Early on a late-summer Saturday, the six lanes of Tucson’s Ina Road were empty and quiet. But in the parking lot of a bland strip mall, a temporary community had blossomed. Between two lines of white-topped buffet tables stood a mountain of produce: multicolored mini peppers gathered into bulging shopping bags, flats of crimson tomatoes, heaps of pale green watermelons.
The display was part of a weekly produce distribution dubbed P.O.W.W.O.W. — or “Produce on Wheels Without Waste.” On an August morning, Yolanda Soto and about a dozen local volunteers supervised as seven tons of imperfect but wholesome vegetables that would otherwise end up in a landfill were farmed out to more than 200 families.
Over the next two hours, people lined up at the tables — young, old, white, Hispanic, Asian — filling up boxes, laundry baskets, little red wagons. “It’s not just the most vulnerable people that come. Some redistribute it to other families,” Soto said. “Others are middle-class and are just trying to stretch their budget.”
An estimated 70 billion pounds of food is wasted in the U.S. each year, at a cost of upwards of $200 billion a year, or 1,250 calories a day for each one of us. Research suggests that the average American family of four throws away about 15 percent of the food it purchases. Every one of those discarded squashes or wilted lettuce heads carries another cost, too, in the form of the energy, water and fertilizer used to grow it. Soto regards this excess as a unique opportunity to feed someone whose grocery budget may not be quite enough.
“There’s no more basic right than food,” Soto says, “but it has to be nutritious food. That’s a basic human right.”