Once destined for a landfill, 64 tons of wholesome foods — sandwiches, fruits, cheeses and yogurt parfaits — now fill needy children's dinner plates. Workers used to toss the prepackaged foods after the 24-hour shelf life at cafes in Tampa International Airport. But the foods remained wholesome for a week.
Now, kids in after-school programs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties say the food is delicious.
Two years ago, the wasted food began to bother Tim Juul, of HMS Host, which manages airport vendors in Tampa and more than 100 airports around the world.
Juul knew local kids were hungry. He knew the foods left over at airport restaurants could help solve that problem. He also knew the packaging along with used coffee grounds could be recycled. So he and co-worker Perry Kranias approached their corporate office with a plan.
Since Sept. 2010 the company has recovered the equivalent of 167,000 meals, recycled tons of plastics and glass, saved space in landfills and spurred similar programs in 13 other airports.
Juul shared the Tampa model with HMS Host sites in Los Vegas, Honolulu and Seattle, which plan to start soon.
He has a name for himself and his partner: Pioneers.
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It started with the "grab and go" foods and coffee grounds.
HMS Host already recycled cardboard. In 2010, the company started recovering the food and recycling the coffee grounds along with pallets, toner cartridges and cooking oil. In 2011, it included office paper, bottles, scrap metal, shrink wrap, milk jugs, whip cream canisters and soda bottles.
The efforts paid off.
The company's trash bill, which averaged $100,000 annually, went down $25,000 in 2010 and $40,000 in 2011, said Juul, who has worked for HMS Host for more than 25 years.
The company also may get a tax deduction.
The recycling and recovery plan made sense both for business and the environment.
HMS Host vendors typically produce 10 to 15 percent more foods than they expect to sell. Travelers want these prepackaged foods to be fresh, which is why they are never older than 24 hours.
These sandwiches and salads form an eclectic menu for area needy along with leftovers from Pizza Hut and Popeyes, which are HMS Host airport vendors. The redistribution effort will soon include these local restaurants set to open next month in the airport: Columbia Cafe, Cigar City Brewing, Green Iguana, Mise en Place and Shulas.
The coffee grounds go to the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens.
Laurie Walker, director of the gardens, was thrilled two years ago when officials at HMS Host contacted her with an offer: Workers at the airport would collect grounds from eight coffee shops and deliver them to the gardens.
"It's one thing to say we recycle, but they're really doing the work behind it," Walker said. "We're happy to have them as a partner."
Composting classes and other students use the grounds, Walker said.
A class focused on ethics and food production recently planted vegetables in beds made from the composted grounds.
So far, HMS Host workers have delivered 44 tons of grounds.
The pile is growing faster than it can be used, Walker said.
Collecting the unused food and coffee grounds required retraining staff, but not a lot of extra work, said Kranias, director of food and beverage operations for HMS Host in Tampa.
Kranias asked the legal department at HMS Host to start the food redistribution two years ago and was initially denied because of policies to protect the company from liability.
He researched how other companies donate foods and found the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects restaurants and caterers from criminal and civil liability when donating to food banks in good faith.
Now, on weekends, Pinellas Hope picks up donated food from the Tampa airport and serves it to homeless people.
Most of the children qualify for free or reduced school lunches, so the after-school meal serves as dinner.
"It's been honestly an amazing food source for us," said Debbi McCarthy, director of development for Feeding America in Tampa.
The kids especially like the parfaits, she said.
"Most of these kids we believe go home to empty cupboards. Missing dinner is not a small thing."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.