspen Business Center. Other food donors include the Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Limelight hotels in Aspen and Snowmass Village, on-mountain restaurants at Snowmass ski area and two Kum and Go convenience stores in Glenwood.
Why does all this excess food exist?
“Every package has a ‘sell-by’ date on it, but that doesn’t mean the food has expired and it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just that the highest quality is before that date,” Warr explained. “And usually the highest quality exists before the sell-by date plus two or three days afterward. They have some leeway.”
On Warr’s biggest day thus far, he collected 1,600 pounds of food from the various local outlets he visits. An average day yields about 600 pounds of food, which is still enough to feed one person for 150-200 days, or a four-person family for five weeks.
Nowadays, Warr collects food two days per week and delivers straight to the mobile food drives at Buttermilk Ski Area and Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel. In other words, there is a quick turnaround from the pickup at the grocery store to someone’s kitchen.
“When we show up, we’re showing up with ribeyes, tri-tips, salmon, lots of bread, pork and fruit. It’s really nice stuff,” Warr said, clearly excited. “It’s just like you going to the grocery store, but it’s us going to the grocery store for you.”
You might call Warr a food-rescue entrepreneur. He’s actually part of a nationwide movement to reduce food waste and feed hungry Americans with food that would otherwise be thrown out entirely. According to Food Rescue U.S., more than 40% of the country’s food supply is wasted. This statistic becomes all the more horrifying if one stops to consider all the water, energy, labor and transportation that produced and delivered the food to restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, only to be tossed out.
Harvest for Hunger was launched during the height of the pandemic with a grant from Aspen Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Regional Response Fund. The funding helped Warr purchase the van he uses to transport all that food to people in need. Warr is proud to help bridge the gap that leads to so much wasted food in our valley.
Food insecurity is common and thousands of families on Colorado’s Western Slope are just barely making ends meet during these unsettling times. We are pleased that Harvest for Hunger has joined the efforts to eliminate food insecurity in the Aspen to Parachute region.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.
For the last 35 years I’ve been covering what we call the “salmon wars” in the Pacific Northwest, writing so many stories about salmon heading toward extinction that I’ve lost count.
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