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Pedal-powered food rescue takes on Seattle's hills and waste

Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. ends up in landfills. Seattle has been trying to tackle the issue with laws that require composting. But that's not enough for one local cyclist.

Tim Jenkins cuts sharply across tracks in the road as he jets through an intersection before the light changes. He has a child trailer attached to the back of his bike. But instead of carrying a small human, Jenkins hopes to fill the cart with food.

Jenkins started Seattle Food Rescue two years ago. The group's vision is to stop food waste and provide healthy food options to low income residents in central Seattle.

"Food rescue is a lot easier when it's all down hill," Jenkins puffed out as he pedaled his bike forward. He stops at a corner store called Stock Box. There is a box of food ready to picked up in the back freezer.

"Look at what we got today. This is spectacular," said Jenkins as he examined the cache. "These loafs of bread are like $5. It’s always organic stuff that is locally produced in Washington. I love that. I love that aspect of food rescue. And this is all food that you would go to the store and totally buy."

Most food banks already get donations from the large chain grocery stores. But the system often overlooks small stores like Stock Box. Jenkins said that's why the bikes are so effective. They allow for small pick-ups that might otherwise be overlooked.

After the pick up at Stock Box, Jenkins makes his way towards the drop off. He skips a hill on the way.

One way Jenkins' food service is different from others is that he delivers his loads directly to low income apartments. One resident described the weekly drop offs as pavlovian. People wait at the door to get the best pickings, and get upset if a week is missed.

Jenkins believes delivering the food directly to people relieves the stigma of waiting in line at a food bank or going to the grocery store to use their SNAP card.

"None of that is really present with this system. All you’re really doing is staying within your apartment complex," he said.

Jenkins sees the bike rescue model as the perfect marriage of his passions for cycling and social justice.

"There is a cool opportunity to have a weird kind of economy going," said Jenkins. "You just have people in the downtown area that recognize that this shop on the corner is going to be throwing out some food and there may be some other people who could take advantage of that fact."

The city of Seattle is working to keep food out of the waste stream. Grocery stores are required to compost food they are throwing out. But the city supports efforts like Seattle Food Rescue. A city spokesman said composting is good, but it is even better if you don't have to compost in the first place.

This type of bike powered food rescue isn't unique to Seattle. Jenkins got the idea from a group he worked with as an undergrad in Boulder, Colorado. He thought it would be a great idea to bring that model to Seattle. The idea has now spread to 11 cities across the country.

Food rescue is a getting a lot of spotlight as an environmental movement as well as a social movement, according to Helen Katich, coordinator for Food Rescue Alliance based in Boulder. Jenkins worked with Katich as an undergrad. She helped him set up the Seattle Food Rescue.

Food Rescue Alliance works as an umbrella organization that trains people all over the country on bike powered food rescue. She said the idea to snatch up still useful food isn't anything new.

"Food rescue has been going on forever," said Katich. "There have been people gleaning farms since the beginning of farms."

Katich says that what has worked for Jenkins on Capitol Hill could be a model of hyper-local food rescue in other parts of the city, like Beacon Hill, Rainier or Tacoma.

"All it takes is reaching out and asking for that support on how to get started," Katich said.

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