Feeding America SWVA uses vacuum testing to make a big dent in food recovery

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SALEM (WSLS 10)-- More than 150,000 in Southwest Virginia are food insecure, meaning they're forced to choose between heating their home, paying to get a prescription filled or using that money to feed their family. This is the time of year that food banks see a big increase in donations and thanks to a unique machine, Feeding America Southwest Virginia is now able to serve more people.

The vacuum machine is something that only a few food banks nationwide have access to. It's able to test the badly dented and damaged cans, determining whether or not they're still safe to eat.

Volunteers load the questionable cans into the machine and in less than thirty seconds, it's formed a tight seal. If food starts to ooze out of the cans, they know the can is damaged and not safe to eat. If nothing happens and the can looks fine-- it's safe and can be donated to those who need it.

Before this machine, cans that were badly dented went through a visual inspection-- but it was hard to tell just by looking if the dents had created a tiny, pin-sized hole or broken a seal, allowing bacteria to get in. Feeding America was forced to throw away about 350,000 pounds of badly dented and damaged cans a year, because it was impossible to tell whether or not they were safe to eat.

"Those would have been going to the landfill," says John Shoulders, the Senior VP of Business Affairs. "More poundage out of the landfill means more poundage back into people's homes and their kitchen so it can be consumed. Our whole idea is trying to bring back more food wherever possible and rescue food so that people can eat."

The idea for a machine like this came about when senior staff members were on a visit to a food bank in Charleston, South Carolina. Local engineers had built a machine that could vacuum seal the cans-- testing for any punctures or weak spots that could have let bacteria in. That's when the team from Salem decided they needed a vacuum machine of their own, to cut down on the amount of damaged food that had to be thrown away.

Thanks to a grant from BB&T's Lighthouse Project, Feeding America was able to purchase a Vacuum Heat Seal machine (Ultravac 500). The heating function was removed, leaving behind the vacuum machine that is now used to test the cans.

The machine is keeping more food out of the landfills and back in the community, with the assurance that it's totally safe to eat.

"Cans get moved by forklift and pallet-jack and by truck," explains Amanda Allen, the Marketing and Communication Coordinator. "There are a lot of chances for a can to incur some damage. This is a great piece of machinery that makes sure cans that are just aesthetically damaged, but still safe to eat, make it back to the people who need them."

Taking food safety one step further, Feeding America Southwest Virginia sends a sample of tested cans off to be further tested-- making sure the machine is working properly.

The machine was put into operation back in 2012. Since then about 300,000 pounds of dented cans are saved by the machine each year-- those are cans that would have failed a visual test and been thrown away before. With an estimated value of $1.70 per pound, that's more than half a million dollars of food that's being funneled back into the community.