It’s 2:30 on a recent Monday morning in Washington, D.C., and most of the city is still and dark. But near the intersection of New York and Florida Avenues in the northeast area known as Brookland, there is a flurry of activity at the loading dock outside S.W. Produce Inc., a small wholesaler. There, underneath bright-yellow fluorescent lights, truck after truck backs up to the concrete dock to unload crates filled with squash, cabbage, oranges and other produce, after making the journey from places as far away as Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.
Jerry Pence, a thin, bearded trucker from Tennessee who seems so awake it could be 2:30 p.m., arrives with eight boxes of bruised zucchini that had spilled into the truck bed, all immediately rejected by the buyer. Pence must head to his next stop with an empty truck to make a pickup. “They’re good squash. If you want ’em you can have ’em!” Pence says to the folks at the dock. But they didn’t order zucchini and they have no use for them, so those eight boxes eventually make their way to the giant metal dumpsters that sit just next to the loading dock. “If there are hungry people who want these squash, I’d be happy to give them to ’em,” Pence says.
That’s exactly what Roger Gordon, co-founder of Food Cowboy, aims to do. Gordon was at the loading dock that early morning to build relationships with the truck drivers and to persuade them and their employers to join his venture. His one-year-old startup, Food Cowboy, systematically connects truckers to food banks with the mantra that “Nothing Goes to Waste.”
“We’re very picky eaters,” Gordon says. “Retailers won’t even try to sell anything that doesn’t look just right.” Distributors often don’t have time to find a home for perishable food that stores won’t accept, he goes on to explain, and so much of it is thrown out — nearly 36 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Food Cowboy’s goal is to redirect it to the hungry.
Gordon, 46, started the organization with the help of his brother, Richard, a truck driver who’d grown all too accustomed to hauling food that was perfectly edible, though not aesthetically pleasing, to dumpsters or landfills.
Richard explains that he and Roger started talking about Food Cowboy “after I had to dump 20,000 pounds of organic green beans.” The refrigeration unit in his truck had broken, and the temperature had risen slightly before he could get it fixed. He estimates that the green beans lost only half a day of shelf life in that time, but the customer still rejected the entire shipment. “Roger and I spent a lot of time trying to donate the load, but there wasn’t anywhere close by that could accept all that food,” he says. “If we had a way of reaching all the food banks faster, we might have been more successful.”
While there are other organizations working to curtail food waste like CropMobsters, Food Recovery Network and City Harvest, the brothers found that there was no group working directly with truck drivers to help at this level of the food-supply chain. The brothers felt they could offer the food banks a good business opportunity. Food Cowboy charges food banks a 10-cent routing service fee per pound of produce — considerably less than the 67 cents a pound that food banks would normally pay on average to buy fresh vegetables wholesale, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But getting the food from truckers to food banks proved far from easy. “The challenge is that food banks operate Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. The rest of the food industry operates 24/7,” Gordon says. Food Cowboy has to persuade food banks to open up for those 2:30 a.m. drop-offs, and then has to find places with the manpower — and sometimes forklifts — to handle the massive loads that come off of trailer trucks.
And then there is the problem of persuading the food companies to allow the donation of rejected shipments in the first place. After all, there is the potential for lawsuits if the food makes someone sick. But Food Cowboy has found success relying on the food banks’ own quality-control measures as well as Good Samaritan laws, which protect them in the unlikely event that the food is contaminated.
Gordon and his small staff of four — who work out of his D.C. row house — have spent the last year developing contacts at food banks across the country and building a database of places where they can direct truckers. They include Capital Area Food Bank, the largest food bank in the D.C. area. In 2012, Gordon learned through one of his brother’s connections that a shipment of 900 pounds of eggplant had recently been rejected because the vegetables, though perfectly edible, had been deemed too round and too dark to be marketable. They were destined for the dumps. Gordon was able to save the eggplants and redirect them to Capital Area Food Bank, where they were distributed to the nearly half a million people the food bank serves in the region.
Food Cowboy also brokers relationships on a smaller scale, for which they do not charge a transaction fee. Gordon introduced DC Central Kitchen, a local soup kitchen, to Mexican Fruits, a produce shop only about a five-minute drive from the soup kitchen. DC Central Kitchen can call Mexican Fruits to see if they have any produce that’s still good, but getting too old to sell. If so, they pick up the food, which Mexican Fruits donates, and serve it to hungry Washingtonians. This relationship has resulted in several pickups of food that would otherwise have gone to waste.
Amy Bachman, a manager at DC Central Kitchen, notes how helpful this relationship has been. “Food Cowboy connected us with a food source we didn’t have before,” Bachman says. “We probably wouldn’t have known about Mexican Fruits without them.”
Gordon and his team currently field more than 20 calls each month from truckers across the country, and have helped folks in states as far away as California and North Dakota. Usually they pair truckers individually with food banks. But recently Food Cowboy has begun to expand its operation by creating an online system that allows truckers to find open food banks along their routes that will accept their edible rejected shipments. “We’re trying to make the whole process as efficient as possible,” Gordon says.
They’ve also started a Twitter campaign called “The Great Food Roundup,” with an associated app, which allows people to notify Food Cowboy anytime they see wasted food that could be redistributed. “The goal is to crowdsource a food-waste map of the United States,” Gordon says. “It will give people like Amy a much more robust map of donors they can work with.”