On Super Bowl Sunday, an army of volunteers will be ready outside and inside State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona to execute a time-sensitive game plan of their own. Their mission: recover and redistribute a tremendous volume of surplus food.
Thousands of Eagles and Chiefs fans will gather on February 12 to enjoy elaborate pre-game tailgating and watch parties at or near the stadium in Glendale, where this year’s Super Bowl is taking place. Tens of thousands of pounds of food will also be stored and prepared for sale to fans through concession stands.
Regina Anderson, executive director of Food Recovery Network, is coordinating a campaign to rescue leftover food on game day. Equipped with refrigerated trucks, pallet jacks and lift gates, FRN and other groups will move some of what the National Football League estimates can be as much as 140,000 pounds of donatable food and beverage generated by Super Bowl events.
The Super Bowl is as much an annual food event as it is the biggest sporting event of the year. Across America, homes, bars and restaurants are putting out wings, chili and beer. But while food is an essential part of Super Bowl celebrations, food wastage doesn’t have to be.
Food waste has long been an issue at the game and in the country broadly, but the rise in food insecurity during the pandemic has only added urgency to tackle the problem. In 2020, just before the United States was plunged into a pandemic, FRN did just that by organizing its first Super Bowl food rescue effort. Now, FRN is making its third attempt. And the nonprofit, which was founded by students in 2011 to combat food waste on college campuses, has high hopes for this year.
“This year, we’re still very mindful of the lingering impact that the pandemic has had for people and families across the country,” said Erin Price, program manager with FRN. The Super Bowl, she added, offers a “great opportunity to increase food donations for people who are experiencing hunger and food insecurity in Glendale and the Phoenix area.”
FRN expects to collect nearly 3,000 pounds of food (the equivalent of about 2,500 individual meals and about 1,000 pounds more than last year’s effort) from the 2023 “Players Tailgate” event, set to be hosted by Food Network star chef Bobby Flay. The event is billed as a ticketed all-you-can-eat and drink extravaganza with gourmet dishes prepared by a number of celebrity chefs.
Tickets are $875 a pop for adults and $499 for kids 15 and under. The setup for it is equally extravagant.
“We’re taking over 65,000 square feet of a parking lot close to the security perimeter of the stadium, all covered in red carpet,” said Kyle Kinnett, CEO of Bulls Eye Event Group. He expects as much as 10,000 pounds of food – hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs, steaks and more – will be used from the time the party kicks off at noon local time through the duration of the game.
Kinnett said 70% of the tickets are already sold and he expects the remainder will sell in the runup to the game. “We’ve sold out the event every year we’ve held it,” he said. “The tailgate party is an over-the-top event. But I also wanted to do something right with it and find a way to give back,” added Kinnett.
It’s a race: Once the tailgate winds down, there’s only about a two-hour window to keep the leftover uncooked and cooked food safe for consumption. Student volunteers from Northern Arizona University’s FRN chapter will scoop up surplus food, load it into a refrigerated truck and quickly deliver it to the Phoenix Rescue Mission.
“There’s a rhythm to this,” said Anderson. “Last year it was very hot in LA during the Super Bowl. So we packed the non-perishable food first and then highly perishable items like meats and seafood last into the truck so we could get those foods out first when we delivered them.”
Among donated food, seafood and meats are highly valued. “These are proteins that many organizations would love to have more access to, but that can be difficult to come by due to the cost of the product,” said Price.
“In the past, we’ve donated fancy condiments like specialty pickles and mustards, which offer some variety from the more traditional products that are donated,” she said. Eggs, cheese and butter are other food staples always in demand at food banks, she said.
Every surplus item is considered for collection, even slightly softened ice cream, as long as it’s still safe to eat. “Softened ice cream isn’t bad. You can make milkshakes with it,” said Anderson.
Food insecurity a serious problem in Arizona
It’s the third time that the city of Glendale, located nine miles to the northwest of downtown Phoenix in Maricopa County, is hosting the Super Bowl.
While the mega event is expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for its host city, the Phoenix Rescue Mission is hoping the one-day affair will help address a more immediate need. Maricopa County, with a population of more than 4 million residents, struggles with high rates of food insecurity. In 2020, 17.4% of the population in Maricopa County faced it.
Nationally, millions of Americans experience food insecurity, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Feeding America, which operates 200 food banks across the country, said as many as 34 million people in the US – men, women and children – are food insecure, according to government estimates.
Phoenix Rescue Mission is a faith-based nonprofit on the frontlines of supporting persons facing hunger, homelessness, addiction and trauma.
“The food that we’re getting from the Food Recovery Network on Super Bowl day will provide substantial help to us,” said Jussane Goodman, director of community engagement with Phoenix Rescue Mission.
The mission operates a food bank five days a week. “We’re providing food to 270 to 300 families a day,” said Goodman. “We need all the food we can get.”
The pandemic, she said, triggered an uptick in families needing food assistance. More recently, many families in the county are also struggling with job losses, higher grocery prices for food essentials and homelessness.
“Many of them are coming to us regularly just to make ends meet,” said Goodman.
Arizona-based nonprofit Waste Not is partnering with the NFL’s environmental program, NFL Green, to try to limit the in-stadium food waste once the game wraps up. Waste Not will be collecting food from a number of local NFL sponsored Super Bowl events in the days leading up to the game itself, and also from the stadium, said Hillary Bryant, executive director of Waste Not.
“It’s a very large effort,” she said.
“For context of how much food we move, our records for the last Super Bowl indicate that we and NFL Green provided nearly 70,000 meals to our partners in the Phoenix Valley, alleviating hunger for thousands,” said Bryant.
The work at the stadium will begin when the game is over and the crowds disperse. “This allows the venues or food providers time to collect all food that has not been opened or touched by the public in preparation for our arrival,” she said. “So much of what we do ends up being behind the scenes to the public eye.”
Food and beverage collection will continue into the week after the game and will be delivered to area food banks, shelters and food assistance program, said Bryant.
“Recovering food that would normally go to waste is essential to the planet and people of Arizona,” said Bryant. Waste Not partners with over 85 local nonprofits that feed vulnerable populations and provide other essential services. “This food ensures that those nonprofits can continue their missions and best serve those in the Phoenix Valley,” she said.