From the Driver’s Seat: A Food Waste Cynic

Lisa Allen, one of our Greater Boston area food rescue drivers, reflects on her experiences with food waste.

I was a total cynic, so I don’t pretend to be an expert in food waste. I know the statistics, we all do — 40% of food in America gets wasted, and one in seven families doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. Before I took a job as a driver for Lovin’ Spoonfuls, my only exposure to food rescue was in visits to Grandma’s. Maybe it was a combination of living through the Great Depression and being Italian, but in her home the slogan may as well have been “No food left behind.” Our meals would consist of warming up every item in her fridge in small bowls, and noshing until it was all gone. I regarded her fridge with trepidation, but it ALL was always delicious and perfect. It was on these trips that I realized food has a much longer lifespan than I was giving it credit for. The wine may be too old to enjoyably consume at Grandma’s, but don’t worry about the dinner spread.  

I speak about my past career (14 years in restaurant management) far too often for anyone’s comfort, but it lays the groundwork for why I didn’t consider myself an expert in food waste. To the contrary, I was skilled at keeping my waste percentage down, but what we did waste filled up entire trash barrels daily. You get used to food waste as an outcome of running a business. A necessary evil. Yeah, you know it’s food. Yeah, you feel bad when you throw it away, but you’re painfully aware if you take it home or give it away your job is at stake. So you become desensitized to it. Except when you get a new employee who eulogizes the food, and you briefly see it as the wasted proteins, fibers, nutrients, and yeah, just empty (but tasty) calories that they are. So you use the opportunity to get that new employee to sample as much of it as you can. You stuff them like a roaster chicken because, “Hey, jackpot! I finally get to put some of this food in a belly.” As an Italian, all I ever want to do is feed people.  

Let me tell you, it’s an awful feeling when you finally break out of the waste stupor.

I’ve always loved food: cooking it, selecting it, menus, cookbooks, Harry and David brochures, you name it! Being a driver for Lovin’ Spoonfuls is much more than a job for me, and I can explain why. I start my day at a Whole Foods in Brookline, where I gather fresh cut fruit, fleshy eggplants, and brown artisan breads, and finish it by delivering ripe tomatoes, fragrant cheeses, cartons full of creamy milk, and beautiful bell peppers to places like Project Place, Brookline Senior Center, and Open Door. I know chopped vegetables from Trader Joe’s are going to go into the Monday soup for Boston Warm, and I know Dimock Academy will love those rib eye steaks I picked up earlier. Heck, I can hardly believe I get to give them away! David from Allston-Brighton Food Pantry can’t believe the cheddar cheese situation. He has enough to make his famous mac and cheese as a side for Wednesday night’s community dinner! It’s a game of Tetris, and I play to win. I love figuring out the perfect foods for the programs that I know will utilize them to the fullest. I deliver food, but I get to drive away with a lot more than that. For the first time in my long career, I feel hopeful. It’s not just about pulling on the right side of the world’s largest game of tug of war for the first time. It’s a combination of walking into a beneficiary and getting that good strong sense of acceptance, tolerance, and goodness. Also knowing you’ve given them some of the tools that they need to successfully run such a positive operation. It refreshes the carbonation in the soda bottle that is my faith in humanity. Which, I know sounds like a goofy statement. And I guess it is…for a former cynic.    

Lisa’s truck, parked behind Whole Foods Brookline