It’s hard to visualize $165 billion. That’s the value of food wasted in the US annually. It is also hard to grasp the staggering amount of food waste—246,000 tons—that ends up in the landfill in Montgomery County every year.

Until recently, I didn’t really think about where all the perfectly good food with expired “sell-by dates” ends up. I never considered what happens to all those delicious coffee shop bagels, muffins and sandwiches left at the end of the day. But the enormity of food waste hit home for me when I watched farmers donate many bathtub-sized gray bins of their unsold, perfectly good vegetables and fruit at the end of a bustling Sunday at the Olney farmers market.

Community Food Rescue LogoThanks to Manna Food Center’s Fresh Give program, I know that this produce will end up on the dinner plate of someone in need of food assistance. But what about all the perfectly good food that isn’t sold or donated? It may be tossed into a compost pile or, worse, into a landfill.

After earning my MBA in sustainability in 2009, I launched a second career as a local food systems business consultant, working with nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurs and food business startups. The more I learned about our food system, the more I saw how much food is wasted, locally, nationally and globally.

Meanwhile, people go hungry, even in prosperous Montgomery County. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study, nearly 82,000 Montgomery County residents struggle with food insecurity. Perhaps more alarming, 35 percent of children in Montgomery County Public Schools qualify for free or reduced meals, and that number keeps growing.

Fortunately, there are many great individual efforts to recover food in our community. Some grocery stores, restaurants, caterers and farmers donate their near-expired food, leftover prepared food and unsold fresh fruit and vegetables. Nonprofit organizations like Manna Food Center, Nourish Now, Shepherd’s Table and many community- and faith-based food pantries distribute this food and prepare meals for those who are food insecure. Even so, nearly 23 percent of food still ends up Montgomery County’s solid waste stream every year.

The Montgomery County Council envisioned a countywide coordinated food recovery effort. A Council-appointed Food Recovery Working Group developed an action plan. Now, with the financial support of County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett, we’re turning this plan into a system.

The new initiative is called Community Food Rescue. Spearheaded by a team from Manna Food Center, efforts are underway to develop a system to match donors and recipients, develop protocols for safe food handling and transportation and create an incentive and recognition program to celebrate food donors. This system is on track to pilot in late 2014.

Follow us as we develop Community Food Rescue. For more information visit our website and Facebook page and subscribe to our e-newsletter. Until our system is ready, those who have food to donate now can contact these organizations directly.