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Solving Food Waste and Hunger Through Food Rescue


Editor's Note: This summer, Tamanna Mohapatra, a master's student in Columbia University's Sustainability Management Program, took a ride with City Harvest and got an up-close look at food waste and hunger in New York City. This is the first post in a two-part feature detailing her experience.

By Tamanna Mohapatra

Lincoln Hernandez, originally from the Dominican Republic, now calls Queens, New York his home. He drives a truck on the east side of Manhattan for City Harvest, a New York City-based food rescue program, every weekday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

On a Tuesday in August, he arrived at 8:30 in the morning to pick me up from Trader Joe’s grocery store on Broadway and 14th Street, so I could observe him in his rounds of food collection. Mr. Hernandez has been with City Harvest for close to four years now.

“You can remember my name because I am the 16th president of the United States,” he joked. Kidding aside, when asked about how he liked working at City Harvest, he said, “I feel more good working here than when going to church. I feel so great collecting and distributing food.”

We are both immigrants, he from the Caribbean and I from India. Food waste as a concept was relatively alien to us before arriving in the United States, especially the astronomical proportions found here.

That Tuesday morning, we both did our part in trying to make a dent in this very noticeable yet unchallenged social, economic and environmental issue by hauling bag after bag of fresh and one-day-old food, and lots of bread, into the mid-sized refrigerated City Harvest truck. Our stash at the end of just one trip was 2,600 pounds of edible, wholesome food! This is food that would have been thrown away if not for City Harvest’s food rescue program.

City Harvest is in the business of rescuing food. Jonathan Bloom, author of "American Wasteland," states: “Food rescue does not involve superheroes in capes. Also called food recovery, it is the practice of retrieving edible food that would otherwise go to waste and distributing it to those in need. In most cases, the recovered food is perfectly edible, but not sellable.”

City Harvest collects excess food, both prepared and uncooked, from restaurants, cafeterias, hotels and grocery stores -- basically any commercial or nonprofit organization that wishes to donate. They then give away all the food on the same day to some 400 community programs around New York City, mostly in the Bronx borough.

Their fleet consists of 18 trucks and three bikes, with 32 drivers, three bikers and three helpers. All trucks start from the City Harvest warehouse in Long Island City and conduct pickups during three time slots: morning, midday and night. In a sense, City Harvest is a 24/7 business. Each truck makes about 21 stops, including unplanned ones; numbers vary on a daily basis.

“Even with so much food being available for pickup, only 10 percent is picked up by City Harvest,” said Mr. Hernandez.

Understanding the issue

That unfortunately sums up the situation of food waste globally, nationally and specifically in New York City. The global consulting company McKinsey concluded in a 2011 report, “The food waste in North America and Europe alone could feed all of the world’s hungry three times over. Moreover, cutting our food waste by half would have the same effect as taking half the cars off our roads.”

In restaurants, mishandling existing food, large portions and menus contribute to much food waste. In households, fresh products make up most of the wasted food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that a typical American throws out 40 percent of fresh fish, 23 percent of eggs and 20 percent of milk. Citrus fruits and cherries top the list for fruits, and sweet potatoes, onions and greens are the most commonly wasted vegetables.

The Natural Resource Defense Council, a reputed, New York City-based international environmental advocacy group, brought out a highly researched and quoted issue paper on the subject of food waste in America. The report, published just over a year ago, posits that in 2012 Americans threw away 40 percent of all food produced for consumption. This number has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s, with a total value of all waste food estimated to be around $165 billion a year. The Department of Agriculture estimated that recovering just 5 percent of the food that is wasted could feed 4 million people a day; recovering 25 percent would feed 20 million people.

Food waste at glance

So, what is food waste? The Food Waste Reduction Alliance defines food waste as “any solid or liquid food substance, raw or cooked, which is discarded, or intended or required to be discarded.” This includes food that can be rescued and is safe to consume, but is thrown out for no good reason. Oftentimes this last category isn’t added in the definition food waste -- but it's the heart of where most food waste happens. In New York City and most cities in the U.S., food waste is considered municipal solid waste.

