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A Squash's Journey: From The Shelf To The Hungry

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A Squash's Journey: From The Shelf To The Hungry

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A Squash's Journey: From The Shelf To The Hungry

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Now a story about people who don't have enough food to eat and a new effort to change that. In the United States, about 150 billion pounds of food is wasted each year. Much of it goes bad sitting on store shelves. Food banks are trying to get these groceries to feed the hungry. But the big challenge is time: Transferring the food to people who need it before it spoils.

Today, we're going to ride along on that journey. NPR's Pam Fessler has the story about a new venture between Wal-Mart and Feeding America, the nation's food bank network.

PAM FESSLER: Steven White takes a big bite out of a hot ear of corn, one of several dozen he's boiling at the Salvation Army soup kitchen in Johnson City, Tennessee.

Mr. STEVEN WHITE: This is awesome and it's perfect. We need to get it off.

FESSLER: He grabs two gray mitts and lifts the steaming pot from the stove. White not only cooks here. He lives at the shelter. He and his wife both lost their jobs, then their home.

Ms. CINDY TIPTON (Retired, Nurse): I think it's just right.

FESSLER: Ten miles away, in Jonesborough, retired nurse Cindy Tipton opens the oven in her trailer home...

Ms. TIPTON: Golden brown.

FESSLER: ...and pulls out a cornbread casserole she made with a yellow squash from the local food pantry.

Tipton and White are among tens of millions of Americans who need help getting enough to eat.

Ms. TIPTON: If you have to spend money on groceries, then you don't have the money to pay the electric bill or the house payment.

FESSLER: But getting the food they need is a big logistical challenge, one that food banks increasingly face as hunger in the U.S. grows.

We wanted to find out how Tipton and White got that squash and that ear of corn, and other food. And to do that, we had to turn the clock back about 48 hours.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

FESSLER: It's 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon and I'm outside the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Johnson City, Tennessee. Inside the store, some of the food items are nearing their sell-by dates and store workers will soon begin pulling them off the shelves and setting them aside to give to the local food bank tomorrow morning.

And it starts in the meat department, where Supervisor Brittany Levasseur and an associate toss packages onto a cart.

Ms. BRITTANY LEVASSEUR (Supervisor, Meat Department, Wal-Mart): This is actually sirloin tip steak. And as you can see, it's still pretty, it's red. There's nothing wrong.

FESSLER: Except the label says, to use or freeze it by today.

Ms. LEVASSEUR: And it hasn't sold. So what we will do, we will pull it off the floor, put it in a special box that we have and put it in the freezer.

FESSLER: Along with two-day-old bread and baked goods. At six the following morning, store manager Emily Bowman is checking produce when she finds yellow squash covered in brown spots.

Ms. EMILY BOWMAN (Store Manager, Wal-Mart): It's still very flexible, it still has a good texture to it, but it's not quite as eye-appealing to someone that is looking to, you know, get it at its peak.

FESSLER: Customers have expectations, so onto the donation cart it goes.

Now, what about this corn, which looks to me kind of brownish?

Ms. BOWMAN: There's nothing wrong with the corn itself. When you pull back the husk...

(Soundbite of shredding)

Ms. BOWMAN: ...and the corn inside is still beautiful. But because the outside is a little dry, we'll be pulling this.

FESSLER: Not long ago, Wal-Mart, like many stores, would have tossed this food away or recycled it for compost or animal feed. But last year, the company decided it made more sense to give it to food banks and maybe polish its image in the process.

Unidentified Man #1: Attention associates. I need all associates with Second Harvest Food Bank donations to bring them to receiving at this time.

FESSLER: The truck from the local food bank has just arrived at the back of the store. It comes here three times a week. For the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, this arrangement has been a godsend. Surplus food isn't as plentiful as it used to be. Store workers have brought about two dozen boxes to the loading dock.

So it's 11:00 on Wednesday morning and the meat that was pulled from the shelf yesterday afternoon is now being loaded on the truck.

