RIPE FOR THE GIVING: Nonprofit treks food to refugees in Aurora

“We aim to go from source to stomach in 45 minutes,” Wyatt said. “At that point people can eat some of it on the way home or they can cook it in dinner that night. So instead of having things sit in a food bank waiting to get sorted, we get it down to less than an hour.”

AURORA | Turner Wyatt is staunch and systematic as he totes a plastic crate of plums around his creamsicle-colored 1978 Datsun pickup. With careful calculation, the 24-year-old peers through the propped-open windows surrounding the packed truck bed in an attempt to find a temporary home for the venerable fruits.

“A-ha, there we go,” he says while muscling the bin into an invisible cranny. Barely noticeable to an unfamiliar eye, the congested cavity is hidden among dozens of cardboard boxes teeming with silky corn tendrils.

20150911-Denver Food Rescue-, Colorado

Turner Wyatt loads the back of his truck with outdated produce from 5280 Produce on Friday Sept. 11, 2015 in Denver. Wyatt delivers the food from the distributor to Project Worthmore in Aurora. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20150911-Denver Food Rescue-, Colorado

Turner Wyatt shakes hands with Mike Martelli, co-owner of 5280 Produce, after Martelli donated outdated produce on Friday. Wyatt delivers produce to Project Worthmore, a nonprofit that provides health and nutrition services to refugees. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20150911-Denver Food Rescue-, Colorado

Turner Wyatt uses a bathroom scale to weigh in produce that was donated from distributors on Friday Sept. 11, 2015 at Project Worthmore. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

20150911-Denver Food Rescue-, Colorado

Liz Heavenrich, an intern from the University of Denver for Project Worthmore, does computer work while Lannea Russell, left, a volunteer coordinator, has a refugee pick a card out of a bag to determine who is next to pick up produce on Friday. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

That Tetris-like chore is one Wyatt knows well. He and the truck he inherited from his grandfather perform it at least twice every week — providing thousands of pounds of free produce for refugees in Aurora in the process.

Wyatt is the executive director of Denver Food Rescue, a regional nonprofit that focuses on moving unwanted — but still perfectly edible — food from local grocery stores and produce distributors to nearby low-income areas. Boasting a team of about 50 weekly volunteers, the organization hauls nearly 1,000 pounds of fresh produce a day to community centers across Denver, and as of recently, Aurora. This spring, Wyatt and his team began working with Project Worthmore, a nonprofit on Galena Street that offers a slew of healthcare services to the city’s mushrooming refugee population.

“It’s like a one-stop shop,” said Frank Anello, who co-founded the refugee center with his wife, Carolyn, in 2009. “You can come get a medical exam, get your teeth cleaned, learn English and now you can get food, too. You can do it all.”

That Tetris-like chore is one Wyatt knows well. He and the truck he inherited from his grandfather perform it at least twice every week — providing thousands of pounds of free produce for refugees in Aurora in the process.

Wyatt drives hundreds of pounds of produce from a pair of distributors in north Denver to Project Worthmore every Wednesday and Friday, and from noon to 2 p.m. refugees — the majority of whom are Burmese — are free to take as many fruits and vegetables as they can carry home. Denver Food Rescue deals solely in produce, in an effort to offset the range of surgar-heavy foods often found in food deserts and other food pantries. About 23.5 million people nationwide live in food deserts, which are defined as communities “without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Everybody shops with their eyes and (because of that) at Safeway, King Soopers and Whole Foods, everything needs to look perfect,” said Mike Martinelli, co-owner of 5280 Produce, one of the distributors Wyatt uses to stock the shelves at Project Worthmore. “It goes to waste, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Stuff is usually good for two or three days more than what those companies say is expired.”

And although Wyatt has been moving his supply to Aurora by car for the past several months, it’s the lone exception in the organization’s blossoming network of partnering communities. All of the fruits and vegetables delivered to the eight neighborhoods the organization works with in Denver are moved via metal trailers attached to volunteer’s bikes.

“We aim to go from source to stomach in 45 minutes,” Wyatt said. “At that point people can eat some of it on the way home or they can cook it in dinner that night. So instead of having things sit in a food bank waiting to get sorted, we get it down to less than an hour.”

Everybody shops with their eyes, and at Safeway, King Soopers and Whole Foods, everything needs to look perfect. It goes to waste, but that doesn’t need to be the case.”

Mike Martinelli
Co-owner of 5280 Produce

Wyatt said that he has been in talks with an Aurora grocer in recent months and expects to begin biking food from an in-city outpost to Project Worthmore in October. He said that there will be a bike trailer permanently kept at the Mango House — the larger refugee resource center in which Project Worthmore resides — and that the goal is to have the Aurora program run entirely by local residents.

“We’d love it if every one of these neighborhoods were doing the distribution themselves,” Wyatt said. “The idea is that maybe it’s more encouraging for the community not to see yet another nonprofit of mainly college-educated, middle-class white people coming in with solutions.”

Originally founded in Boulder in 2011, Food Rescue is now in nine communities across the metro region, with another neighborhood expected to be added to the web by the year’s end, according to Wyatt. However, he said that the decision to step into Aurora was initially a shaky one.

“We were worried about mission drift, because at first we didn’t think it was appropriate to work with refugees, based on our mission of providing for low-income families,” Wyatt said. “But, because Aurora is more diverse, which I’m pretty sure it is, that means we have to diversify what it is to be a low-income family. And if we’re just trying to help whoever needs it most in whatever place we’re working, then we have to be able to adjust. And I think thats what we’re doing in Aurora.”