A Moveable Feast: We Don't Waste Diverts Food from Trash to Table

From farm to food bank, local foodie and do-gooder Arlan Preblud does his part in upcycling unwanted grub with We Don't Waste, an innovative solution that marries food overproduction with insecurity.
Arlan Preblud had never been particularly sensitive to food waste. As a military kid, the Denver native spent his childhood bouncing between cities before landing back at East High School. Preblud studied political science at CU Boulder and the University of Denver, where he went on to earn his J.D., too.

After practicing law for 40 years, Preblud was "burned out," he says. And by 2008 it was increasingly difficult for solo practitioners like Preblud to compete with bigger firms. "I decided to hang it up, but I wasn't ready to retire."

He interviewed for a few gigs, and quickly realized he'd rather create his own job than work at somebody else's company. Preblud and his wife had volunteered at nonprofits over the years, including food pantries and shelters. "I saw a gap in what they were actually feeding their clients, and what they might be able to feed their clients," he recalls.   

Six years ago, it hit him. "I realized restaurants don't always put out all of the food they use each day," explains Preblud. He starting asking restaurateurs if they'd donate their food waste instead of tossing it. Absolutely!

Next, Preblud "started finding community-based agencies, and asked if they'd take food that was previously prepared," he says. Again, the answer was yes.  

In the beginning

In 2009, Preblud launched We Don't Waste when he began picking up leftovers from caterers and The Palm, and transporting them to local food banks in his Volvo station wagon. "I put the seats down, tarped the back and started knocking on doors," Preblud recalls.

CoBank presents Arlan Preblud of We Don't Waste with a big donation.It was restaurateur Josh Wolkon, owner of Ace, Steuben's and Vesta Dipping Grill, who told Preblud to focus on events and venues versus restaurants.  

"He was absolutely right," Preblud says, explaining, "Most restaurants cook to order, so there's little waste at the end of the day." Caterers, on the other hand, are notorious for having leftovers. And for Preblud, the bigger the event, well, the better the outcome.

"Epicurean Group came to me one day and asked if I'd like all of the food in the suites at Sports Authority Field," recalls Preblud. He had no idea what he was getting into. "There are 141 suites, and we had to recover all of the food," Preblud says. St. Luke's United Methodist Church was the first group to help with mass food recovery there, and We Don't Waste still relies on volunteers when tackling major catering events.

In addition to recovering food from the stadium after Denver Broncos games and events, We Don't Waste also partners with the Pepsi Center and, most recently, Coors Field -- the latter just in time for the 2016 Rockies baseball season.

We Don't Waste is in cahoots with Aurora Public Schools on a food program started by two students, and with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Adds Preblud, "We now get large amounts of food from distributors with unused product." This includes Sysco, Mile Hi Foods and Boulder Brands.

A sizable impact

At inception, prepared foods were We Don't Waste's main focus; today, though, only 20 percent of the organization's product is prepared -- the rest is  shelf-stable product, protein and produce. "We're probably at 40 percent produce," Preblud estimates. That's substantial, given that many of the agencies receiving food from Preblud rarely have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand. "They're thrilled," Preblud says.

We Don't Waste currently provides food to over 80 agencies.We Don't Waste currently provides food to over 80 agencies with a primary mission of providing meals to those in need. "Our reach is farther than that because we provide food to major pantries that distribute to other organizations," says Preblud, listing off a few of his many partners: Community Shares in Boulder County, for example, and the Adams County and Arvada Community food banks.

"What makes us really unique is that we don't warehouse any product," continues Preblud. In 2011, We Don't Waste obtained its 501(c)(3) status, and has since acquired three refrigerated trucks and hired a few employees to make deliveries.  

Preblud, by the way, has "become a major advocate," he says. One in seven Coloradans struggle with hunger, and one in five local children are food-insecure. "I try each and every day to let people know that there are thousands of people in the city who don't have enough food to feed their families," he says, adding, "At We Don't Waste, we have a sizable impact."

Preblud isn't overstating his organization's prowess. In 2015, for example, We Don't Waste saved and distributed 6.8 million servings of food. "We're already over 7.2 million servings so far this year," Preblud says of the first four months of 2016. He estimates the nonprofit has saved 2,000 tons of food since inception. 

An unexpected benefactor has been our Mother Earth. About 90 percent of the world's fresh water goes to producing food, and 40 percent of that food -- between 72 and 133 billion pounds -- is tossed into landfills annually. We Don't Waste has been instrumental in curbing that profligate practice in the Denver area.

Want to learn more? On Sat. May 21, 5 to 10 p.m., The Modern Eater hosts its Dumpster Dinner and Dumpster Dance at the Studios at Overland Crossing, 2205 S. Delaware St. The Dumpster Dinner benefits We Don't Waste, and will feature prominent local chefs, including Daniel Asher of Root Down and Linger, Nikki Olst from Epicurean Group, Preston Phillips of Grind Kitchen and John DePierro of MiJo, among others. Tickets are available online.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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