Small rural senior nutrition programs, like the Reserve Senior Center in Catron County, New Mexico, often get overlooked in the national dialogue, regardless of the topic.  But that’s not NFESH’s point of view. We know how vitally important every Senior Nutrition Program (SNP) can be to the community it serves, no matter what its size.  So when we developed What A Waste, we did so with every SNP in mind. We realized that the conventional wisdom might assume that, because the number of people and meals these SNPs serve is so limited, the waste must be insignificant. The principle of economies of scale could be expected only to yield minimal benefit.  Or so others could assume.

What A Waste doesn’t rely on untested assumptions. To the contrary, it operates on the basis of data and facts. And the fact is What A Waste began delivering a big bonanza in Reserve in just the third month of the project. That has enabled the Senior Center to accomplish its mission much more effectively – to the benefit of seniors who desperately need their services.

The nutrition program is located in a remote area of the State. Catron is the largest land mass county in New Mexico and it is also the third least populous with a population density of just one person per square mile. In addition to being vastly rural, the area is poor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau nearly 25 percent of the residents of Catron County live in poverty and 20 percent are Hispanic. Those two demographic characteristics have been identified by NFESH-commissioned research as major risk factors for senior hunger, and their prevalence in Reserve underscores the importance of reducing waste in the Senior Nutrition Program there so that its limited resources can be utilized to provide nutritious meals to more seniors in need.

That is precisely what What A Waste has done in Reserve. The project has enabled the nutrition program to pinpoint exactly where its waste is occurring and in what magnitude. Armed with the information, Center leadership has already implemented operational changes that are delivering amazing results.

During the three month baseline period, the Pan Waste at the Center– that is, food that was prepared but not served — amounted to 195 pounds. When annualized, that would have translated into 719 meals, which were being discarded before What A Waste. For a program serving 26 meals a day, that was significant. When the Center leadership saw the magnitude of their loss, they contacted the Area Agency on Aging and gained permission to pack and freeze these unserved leftovers for use as home delivered meals for other seniors in need who could not access the congregate meal. Pan Waste was totally eliminated in the month of August and additional seniors were reaping the benefit.

The other source of waste was Plate Waste, food served to seniors that they did not eat during the meal. This was addressed in two ways. First, the Center began to allow seniors to take home their leftovers to eat later in the day or evening. For some, those leftovers were a vital part of an additional meal. Other food that was not eaten or taken home was diverted to compost for Center gardening instead of being discarded. The garden harvest is already plentiful.

Catron County Commission on Aging Executive Director Lou Menges openly admits her initial concerns about What A Waste. “How are we going to do this?” she asked herself when NFESH introduced the project. It did not take long for her to see. “When you eliminate waste, you’re helping seniors – and that’s why we’re here. What A Waste gives me more tools to see how I can do things better,” she declared with obvious delight.

Doing things better and making life better for the older residents is a growing activity now in one very special and very rural community in New Mexico. It may not be part of the national dialogue yet, but everyone in Reserve is talking about it.