By Emily Simonsen, Oct. 8, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
WASHINGTON – During the summer of 2016, 20-year-old Zoey Salsbury conducted outreach as the Deputy Director of the MEANS database, a non-profit aimed at reducing food waste through connecting organizations with food surplus and scarcity.
While reviewing a national survey sent to foodbanks, Salsbury stumbled upon a perplexing answer: one foodbank owner specified her donations to those in need came through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“[SNAP] is an individual program, not an organizational program, so we were confused,” Salsbury said. “One of our volunteers clarified and she [the owner] said, ‘Well, you know, I’m on food stamps but there are people hungrier than me,’ so she was using her own food stamps to buy food for the food pantry to give away to other people. That story breaks your heart, but it also makes you want to keep doing this work [with food waste] because you can say, ‘Ok, let’s get you set up with our system, and try to get you some other sources of donations,’”
As of 2017, the MEANS database is used by foodbanks in 48 states and has moved over 1 million pounds of food, translating to less food wasted and more food fed to those in need. In a world where 20 to 40 percent of food is thrown away, that number marks a monumental success, said Salsbury.
“[Reducing food waste] is important because when you think about it, when you look at the numbers, there’s enough food in our country and the world to feed everyone. It’s not a problem of ‘if there’s enough food,’ it’s a problem of ‘there’s not enough communication and transfer and access to that food,” said Salsbury.
However, the journey of moving 1 million pounds of food has not been easy.
“A big barrier that we found is that everyone’s afraid of getting sued, which is honestly a really unrealistic fear,” said Salsbury. “The Bill Emerson Act of 1996 says if you donate to a valid non-profit and you donate in good faith, then you’re protected from liability. But the problem is there’s not a lot of case law around that, because no one who is a foodbank recipient would ever sue someone because they don’t have those resources. There’s really a need for education and activism around food justice,”
Likewise, expiration dates present barriers in the journey to reduce food waste.
“I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give legal or food safety advice specifically, but a lot of times, if you look at expiration dates, there’s different wordings,” said Salsbury.
As Salsbury explained, although ‘best buy’ dates are used interchangeably with expiration dates, most items do not actually expire by ‘best by’ dates. Instead, ‘best by’ dates indicate when foods are ‘best by,’ said Salsbury.
Salsbury’s work with the MEANS database began in the summer of 2014. She received a call from a friend, who told her about student from Iowa creating a food pantry list.
“In my head, that meant a list of supplies for a communal kitchen that every student could access. It was actually a list of every food pantry in Iowa,” Salsbury said, laughing.
Salsbury, a lifelong Girl Scout invested in community projects and food pantries, was interested in the food pantry list. She connected with Iowan student, Maria Rose Belding, to get involved.
Like Salsbury, Belding was no stranger to philanthropy. A long-time volunteer at her local food pantry, Belding helped feed her community throughout her high school career. On one occasion, however, the food pantry received a donation of 2,000 boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The pantry could not distribute all the boxes on their own.
Belding and volunteers reached out to fellow foodbanks for help, but to no avail. No other organizations could accommodate that many boxes of macaroni and cheese prior to its expiration date. Inevitably, most of the macaroni and cheese ended up filling empty garbage cans, rather than filling empty bellies of those in need.
Incentivized by this incident, Belding began the food pantry list to connect foodbanks, accommodate large donations and reduce food waste. Eventually, Belding’s research on food waste and food networks transformed her list on Iowan food pantries into the MEANS database.
Today, with Belding as the MEANS database Founder, Salsbury as the MEANS database Deputy Director, a few other teammates and dozens of volunteers, their aspirations continue to grow.
“There are interim goals. We’d love to have every food pantry and every foodbank across the states on the platform,” said Salsbury. “The dream goal is a world without hunger,”