Food Rescue Innovation Lab: Collaborative efforts to address hunger in Seattle

Composting is a well-established ethic in King County. Many of us automatically toss our uneaten food into compost collection containers. But if you own a business, you could make another choice that would be even more impactful. Many uneaten foods are still edible, safe, and nutritious. Instead of feeding compost, this food could be captured or “rescued” for food insecure people.

Forty million people in the U.S. live in food insecure households. Last year in King County, home to Seattle, one of the wealthiest cities in the country, approximately 250,000 residents—a quarter of them children—experienced food insecurity.

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), which manages garbage, recycling, and food and yard waste in Seattle, sees an opportunity to address these two issues—uneaten, surplus food and food insecurity—together, through food rescue. As part of its community-centered approach to tackling difficult issues, SPU partnered with Mary’s Place to convene its first Food Rescue Innovation Lab in early November. The event brought together a diverse group of innovative thinkers to discuss opportunities and solutions for rescuing safe, edible food from garbage and composting streams and diverting it to address hunger in Seattle.

We interviewed Liz Fikejs, SPU Senior Waste Prevention Program Manager, to learn more about the Food Rescue Innovation Lab and SPU’s efforts around food rescue.

How did SPU get involved in food rescue efforts?

While SPU has provided grants in the past to support food rescue, this approach is insufficient. The complexity of barriers across the system, the potential volume of edible food to be rescued and the number of potential players made it clear that solutions needed to come from many directions. And while SPU sees a possible role in moving good food out of the waste stream, “we don’t expect to solve food insecurity,” said Liz. “Instead, we think that food rescue has the potential to be an important piece of a big puzzle, especially if we can leverage our work through community collaboration.”

As Mami Hara, SPU’s CEO/General Manager said at the lab, “while the utility has a role to play, we can’t do this on our own. Our success is absolutely reliant on partnership.”

Who was involved with the Food Rescue Innovation Lab?

This event included organizations working on food waste and food insecurity issues, creative thinkers and other players who have resources to share or have a stake in the benefits that could arise from this work, such as reducing greenhouse gases, supporting positive health outcomes, and creating jobs.

In the early stages of understanding barriers and opportunities, SPU engaged with stakeholders who are involved with our local area food system. This included public agencies focused on public health (both food safety and food access), transportation, climate change and more. It also involved community-based nonprofits who were using rescued food to stock food banks and meal programs.

“During this process, chef Tom French, Mary’s Place Food Services Director, became our critical partner in this effort.” Liz said. “Mary’s Place manages food recovery programs that provide nearly 300,000 meals a year across all their locations, so they have a vested interest in creating innovation in the food rescue system.”

Other partners were identified who have yet to work on food rescue, but have expertise, perspectives and unique ideas to help the lab innovate. “We reached out to organizations already leading food rescue but also sought allies in healthcare, academia and philanthropy.” Liz said.

There were 56 attendees, including Amazon, Starbucks, QFC/Kroger, Costco, Food Lifeline, OSL (Operation Sack Lunch), UW Urban Freight Lab, King County, Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente, PCC Markets, Pacific Coast Collaborative, Rotary First Harvest, FareStart, Zero Waste Washington and many more.

food lab partners

What was the focus of the Food Rescue Innovation Lab?

“We realized that before we could jump into developing solutions, before we could hope to innovate, we had to slow down and get players on the same page.” Liz said. “We wanted to provide a deeper understanding of the impacts of wasted food and food insecurity. Moreover, we wanted attendees to connect their hearts, not just their minds, to these issues and to recognize that we are asking for long term engagement. This couldn’t be fixed overnight.”

Lab presentations and discussions worked to peel back myths, incorrect assumptions, and misperceptions while building bridges between donors and recipients. Lab participants also discussed core food rescue challenges such as:

  • Match-making between donors and recipients
  • Transporting the rescued food
  • Storing it at the donor locations and recipient locations
  • Getting food back out to those in need

“A significant consideration across all these challenges is that food must be kept safe. In many cases, this translates into refrigeration across storage, transportation and handling,” said Liz. “These barriers aren’t new. They’re chronic and exist across the U.S.”

food rescue map
Graphic from Seattle Public Utilities.

What’s next for the Food Rescue Innovation Lab?

The November lab was just the first of more to follow in 2019. All of the participants were asked to make commitments that could include inviting additional players to the table, helping to move discussions forward and making new connections that would lead to innovation. SPU plans to continue to support and facilitate this effort.

“If 5 percent of the nutritional, edible, safe food currently in the waste or compost streams was diverted, nearly 8 million more meals could be provided on an annual basis to those who are food-insecure,” said Liz. “In partnership with Mary’s Place, we’re planning our next labs for 2019 and hope to create a roadmap for food rescue in Seattle. We’re excited for future collaborations with a growing network of partners. Together, we’ll create inclusive and meaningful solutions.”

Liz repeated what Mami Hara said at the lab: “With all of us working together, we can develop solutions that are adaptable, impactful, scalable, and resilient.”

If you are interested in learning about future Food Rescue Innovation Labs, please email Liz Fikejs:

Leave a Reply