Brenda Pearson lives in Muskegon, Michigan, with her husband, Jim, and a menagerie of 27 wolves, nine miniature donkeys, seven horses, two coatimundis, two African servals, one lynx, one kinkajou, a savannah cat, and an assortment of chickens.
She is the founder of Howling Timbers Animal Sanctuary, a 34-acre refuge for abandoned, abused, and relinquished animals. Jim helps fund it from his paycheck working at a defense contractor, and there are some private donations from animal lovers. It costs about $30,000 a year to run the sanctuary, and half of that money goes toward animal feed.
When Pearson heard that the food bank Feeding America West Michigan donates expired and unusable food, she approached the organization to ask if it could help feed her animals.
“I’m very frugal, but still, feeding the wolves and other animals is expensive,” she said. “Feeding America initially delivered a pickup truck load of food each week. Now we get a 16-foot trailer every week, and that’s a savings of $15,000 a year for us.”
In Michigan, it’s illegal to own wolves and wolf dogs. But despite the law, “people think it’s cool to keep wolves,” Pearson said. “They think, ‘I’m going to walk down the street with my wolf, and everyone will be impressed.’ But they are high maintenance.”
Many of the animals come to her because people’s circumstances change—a divorce, a foreclosure, seizures by animal control and the IRS, and court decisions about neglected or abused animals can all lead to wolves ending up on Pearson’s doorstep.
The food donations help lift some of the financial burden of running the sanctuary, so now Pearson only has to buy hay and dry dog food—the wolves also eat kibble, aside from the donated meat.
“We’re not taking food away from people, but we’re keeping it out of the trash,” she said.
Feeding America West Michigan pioneered the idea of diverting food headed for landfills, a practice that is now being emulated by other food banks around the country.
The innovative food bank feeds half a million people spread across more than half the state, from western Michigan to the Upper Peninsula. The large number is a testament to the local economic conditions.
“In Michigan and in the Upper Peninsula, we’ve struggled economically for a couple decades but more so since 2008,” said Andrew Steiner of Feeding America West Michigan. “Unemployment is above the national average, and even those employed are underemployed, so they don’t have enough to sustain their families.”
Steiner explained that it used to be hard for food banks to accept donations of perishable food. By the time it was received, inventoried, and parceled out to agencies such as soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other programs, it would spoil.
So the food bank decided to bypass the distribution network and take the fruits and vegetables directly to people, with trucks that act as mobile food pantries.
“We get produce in the morning, load it on trucks by midday, and give it to families the same afternoon,” Steiner said. “This opened up opportunities to take a lot more produce from farmers and redistribute it the same day.”
Food banks across the country began to adopt the practice the same way Feeding America West Michigan’s food-recycling program eventually caught on.
Five cattle and pig farmers have partnered with the food bank to receive food that is not fit for human consumption. They use it as animal feed, and what cannot be used is composted, a practice Pearson follows as well.
Steiner said the food bank received 28 million pounds of food last year and distributed all but 1.5 million pounds, which were either expired, spoiled, or had packaging that was ripped open.
“It’s what happens when working with large volumes of food,” he said. “But we want to treat all the food we get with respect because there’s a lot of time, money, and effort that goes into producing this food. So we want it to be put to good use.”
So far this year, Pearson’s animal sanctuary and the farmers have received about 194,000 pounds of waste food, which amounts to 75 percent of the food bank’s waste. Steiner says the food bank has been getting calls from others wanting to partner with it.
“I visited a cattle rancher with about 30 cattle, and he takes our stale bread for his cows because it’s grain-based, so he saves about 50 percent on his feed costs,” he said.
The partnership works both ways. The savings are not just for the farmers or Pearson’s animal sanctuary. The food bank has to pay about $50,000 in landfill costs each year, the bulk of which goes toward renting dumpsters to collect the waste food, which are then hauled away.
“That’s money saved that can be used to feed people. It’s enough to distribute 200,000 meals to people in need,” Steiner said. “It’s the right thing to do, it’s good for our mission, and it’s good for the farmers. But there is a financial benefit too since we save money.”
He said the program doesn’t take any extra effort either because volunteers already sort the produce, meat, and other food and toss what can’t be used into special bins. So all the food bank has to do is load its trucks with the bins and deliver them to its partners.
It’s an avenue that other animal sanctuaries should explore as well, Pearson said.
“From week to week, we don’t know what food we’re going to get. I don’t have walk-in coolers, so in the winter, we have a small building that acts as our freezer, and we hope we don’t get a sudden thaw,” she said. “In the summer, we use 14 fridges and freezers to keep it cold. Our electric bill is huge, but the benefit far outweighs the expense, so it’s well worth it.”
• Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.
• This article originally appeared at TakePart, a leading source of socially relevant news, features, opinion, entertainment, and information – all focused on the issues that shape our lives. Visit takepart.com/start-from-the-source.