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NPR's Pam Fessler's been reporting this week on food banks and efforts to keep their shelves stocked. Increasingly, that means salvaging food that otherwise would go to waste. This has taken on new urgency as federal food aid programs face steep cuts. A food bank in Northeast Tennessee is testing one of the latest innovations.

PAM FESSLER: In a back room at a food bank in Gray, Tennessee, dented and crushed cans are piled on a counter. In the past, these cans all would have been tossed - green beans, carrots, tomato sauce - because no one knew whether bacteria had slipped through a crack, spoiling the contents. But that might be about to change.

(Soundbite of machinery):

FESSLER: Scott Kinney, who works here, puts several damaged cans into a box with a clear lid. It's a vacu-pack machine - the kind used to seal food in plastic.

Mr. SCOTT KINNEY: Right now, it's setting up the vacuum. You can watch the cans will move a little bit as the vacuum gets to its highest pressure point.

FESSLER: The cans vibrate then suddenly puff up like little balloons.

Mr. KINNEY: Right in there. See them move a little bit? Right there. Now, it's pulled that pressure, it's holding, it's sucking. Now, it's releasing. And then the top pops up.

FESSLER: He removes one of the cans, and runs his hand along the outside. It's dry - a good sign. If there'd been a hole, the vacuum would have sucked out some of the food. Kinney says this system is being tested, here and elsewhere, but at this food bank alone it could mean tons of additional food for needy people. Out of 300 cans run through the machine the day before...

Mr. KINNEY: We lost one can. The good news is it was cat food.

Ms. RHONDA CHAFIN (Executive Director, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee): We need more. More food, unfortunately.

FESSLER: Rhonda Chafin is executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. She says her food bank now distributes eight million pounds of food a year. But demand keeps growing and she's always looking for untapped sources. She gets donations from lots of local grocery stores and retailers. But she also has her eyes on those who don't give.

Ms. CHAFIN: We still have hospitals, hotels, caterers, restaurants that could give prepared food that has not been utilized, that's still in the kitchen that was left over.

FESSLER: The challenge is convincing potential donors that it's a good thing to do, and then finding a way to store and transport the food safely.

Jonathan Bloom recently wrote a book called "American Wasteland." He says Americans squander about 40 percent of their food - 150 billion pounds a year -way more than what's needed to feed the hungry.

Mr. JONATHAN BLOOM (Author, "American Wasteland"): All throughout the food chain, there's a winnowing process, where anything that doesn't look quite right or isn't the right size gets cast aside. And this squandering of perfectly edible food is happening from farm to fork. The main culprit here is wanting our food to look perfect.

FESSLER: He says lots of retailers prefer to throw it away, rather than donating, for fear of being sued if something goes wrong - even though there are laws protecting donors against such suits.

Another promising source for more donations is farms, says Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks.

Ms. VICKI ESCARRA (President and CEO, Feeding America): We know that today, there is six billion pounds of produce that is grown, but never distributed.

FESSLER: Much of its plowed under, if market demand isn't there. So, Feeding America is now talking with farmers about how to get a billion pounds of that food a year directly to the poor.

Ms. ESCARRA: The good news is it's healthy food, which, you know, clients need healthier food. We all need to eat better. The challenging thing is a billion pounds is a lot of food and it is highly perishable.

FESSLER: So, along with buying machines to check out damaged cans, food banks will likely be in the market soon for more refrigerated trucks and mobile pantries, so they can get all this produce quickly and safely to those who need it.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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