Photo: Kathryn Ziesig, AP
JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Standing in an overflowing dumpster in the middle of winter, Ali Milburn looked down at the expiration date on packages of chicken breasts: It was that day.
She was a vegetarian at the time, but she grabbed everything she could and gave it to her friend: a six-month supply of frozen chicken. He didn’t get sick once.
For Milburn that was just one of dozens of experiences that fired up her passion to solve food waste problems in Jackson. What started off as secret midnight dives into the grocery store dumpster became a stop after work with friends.
“It was insanity,” Milburn said. “Literally everything you could find in the grocery store I was finding in the dumpster — totally edible, good-quality stuff,” she said.
An egg carton with one cracked egg, apples with a few bruises, packaged foods with expiration dates that had passed but that were otherwise perfect — all sat in the dumpster.
“Expiration dates mean almost nothing,” said Milburn, who lives by the philosophy that the nose knows what’s good and what’s not.
After months of eating healthy, nutritious dumpster food, Milburn started hosting “Progressive Potlucks,” where people would bring food they found and have lively discussions on the food system over dinner. Each week they would discuss a different question: What does “organic” mean? Why would you go gluten-free? What is the environmental effect of eating meat? Why do we use GMOs?
One week Milburn sat in a red chair in her living room during a Progressive Potluck and decided that she could no longer sit still, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reported.
Thirteen years ago, during the summer after her senior year in high school, Milburn’s best friend died in a car accident.
“When Alex died, I realized the fragility of life,” Milburn said through tears.
Alex had a creative spirit and the motivation to share his creations with others, she said, which she wanted to carry on. But at the time she had no idea how to do that. Two months after Alex’s death she moved to Arizona for college and developed insomnia.
“There’s nothing that’s going to break you down faster physically and mentally than not sleeping,” she said.
Milburn dropped out of college after her first year, took a break to work on her mental health and to figure out which direction she wanted to go next. She found an interest in nutrition and naturopathic healing and ended up back home in Colorado, studying integrative physiology at the University of Colorado.
After another four years of school, Milburn searched for the best ski town in the nation, found Jackson and moved here with her best friend without a plan.
Which is when her dumpster dives began. After months of support from friends, a growing hunger for change and Alex’s spirit still alive in her heart, Milburn created Hole Food Rescue.
Hole Food Rescue is a 7-year-old nonprofit that collects imperfect but still edible food from area retailers and distributes it to Teton County residents who may be food-insecure.
“I never could have predicted the rapid success and the immense love that this community has for Hole Food Rescue,” she said.
For Milburn the first and last thought of each day always includes Hole Food Rescue. It’s more than a full-time job for her, because she’s constantly trying to think of new solutions to help people who are hungry.
In March, when the first wave of the pandemic spread across the nation, Milburn took note of three emerging categories: people who were out of work and could no longer pay their bills and support their families, people who sat in total isolation with no human interaction, and people who worked longer and harder than ever before. And unlike most days, when there was a surplus of food to distribute, people were emptying grocery store shelves, leaving no food for rescue.
The pandemic forced Milburn to shift because the need for food was greater than the food waste inventory.
Over the past four months, Milburn has strengthened relationships with other organizations in the community, redesigned the workspace and started purchasing food to work more like a traditional food bank for the time being.
About a month ago, Milburn became a regional director of the Wyoming Hunger Initiative. As she continues to feed Teton County, Milburn looks forward to a future of inspiring food rescues across the nation.
And even though she has less time to play outdoors than she had thought she would when she moved to Jackson, she looks at her life through eyes of gratitude.
“It feels uncomfortable to be in the spotlight as the founder, but it’s also very cool to be a small part of making a difference,” she said.