ELMSFORD, N.Y. -- In the realm of grocery businesses, the narrative around unsold items has undergone a transformative shift. Sean Rafferty, the store manager for ShopRite of Elmsford-Greenburgh in New York, recalls a time when surplus goods were unceremoniously discarded. However, in a commendable reversal, Rafferty is now orchestrating the preparation of boxes filled with bread, donuts, fresh produce, and dairy products destined for a food bank. This initiative is part of a statewide program mandating larger businesses to not only donate edible food but also, if possible, recycle the remaining food scraps.
"Years ago, everything went in the garbage... to the landfills, the compactors or wherever it was," reflects Rafferty, with four decades of industry experience. "Now, over the years, so many programs have developed where we’re able to donate all this food... where we’re helping people with food insecurities." This commendable effort is part of a broader trend embraced by New York and an increasing number of states addressing food waste due to concerns about its impact on limited landfill space and its contribution to global warming. Dumped meat, vegetables, and dairy in landfills release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Globally, approximately one-third of food is wasted, with the United States surpassing this average at 40%, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. The U.S. invests around $218 billion annually in growing and producing food that ultimately goes to waste. Shockingly, 63 million tons, including 52.4 million tons ending up in landfills, contribute to this staggering waste, with an additional 10 million tons never harvested from farms.
"What’s shocking to people often is not only how much we waste... but also the impact," emphasizes Emily Broad Leib, a Harvard University law professor and director of the school's Food Law and Policy Clinic. "Food waste causes about 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.” Additionally, 20% of water in the U.S. is utilized to grow food that ends up being discarded, emphasizing the need for sustainable practices.
Despite these concerning statistics, there is a growing awareness of the necessity to address food waste in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency set a goal in 2015 to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030, sparking state-led initiatives and smaller nonprofit efforts nationwide. As consciousness around the environmental and humanitarian impacts of food waste grows, these initiatives represent crucial steps towards a more sustainable and conscientious approach to managing surplus food resources.
In a collective effort to address the critical issues of food waste, climate impact, and hunger, ten states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation and policies aimed at reducing, composting, or donating waste. A commendable nationwide move, all 50 states have also passed legislation safeguarding donors and recovery organizations from potential criminal and civil liabilities associated with donated food.
California and Vermont are leading the charge with innovative programs converting residents' food waste into compost or energy, showcasing a commitment to sustainable practices. Connecticut has implemented regulations requiring businesses, including larger food wholesalers and supermarkets, to actively recycle food waste. In Maryland, farmers are incentivized to contribute to the cause, receiving a tax credit of up to $5,000 per farm for food donations.
Collaborative efforts, reminiscent of New York's groundbreaking program, have been initiated by several states. Rhode Island mandates food vendors serving educational institutions to donate any surplus to food banks, while Massachusetts has successfully limited the amount of food sent to landfills, resulting in a 22% increase in food donations over two years.
New York's impactful program, in its second year, has redistributed a remarkable 5 million pounds (2.3 million kilograms) of food — equivalent to 4 million meals — through Feeding New York State as of late October. This initiative supports the state's ten regional food banks, with the ambitious goal of doubling its impact in the coming year. Notably, the program encompasses a wide spectrum, requiring donations from colleges, prisons, amusement parks, and sporting venues.
Sally Rowland, supervisor of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Organics, Reduction, and Recycling section, underscores the common-sense approach behind these initiatives: "Certainly, we should be reducing the amount we waste to start with, but then we should be feeding people before we throw food away if it’s good, wholesome food."
In New York's Westchester County, tangible results are evident with eight refrigerated trucks dedicated to collecting perishable food. This coordinated effort, spearheaded by Feeding Westchester, has witnessed increased participation since the implementation of donation laws last year. The collected food is channeled to nearly 300 programs and partners throughout the county, making a meaningful impact on communities, including a mobile food pantry and the Carver Center, a nonprofit serving families and children in Port Chester.
As these states pioneer change, the momentum to combat food waste and nourish communities continues to build, emphasizing the transformative impact that thoughtful legislation and community engagement can have on sustainable practices and social welfare.
"This time of year is very important for us and a lot of families across Westchester," emphasizes Danielle Vasquez, the food donations coordinator for Feeding Westchester. As families grapple with the high cost of living in the expensive county, the holiday season becomes a crucial period. Vasquez underscores the role of their efforts in supplementing families' needs, allowing them to allocate funds towards essential bills.
Amid the challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Betsy Quiroa, a mother of four relying on Social Security, echoes the sentiment. Visiting the Carver Center for essential groceries, she highlights the increasing costs and emphasizes the significance of community support. "Coming here is good. If you are not working, you buy nothing. This is the problem," says Quiroa.
While New York's initiatives, exemplified by the success of the Feeding New York State program, have made notable strides, advocates for combatting food waste express concerns about meeting the 2030 reduction goal. Emily Broad Leib and others call for a more comprehensive, coordinated national effort to consolidate diverse state and local policies. The current absence of a robust roadmap raises questions about the feasibility of achieving the ambitious 2030 goal.
Kathryn Bender, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Delaware, emphasizes the need to focus on preventing food waste at its source, stating, "The best solution for food waste is to not have it in the first place. If we don't need to produce all that food, let's not put all the resources into producing that food."
While donation programs play a crucial role in immediate relief, concerns linger about potentially burdening nonprofits. Coordination and collaboration, both at the local and national levels, emerge as vital components in creating a sustainable and effective approach to address food waste, alleviate hunger, and build resilient communities.
This story has been corrected to say 63 million tons (57 million metric tons) are wasted, including 52.4 million tons (47.5 million metric tons) that ends up in landfills and 10 million tons (9 million metric tons) never harvested from farms. The word 'millions' was dropped previously from the statistics and has been restored in all instances.
In conclusion, the local perspective on food assistance in Westchester County sheds light on the critical role initiatives like Feeding Westchester play during the holiday season and beyond. Danielle Vasquez's emphasis on supplementing families' needs underscores the significance of community support, especially in an expensive county facing the challenges of high living costs. Betsy Quiroa's experience reflects the real struggles individuals and families endure, magnified by the impacts of the pandemic.
While New York's programs have made commendable strides in addressing food waste and supporting communities, advocates like Emily Broad Leib express valid concerns about the nation's ability to meet the ambitious 2030 reduction goal. The call for a more comprehensive, coordinated national effort highlights the need for a well-defined roadmap to achieve these targets effectively.
Kathryn Bender's insight adds a crucial dimension, emphasizing that the ultimate solution to food waste lies in prevention. The call to reconsider the resources invested in food production aligns with a broader push for sustainability and efficiency.
As the discussion evolves, it becomes evident that donation programs, while invaluable for immediate relief, should be part of a broader strategy that prevents waste at its source. Coordination and collaboration at local and national levels emerge as essential elements in crafting a sustainable approach to address food waste, alleviate hunger, and build resilient communities. The narrative underscores the interconnectedness of economic, environmental, and social factors in shaping a more sustainable and equitable future.