Food waste and hunger ironically and unfortunately exist together in our society. As per the Environmental Protection Agency, “Food waste is a serious concern at many levels. Despite all of this discarded food, people are still going hungry.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 14 percent of U.S. households were “food insecure” in 2010, meaning they were not always certain where their next meal would come from. We live in a culture that, on the one hand, produces enough food to feed the entire population of the planet, but on the other hand wastes about a third of all the food produced globally, heightening both hunger and food insecurity.

The situation with food waste feels even more compelling and dire when witnessed at a local level. Often considered the global financial capital of the world and a very efficiently run city, New York City has some very telling food waste statistics. The latest figures from the Bloomberg administration have it pegged at 1.2 million tons going into landfills every year.

On a related note, the Food Research and Action Center, a leading nonprofit organization working on hunger and under-nutrition in the United States, lists the south Bronx as having the country’s second highest rate of food hardship at 32.7 percent. “Food hardship” is described by them as a “yes” answer by a respondent household to the Gallup question, “Have there been times in the past twelve months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

Food waste, hunger and City Harvest

A morning spent volunteering this summer at the soup kitchen of the Holy Apostle Church at 296 9th Ave.‎ exposed me to people facing food hardships. Some were well dressed and looked like they were on their way to work -- or, more realistically, looking for work. But all of them were there because the church was providing them a free meal, mostly donations from food rescue programs and some purchased with financial donations.

Organizations such as City Harvest bring a promising solution. They consider themselves different from food banks. Every year, food that is rescued feeds about a million hungry New Yorkers from a total population of 19 million. The official poverty rate in New York City is pegged at 21.3 percent as stated in the Annual Report by the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity.

Organizations like City Harvest have two main goals: to reuse good food literally going down the drain and to combat hunger by using this existing good food.

By the end of 2013, City Harvest hopes to have collected and distributed more than 46 million pounds of excess food from all across New York City. That’s approximately equal to the weight of 93 Statues of Liberty!

On the food collection drive that Tuesday morning,, it was astounding to see the amount of bread produced and not eaten. Just one bread supplier, Eli’s Bread, donated over a thousand pounds of bread in one day. While on the drive, we stopped at both small and large grocery stores. One of them was the fancy Italian supermarket Eataly in the Flatiron district. It’s strange to see a usually overcrowded store at 8:30 in the morning with nary a customer. The warehouse entrance, of course, was quite busy. Eataly was provided with donation bags earlier and had packed for us four to five bags of fresh bread -- for a total weight of 500 pounds. That amount is enough to feed 500 people dinner for two nights.

The packaged boxes had CH (City Harvest’s initials) written on them. When asked what the boxes contained, one of the workers jokingly replied, “Dead bodies chopped up!” In actuality, they contained all sorts of food ranging from rice, beans, pasta, sauces, spreads and olives. That was about 200 pounds. So, our first stop had proved quite productive with 750 pounds of food collected.

Getting excess food to those who need it

How is City Harvest so successful in convincing businesses to donate excess food? The organization has made a lot of progress in the last 30 years. They help feed more than 1 million people each year by rescuing some 126,000 pounds of food every day. Currently, City Harvest has close to 5000 donors, including some big names like Fresh Direct, BJs and Whole Foods Market. The amount of food recovered is astounding.

Just during the months of April-July 2013, Whole Foods Markets donated 113,875 pounds of poultry, frozen fish, packaged and baked goods. These figures are for New York City only, but they give a good sense of the amount of food waste happening nationally.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to tackle this issue at a national level through programs like the Food Recovery Challenge. Rachel Chaput, a life scientist at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a phone interview remarked, “The biggest obstacle to collecting unwanted food is that restaurants and grocery chains just don’t have or want to give the time. Initially it takes a certain commitment before financial savings show.”

Why don't more businesses donate their surplus food? In part two of this feature, Tamanna Mohapatra will explore some of the legal barriers business owners perceive -- and how misinformation can result is excess food heading to landfills. Stay tuned for more tomorrow on TriplePundit! 

Image credits: City Harvest via Facebook

Tamanna Mohapatra is a student pursuing her MS in Sustainability Management at Columbia University.

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