In (Food) Recovery 

With Rolling Tomato, a local entrepreneur is waging war on food waste one veggie at a time

Julie D’Agostino in her Rolling Tomato outfit (left) and recovering produce with volunteers Jim and Regina (right).

Lex Nelson

Julie D’Agostino in her Rolling Tomato outfit (left) and recovering produce with volunteers Jim and Regina (right).

Every Saturday at 12:30 p.m., Julie D'Agostino shows up at the Boise Farmer's Market clad almost entirely in red: a bright red T-shirt, a straw hat trimmed with red and white ribbon and a red and white striped apron with a tomato emblazoned across the front. D'Agostino dons her uniform each week before she picks up leftover produce from farmers at the market for Rolling Tomato, her fledgling food distribution and recovery business.

"This way, they see me coming," D'Agostino said with a smile. "It helps speed up the process."

As the market shuts down, D'Agostino and a small team of volunteers dart from stall to stall, collecting unsold fresh fruit, vegetables, bread and flowers that would otherwise end up in the landfill or compost pile. At every table, they're greeted with waves and smiles.

"Do you have anything for me today?" D'Agostino asks over and over. Each time, the answer is a resounding "Yes!" Quickly, her carts fill with fragrant cantaloupes, boxes of jewel-green zucchini and multi-colored heirloom tomatoes. One weekend, she collected nearly 350 pounds of food (a record for Rolling Tomato, worth more than $1,050) in less than an hour, packing the back of her truck so full, the overflow had to be transported in another vehicle.

Without Rolling Tomato, this produce would go uneaten, joining the estimated 17,000 tons of edible food tossed annually into the Ada County landfill, or the more than 6 million pounds of produce and other natural waste the new Boise Curbit program has turned into compost. With a bit of initiative, D'Agostino created a better alternative: Rolling Tomato delivers produce directly to local homeless shelters, senior centers, schools and independent living houses, putting it straight into hungry mouths.

When she moved to Boise last year, D'Agostino immediately sought out a food recovery nonprofit to volunteer for, hoping to continue the work she'd done in Marin County, California, at Extra Food, a food recycling nonprofit founded in 2014. When D'Agostino couldn't find an Extra Food equivalent, she started her own, using her background as a user interface designer in the tech sector to keep the process streamlined for donors and recipients alike—produce generally makes it from point A to point B in 30 minutes or less.

Seeking to "make [her]self useful," D'Agostino began a process she calls "matchmaking" between market vendors and nonprofits, establishing resources (what kind of produce is available, how much, and when) and needs (what type of produce can be used, what kind of kitchen facilities are on hand, etc.) for each side.

So far, she has overseen many happy marriages. Since its inception in Nov. 2016, Rolling Tomato has recovered more than a ton of fresh produce from the Boise Farmer's Market alone. D'Agostino currently works with almost 20 market donors and six local nonprofit recipients, and both numbers are growing. For the last few months, liaising with potential donors and recipients has become a nearly full-time job, and D'Agostino has been doing freelance consulting work to pay the bills. The majority of her time working on Rolling Tomato is spent on education: filling donors and recipients in on the legal ins and outs of food recovery.

"There are food laws that go into this," she said, "There's the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects the donors, and was passed in 1996 to encourage food producers and food sellers to donate their excess. That's a piece of education that I'd like to get out there. It already exists...we're not recreating the wheel here."

Along with illuminating these protections, D'Agostino provides donors with itemized receipts, which they can file for a tax deduction of up to 15 percent of their income.

So why haven't farms and food production companies taken the issue of donating into their own hands? The Idaho Food Bank, which has begun doing large-scale food recovery work in recent years, says the barriers of cost and time can impede those who would otherwise be donors.

"There was a time where it actually made more financial sense ... to leave [extra produce] in the field," said IFB Public Relations Coordinator Mike Sharp, "because the amount of labor that you're going to have to pay to pick it and load up the trucks, the trucker that you're paying, the gasoline, the logistical measures you'll have to take to transport, those are all considerations." Sharp added that grants help IFB offset those costs.

Like D'Agostino, IFB is always looking for help to ensure produce gets to food-insecure Idahoans, a population it says includes one out of every seven people in the state. With truckloads of fruit, vegetables and grains rolling in throughout harvest season, having volunteers ready and waiting is imperative.

"In 2008, 50 percent of our food was canned. At this point, it's 75 percent frozen and refrigerated," said Sharp. "The 10 a.m. shift is what we call our 'Harvest Helpers,' it's a shift that we've designed to try to get as much of that fresh produce packaged up and out of the building as quickly as possible."

Although they operate on vastly different scales, the Idaho Food Bank and Rolling Tomato share the same mission: making sure fresh, edible produce goes to those who need it, instead of going to waste. While IFB is focusing on recruiting more volunteers, D'Agostino is looking to expand Rolling Tomato's reach beyond the farmer's market so that she can recover food year-round.

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