Farmer’s Fridge navigates food safety hurdles to donate unsold but still fresh meals to those in need

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / Makidotvn
Source: Getty / Makidotvn
Donating fresh and perishable food to help feed the hungry isn’t as easy as giving shelf stable products, but a partnership between the Chicago-based startup Farmer’s Fridge and the Greater Chicago Food Depository shows that it can done.

“Our mission to make healthy, fresh food as convenient as a candy bar,”​ doesn't apply to just people who can access and afford to buy the salads, grain bowls and yogurt parfaits stocked in Farmer’s Fridge’s signature vending machine kiosks, but to everyone, said Shayna Harris, the company’s chief growth officer.

She explained at Partnership for a Healthier America’s annual summit in Chicago earlier this month that Farmer’s Fridge from the beginning wanted to make nutritious food available to those who struggle with food insecurity by donating what it couldn’t sell but which was still healthy.

“Being in the fresh food business with a short shelf life, we knew we would have unsold items at the end of the day. And of course we try to use smart analytics to minimize that, but no matter what, you can’t always predict what people will want in real time,”​ she said. “So, we searched for a partnership early on to figure out how we can make sure all of our unsold items that were still fresh could get to the hands of families in need.”

That partnership is with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which distributes the equivalent of 159,000 meals to those in need every day with help from more than 700 partners and agencies.

“You would think that 70 million pounds [of food] donated is a great stride – and it is – but that is taking care of 12,000 people that we have who are food insecure in the food area, which is really just 71 meals per person per year. So, we have a lot more to do,”​ said Faith Stachnik, the food resources development manager of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

With that in mind, she said, GCFD welcomed a partnership with Farmer’s Fridge, but before they could accept the food, they needed to work out a few kinks.

In many ways Farmer’s Fridge’s products, which come in plastic jars as individual meals or snacks, are ideal because it is easy to pass them out to those in need who are looking for something on-the-go, Stachnik said. But, she also acknowledged the traditional food pantry system isn’t set up to distribute fresh produce the same day it is donated.

To compensate, GCFD created a program that has 22 routes around Chicago which include every major food retailer. Drivers collect from retailers fresh food that is edible but is dumpster-bound for various reasons and they take it to food pantries in the neighborhood to be distributed the same day.

Unfortunately, Farmer’s Fridge new location isn’t on a route – and the GCFD didn’t have sufficient trained help to collect the food safely.

Unwilling to let the food go to waste, Farmer’s Fridge committed to delivering the product themselves to neighborhood pantries and shelters, said Harris. She also noted that the company began creating products with an eye towards not only what would sell but what would keep for longer if it didn’t sell – meaning it was more desirable and more likely to find its way to someone in need as a donation.

Because the two partners were able to negotiate a work flow that was safe and efficient, Farmer’s Fridge has donated more than 42,000 healthy meals for the Chicago area since 2017, for which Stachnik says, “we are truly grateful.”

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