One solution to addressing both climate change and hunger is for states to recycle and donate excess food instead of sending it to landfills.

At the beginning of his career in the grocery industry, Sean Rafferty would discard any unsold items.

On a recent day, Rafferty, the manager of ShopRite in Elmsford-Greenburgh, New York, was getting ready to give boxes of bread, donuts, fresh produce, and dairy products to a food bank. This is part of a program in New York that requires big businesses to donate food that is still good, and if possible, recycle any leftover food scraps.

Decades ago, all items were disposed of in the trash…either in landfills, compactors, or other locations,” stated Rafferty, who has four decades of experience in the field. “However, as time has passed, numerous programs have emerged that allow us to donate excess food…assisting those who struggle with food insecurity.”

The state of New York is one of many that are focusing on reducing food waste. This is due to worries that it is occupying limited landfill space and adding to the issue of global warming. When meat, vegetables, and dairy products are disposed of in landfills, they release the harmful gas methane. By rescuing unwanted produce, eggs, grains, and other food items, it also aids in providing nourishment for families in need.

Around the world, approximately one third of food is discarded. In the United States, this number is even higher at 40%, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Each year, the U.S. spends approximately $218 billion on growing and producing food that ultimately goes to waste. This amounts to 63 tons (57 metric tons) of wasted food, with 52.4 tons (47.5 metric tons) ending up in landfills and 10 tons (9 metric tons) never even making it to harvest from farms.

“It is often surprising for individuals to realize the extent of our food waste and its consequences,” stated Emily Broad Leib, a professor of law at Harvard University and director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic. She further explains, “Food waste is responsible for approximately 8% to 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

According to Broad Leib, approximately 20% of the water in the United States is dedicated to growing food that is ultimately wasted, resulting in a direct transfer of water to landfills.

However, she and others acknowledge an increasing recognition of the necessity to address the issue of food waste in the United States.

In 2015, the goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030 was announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency.

This has led to various initiatives being undertaken by states, as well as smaller, non-profit endeavors.

Ten states and Washington D.C. have enacted laws or implemented measures aimed at reducing, composting, or donating waste. All 50 states have also passed laws to protect donors and recovery organizations from legal consequences related to donated food.

The states of California and Vermont have implemented initiatives that transform household food waste into compost or energy. In Connecticut, it is mandatory for businesses, including larger food wholesalers and supermarkets, to recycle their food waste. In Maryland, farmers can receive a tax credit of up to $5,000 per farm for donating excess food.

Multiple states have partnered with New York to establish processes that permit the donation of food. In Rhode Island, food providers who serve educational institutions are obligated to donate any excess food to food banks. In Massachusetts, there are restrictions on the quantity of food that companies can dispose of in landfills, resulting in a 22% increase in food donations within the state over a two-year period, according to Broad Leib.

The program in New York is currently in its second year, and state officials are confident that it is making a significant difference.

By the end of October, the initiative had distributed 5 million pounds (2.3 million kilograms) of food, which is equivalent to 4 million meals, through Feeding New York State. This organization aids the 10 regional food banks in the state and aims to increase its impact by twofold in the coming year. Institutions such as colleges, prisons, amusement parks, and sports venues are mandated to contribute to the food donations.

According to Sally Rowland, a supervisor at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, we should focus on reducing waste and also make an effort to feed people with good and wholesome food rather than throwing it away. This is a common sense approach that has gained momentum as people become more aware of the amount of food that is being wasted.

Feeding Westchester, a food bank in New York, has a coordinator named Danielle Vasquez who oversees eight refrigerated trucks used for collecting various perishable food items in Westchester County.

The organization began collaborating with companies in 2014, but has observed an increase in involvement since the implementation of the donation legislation last year. The majority of the donated food is distributed to around 300 programs and affiliates in the county, such as a mobile food distribution center and the Carver Center. The Carver Center is a non-profit organization that serves families and children in Port Chester, and also operates a pantry.

Vasquez stated that this season holds great significance for both themselves and numerous families residing in Westchester. The cost of food and living is considerably high in this county, making it difficult for families to manage their expenses. As a result, their organization aims to support these families by providing them with necessary resources, allowing them to allocate their funds towards bills and necessities.

One of the recent visitors to the Carver Center was Betsy Quiroa. She expressed her disappointment about the increased costs of goods due to the coronavirus pandemic. During her visit, she hoped to acquire milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, and stated that she didn’t mind if they were imperfect or damaged.

Quiroa, a mother of four who depends on Social Security, stated that it is beneficial to come here. She believes that without a job, there is no income to make purchases, which presents a challenge.

Although New York has achieved success, individuals who support reducing food waste are concerned that more action needs to be taken to reach the 2030 target. Broad Leib and other advocates are urging for a coordinated nationwide approach to align the policies of different states and cities.

According to Broad Leib, there is a goal in place, but there is currently no clear plan on how to reach it by 2030. She also mentioned that having only one liaison in the USDA is not enough to tackle the issue.

Kathryn Bender, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Delaware, expressed concern that donation programs may transfer the responsibility from businesses to nonprofits, potentially causing difficulties in distributing all donated food.

According to Bender, the most effective way to address food waste is to prevent it from occurring. Instead of investing resources into producing excess food, we should aim to only produce what is necessary.


Casey provided a report from Boston.