Unidentified Man #2: A hundred and two pounds.

FESSLER: A hundred and two pounds, also 330 pounds of produce including our ear of corn and the squash.

Overall, Wal-Mart has pledged to give food banks about $2 billion worth of food over the next five years. It's the biggest donation ever. And that's where things have gotten a little tricky. How can food banks safely transport all this fresh and frozen food? So, Wal-Mart has also given them a hundred refrigerated trucks, like this one.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FESSLER: The Second Harvest truck picks up more donations from a local donut shop and an organic grocery, before arriving at the food bank warehouse at noon.

(Soundbite of a metal gate)

Mr. MICHAEL LEDFORD (Second Harvest): This is our containment room here.

FESSLER: Michael Ledford of Second Harvest says the donations now have to be sorted.

Mr. LEDFORD: Any of the dry items, canned goods, things like that may be leaking or anything like that or dented that need inspection go in here.

FESSLER: Although the meat goes right into the freezer, where it can be kept for days. The corn and squash end up in a huge walk-in cooler, with the other produce and dairy products.

The food bank's next challenge is getting all these perishables out the door fast, while they're still good.

It's now 1 p.m. Wednesday. Workers have arrived from the Salvation Army, one of 200 agencies the food bank supplies. They've been called to come pick up some of this fresh food and they're happy to see the corn, a rare treat.

Unidentified Man #3: There's probably over 100 in a case, don't you think?

Unidentified Man #4: So we have two cases. That'll do us at least two meals.

FESSLER: They also get bread, cake and fruit. It's a good deal, les than $10 for six cases of food.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's smelling good.

FESSLER: Three hours later, at the Salvation Army's soup kitchen, the bread is in the oven, the corn is in the pot.

How much longer does it have to boil?

Unidentified Man #5: I'm thinking it's done now.

FESSLER: Which is when Steven White takes that first bite.

By 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Salvation Army dining room is full. It's about 24 hours since the baked goods were taken off the shelves; 11 hours for the corn. Several dozen men and women, most of them homeless, are handed plates piled high with pork patties, pinto beans, mixed greens, bread and corn.

Unidentified Man #6: Enjoy that. Make sure Ron give you...

FESSLER: By 5:30, dinner is done.

Unidentified Man #7: Thank you all, very much appreciate it.

FESSLER: But the food bank is not. There's still produce left, including that brown-speckled squash.

The following morning, Second Harvest workers load up their mobile food pantry with fruits and vegetables, milk, baked goods and canned food. This is rural Tennessee. Many people can't get to a soup kitchen or pantry, so the food bank increasingly brings food to them.

Unidentified Man #8: All right, everybody, start turning your numbers in over here, and we're ready to go.

FESSLER: It's 1:30 Thursday afternoon, about 50 men and women are lined up in a parking lot. Most are elderly. They hold boxes and plastic laundry baskets to collect their food.

Unidentified Woman #2: How about just these corn muffins here?

Unidentified Man #9: These?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah, that'll be fine, thank you.

FESSLER: Cindy Tipton, the retired nurse, is here with two friends. They're all on fixed incomes. Widow Virginia Roper says last month she ran out of money.

Ms. VIRGINIA ROPER: I didn't have anything to drink and no milk or, you know, and I had to just wait. And now I've got a gallon of milk.

FESSLER: These women are grateful for whatever they get here. Tipton struggles to carry her filled basket to the car. Back at her trailer, she fries up the vegetables.

Ms. TIPTON: I've got mushrooms, broccoli, the squash.

FESSLER: Which it turns out is fine under those brown spots. Tipton pours the vegetables and batter into a pan and an hour later, voila, cornbread casserole.

It's 4 p.m. Thursday, two days after Wal-Mart began culling its shelves, when she takes her first bite.

Ms. TIPTON: It's hot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FESSLER: In a half hour, it will be dinnertime again at the Salvation Army. Tomorrow, the food bank will be back at Wal-Mart and other stores and the process will begin again.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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