The Laramie Soup Kitchen accepts about 450 pounds of donated food a day from sources around the community.
Except for occasional canned food drives, almost all that food — perhaps 95 percent — is perishable.
Whether that’s a couple gallons of milk, pounds of lettuce or even trays of lasagna, head chef Sarah Carroll works to use it right away in preparing a weekday meal for about 80 people.
But when she can’t, the Soup Kitchen is also working to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.
Since 2015, the amount of food the Soup Kitchen has received has almost tripled from 46,400 pounds in 2015 to 127,500 pounds in 2017.
“The food that’s been coming in so far has definitely been more than what our consistent need is,” Executive Director Ted Cramer said.
Coinciding with that uptick in donations in the past couple years, the Soup Kitchen has also ramped up efforts to distribute its excess to other nonprofit organizations that feed people.
In 2016, the kitchen redistributed almost 16,000 pounds of food to 15 organizations, not including donations directly to the public.
“We thought, we need to get this out the door to someone who can eat it as fast as we possibly can,” Cramer said.
Even as the Soup Kitchen has grown its network of partners up and down the food chain, Cramer still sees plenty of opportunities to do more to reduce food waste in Laramie and put food on the plates of people who would otherwise go hungry.
Such efforts, while related to the Soup Kitchen’s primary focus of providing a healthy daily meal and fellowship, also fit the organization’s larger goal of reducing hunger in Laramie, Cramer said.
“If we can bring in more high-quality food, that means we can feed more people high-quality and nutritious food, and then put an end to more hunger and more food insecurity,” he said. “It makes sense.”
Mike Vercauteren, executive director at Interfaith-Good Samaritan, called the Laramie Soup Kitchen “one of our closest allies.”
His organization, which operates a food pantry, receives food on an almost daily basis from the Soup Kitchen. In turn, Interfaith swaps bulk perishables the Soup Kitchen might be able to use, such as cans of tomato sauce.
The other day, Interfaith received a grocery cart full of milk. Fresh vegetables are often part of the offering.
“It goes quickly,” Vercauteren said. “We really appreciate fresh produce wherever we get it. People want healthy food.”
Nonprofits have varying rules that determine how they can accept food, which complicates the Soup Kitchen’s efforts.
While the Soup Kitchen uses canned food up to two years past its expiration date, except for acidic foods such as tomatoes, some agencies have can only use food that’s still unexpired. Other restrictions include tight parameters for macronutrients, food types or calories at meals.
“Sometimes menus are planned months in advance,” said Carrol, the head chef.
Cramer said the Soup Kitchen usually gives away its newest food to make sure other agencies will be able to use it.
“We have to learn everyone’s rules on the downstream side and give them the highest-quality food,” he said.
With daily food service to thousands, plus a couple thousand catered events each year, the University of Wyoming seems like a natural source of surplus food ready to donate. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Amy Bey, assistant director of dining support services, said the university’s current donation policies are the result of a concerted effort by students and administrators during recent years.
“It started out where a group of students was looking at food waste at the university and hoping that maybe we could donate it to anyone that needed it,” she said.
At Washakie Dining Center, which serves meals to students living in the university’s residence halls, a software system tracks how many people dine at each meal, how many servings of different types of food are prepared and how many servings are consumed.
“The next time we make that meal, we have that information to forecast it,” Bey said.
Plus, surplus food usually makes its way into leftovers or new meals, as the center is in operation seven days a week.
When the center closes down between semesters, however, surplus perishables are donated to the Soup Kitchen because they otherwise wouldn’t last until students return.
UW has increased its donations from its catering operations, Bey said. Donating food prepared for an event such as a conference or wedding is complicated by the fact that it requires consideration for food safety — food can’t be donated if it’s been set out on a buffet line or hasn’t been cooled properly.
“The last thing we want to do is donate something that’s maybe not safe,” she said.
Derek Jones, UW catering and events director, said catering events see food surpluses when the expected number of people don’t show up for an event. In such cases, the food had already been prepared ahead of time according to a contract, so there was no way to foresee the excess.
“Whatever is left over that doesn’t see the buffet line or make it to the table for clients to use — we wrap it, save it and call Ted and they come pick it up from us,” Jones said. “We’re happy that we can help out.”
Jones said Soup Kitchen records show they donated about 4,000 pounds of food last year, most of that from more than 1,500 catered events.
Bey said UW loves being able to support the Soup Kitchen even as they’re continually working to reduce their own excess food production.
“We’re always trying to make that number as close to zero as possible,” she said.
Cramer envisions further work to reduce food waste in the near future, perhaps with the help of a dedicated task force.
For example, while surplus food that’s fit for human consumption could theoretically be funneled through the Soup Kitchen or similar agencies, food scraps could likewise be funneled to area ranchers for animal feed or area gardeners for compost.
In a zero-waste world, free animal feed would allow ranchers to raise larger herds and perhaps make a donation of meat or money back to the Soup Kitchen.
“Imagine if we could have a consistent supply of meat or eggs or whatever it happens to be, based on the fact that we’re feeding the livestock,” Cramer said.
Similarly, food scraps fit for compost would also eventually contribute to food production.
On the other end, Cramer envisions more connections with local restaurants and suppliers, and eventually more people willing to support sustainable systems.
“The ultimate goal is to make sure there’s no food that’s going into dumpsters,” he said. “If it can be composted or going to livestock or to people, why should it go to a landfill? A consequence of that (would be) reduced food insecurity in town and fewer hungry people.”