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Rhinelander Area Food Pantry leads by example reducing food waste while supporting food insecure homes

Katie Thoresen
Some of the vegetables collected last Friday at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry garden. The garden produces between 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of food each year for the pantry.

One third of the food produced in the United States is never eaten.

Instead, it winds up in landfills where it produces methane gas and contributes to climate change.

A 2020-2021 study of Wisconsin’s landfills found that organic material, things like food and yard waste, made up more than 30 percent of the waste.

Of that organic material, nearly half of it was wasted food. That doesn’t include things like eggshells or banana peels that people don’t eat but forgotten leftovers or rotten vegetables that people never got around to eating before it went bad.

All that food waste that could avoid the landfill is now instead producing methane. The EPA estimates that food loss and waste represent 8 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Katie Thoresen
Tom Jerow stands outside the greenhouse at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry.

Those staggering numbers are one of the main reasons Tom Jerow works so hard to avoid any food waste both in his own life and through the work he does with Rhinelander Area Food Pantry.

Jerow is the Food Pantry Garden Curator.

“I call it curator cause you can’t control people. They’re going to do what they want, all you can kind of do is suggest,” said Jerow.

Jerow runs the small greenhouse garden outside the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry and the Rhinelander Area Community Garden near Hodag Park.

That garden produces between 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of food for the food pantry each year.

“We’re really unique. This is something that’s happening at large in the anti-hunger movement is that there’s this encouragement for food pantries to partner with community gardens. We’ve been doing this since like 2007, so we’re completely trend-setters,” said Courtney Smith, the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry Associate Executive Director.

Farmer’s market table

The garden always has the staples like tomatoes and greens beans, but Jerow and the other volunteers who work the garden like to try their hands at different things like kohlrabi or different kinds of kale.

Tom Jerow
Rhinelander Area Food Pantry
The Farmer's Market table is set up outside the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry on distribution days.

But he was noticing a problem with that. Some of the vegetables, especially less recognizable ones, were sitting on the shelves longer.

So Jerow came up with a solution, a farmer’s market table set up outside the food pantry doors that customers would visit before going inside.

“As people are waiting to go in, I’m able to talk to them. I encourage them to try things they might not have, give them a recipe, talk about gardening,” said Jerow. “They have taught me as much about gardening as I have taught them. It’s really about connecting with the people. It’s really been a lot of work to do the farmer’s market table, but also been very rewarding.”

That is just one of the ways the food pantry has been able to avoid food waste, but not its only.

Avoiding the landfill

Smith says the pantry receives more than 421,000 pounds of food donations each year. Last year about half of that came through Feeding America’s Direct Connect Program.

It connects food pantries with local stores. In the case of the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry, it’s Trig’s, Aldi, Walmart, and Kwik Trip that will donate produce.

“It used to be that Feeding America would come from Milwaukee with their truck. They would drive up here to the Northwoods. They would pick up with product. They would take it back down to Milwaukee. Process it. And then ship it back out to local pantries,” said Smith.

Katie Thoresen
Laura Marquardt sorts through boxes of produce picked up from local grocery stores through the Direct Connect program.

The Direct Connect program eliminates Feeding America as the middleman.

It saves the food pantries money because they no longer have to pay the transportation, labor, and storage costs to Feeding America.

It’s also more environmentally friendly.

“Hidden in that of course is the reduction of carbon emissions. We’re totally eliminating that entire transportation chain,” said Smith.

Katie Thoresen
Fruits and vegetables at the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry available for customers to shop on distribution days.

The produce the food pantry gets is a mix of items that stores have a lot of extra of and can donate and things that are getting close expiration and need to get out the door.

“It’s about food recovery,” said Smith. “Our mission is to eliminate food insecurity in our community. It’s not about there being a lack of food. There’s plenty of food out there. We want to see that food is used responsibly.”

When that produce comes through the food pantry it goes through volunteers like Laura Marquardt before going out on the floor.

The food is always picked up on distribution days or the day before so it’s fresh as possible.

Marquardt and others will go through it all to make sure it’s good enough quality.

“Basically, we get things like this where you kind of have to look at it and go, ‘Uh, would you eat it?’” said Marquardt as she holds up a container of cut fruit.

Katie Thoresen
Any food not good enough for human consumption gets separated by fruits and vegetables to help a local wildlife rehabilitation center and local farmers.

If it’s good to go, it goes out to the floor for food pantry customers to shop. If it’s not good enough for human consumption, fruits go in one bucket, vegetables into another.

“After we get something like this, you could throw it in the garbage, it’d be easy, but in here, in the food pantry, we’ve been closing the loop for a long time,” said Marquart.

The fruit goes to Wild Instincts Wildlife Rehabilitation in Rhinelander to feed the bears.

The vegetables to go to local farmers like Jennifer and Ray Nery who were picking up some vegetables on Friday.

Those vegetables will be going to help feed some of the 400 animals the pair have on their farm in Forest County.

“We like it cause we’re helping in a couple different ways. We’re helping them out, so they don’t fill up the dumpster. We’re helping our animals. When we get a lot of stuff, we’ll actually take it around to other farmers to help feed their animals. It helps out in many different ways,” said Jennifer.

Even the packaging the food comes in doesn’t go to waste.

“We recycle clear plastic. It goes back to the companies. Even the containers, they’ll take those back,” said Marquardt.

“We don’t look at anything like garbage. We have a tiny little dumpster, and they pick up maybe every two weeks,” said Smith.

Sustainability from garden to food pantry

Out at the food pantry’s garden, it’s not just food waste Jerow is avoiding. Any plant waste goes into compost bins where it’s eventually re-used to grow the next crop.

Katie Thoresen
Jerow checks the compost bins at the Rhinelander Area Community Garden.
Katie Thoresen
Composted soil that will be used to help feed crops at the Rhinelander Area Community Garden.

“We could ship that off to a landfill somewhere, a lot of people their yard waste into the garbage, which you’re not supposed to, but that would all have an environmental impact. We’re recycling that carbon back into the soil and back into the system to help feed the plants,” he said.

All of the actions taken together makes the food pantry’s food waste negligible, an impressive feat for an organization that deals with thousands of pounds of food each week.

They’re also actions Jerow believes people can incorporate into their own lives to try and reduce their food waste.

He suggests things like composting. If you grow your own food, consider donating excess to your local pantry.

“The food that’s consumed is roughly half to a third of what is produced. Out of that surplus, if we just took a small amount out and got it to people who were food insecure, we’d still be wasting more food, but at least it would make the world a more sustainable place,” said Jerow.

At the end of the day, that’s Jerow’s hope for the world: fewer hungry people, a more sustainable way of doing things, and a brighter future.

“I do care about the long-term sustainability of the world. I am concerned about where were headed with the climate change thing, and I think we need to do everything we can for the future generations,” said Jerow.

Katie Thoresen
The Rhinelander Area Community Garden produces 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of produce each year for the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry.

Join WXPR’s The Stream next week for part two as we dive into how you can live more sustainably when it comes to food and the benefits of locally grown food.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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