Saving Grace food rescue helps Omaha’s hungry one truckload at a time

True change is made when just one person recognizes a problem and decides to do something about it. That’s what happened when Beth Ostdiek Smith realized how much food was being thrown away in our community. In fact, 40% of food that’s produced ends up in the trash, and yet one in five kids may go to bed hungry.

In 2013, Beth set out to make her vision of feeding the hungry with the heartland’s excess healthy food a reality.  She formed Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, a non-profit business in Omaha that rolled out its first refrigerated truck on Sep 30, 2013, picking up excess perishable food from local restaurants, grocery stores, caterers and other food purveyors, and then delivers it the same day, free of charge, to local non-profits that serve families in need.

The concept itself isn’t unique, but it is unique to Omaha and throughout much of the Midwest. To learn how to operate a perishable food rescue, Beth visited Waste Not in Arizona. There she met Operations Director Judy Rydberg who returned to her native Omaha to help Beth with Saving Grace operations. Beth brought business, nonprofit and fundraising experience to the table. Judy, who had worked with Waste Not for 12 years, had perishable food rescue operational experience.

“That summer the two of us put our feet on the ground,” Beth said. “She had the operations knowledge and I had the contacts, so we went to work.” Beth established a few key donors for initial funding, and a meeting with the Douglas County Health Department to get their approval. They then set out to line up food donors and educate them on what food can and cannot be donated. Beth explained that perishable, prepared food that has not been set out to the public are rescuable. This includes wrapped catering trays, prepared salads, sandwiches, or other meals from grocery stores, or food from restaurants that was never served. Items that were set out or on a buffet are not able to be picked up for health reasons. This along with fresh produce, dairy, meats and bread items are ripe for rescue.

Three years later Saving Grace now has two refrigerated trucks and two professional drivers, who pick up food five mornings a week from 30 Food Donors such as Hy-Vee at 156th & Maple and 180th & Q, Fresh Thyme Market, Bonefish Grill, Quick Trip Kitchens, Trader Joes, and Whole Foods. Food is matched to the needs of their non-profits partners, which includes food pantries such as the COPE Center in Elkhorn; shelters such as the Open Door Mission and Sienna Francis House; after school programs such as Youth Emergency Services; and transitional living such as Bethlehem House. In its first 37 months of operation, Saving Grace rescued 1.2 million pounds of perishable food, valued at over $2 million.

As with any new program, there is a lot of education that goes along with it. Beth said it’s important to raise awareness within the community about food waste and how much goes into our landfills. “We’ve only tapped into the problem,” she said. “Our goal is to grow the food sources so we have enough places donating to meet the demands of the non-profits. The concept of Saving Grace is simple; the logistics are not.” That awareness and education can be as basic as when ordering catered food, rather than order large trays, order smaller ones and only set out as needed. That way any unused trays can be rescued. Not only can it help business’s’ green initiatives, but donating food is also a tax deduction and saves on dumpster fees.

Savings Grace also holds events to raise food waste awareness, such as The Great Food Makeover – A No Food Waste Fest held this past October, and Feeding the 5000 the previous year, in which Omaha was only the 3rd city in the United States to host this international event. “We want to add volunteers to help with these events going forward, and dollar donations always help so that we can sustain and grow our operations,” Beth encouraged.

Saving Grace currently works with 30 food donors, 20 of which they pickup from on a regular schedule, and then delivers this healthy food to 23 non-profits. “By helping Saving Grace, you’re also helping those local non-profits,” Beth said. “Not only are they able to serve healthy foods to their clients, but it doesn’t cost them anything so they’re able to use their resources for the main services they offer.” When one organization helps so many, that’s true change.

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