By Sarah Dominguez
As a kid, I considered “food waste” to be the uneaten broccoli I left on my plate. Today, as a University of Southern California Masters Fellow with the EPA, my definition has changed dramatically. Why? I’ve since learned that wasted food includes much, much more than vegetables avoided by picky eaters. In fact, a significant portion- over 20 percent- of all the waste that is dumped into our landfills each year is… wasted food. Even more compelling is how food waste contributes to climate change by producing methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And here’s the worst part- while 1 in 6 American’s struggle to find their next meal, a significant portion of what goes into the landfills is wholesome, edible food.
Armed with this knowledge, I and a team of others here at EPA are dedicated to feeding people, not landfills through the Sustainable Materials Management Program’s (SMM) Food Recovery Challenge. As we focus on the Challenge for Hunger Awareness Month, we recognize that the efforts to divert food from landfills is part of the solution to the hunger epidemic. If nearly 14% of our nation’s population does not have reliable access to food, it’s almost too simple – instead of throwing away wholesome, edible food, why not donate it to someone in need?
A large amount of food going to landfills from commercial kitchens or grocers is still wholesome and edible. For example, a store may throw away a three-pound bag of oranges even if just one starts to go bad. If instead the grocer removes the one bad orange and donates the rest, they can provide a fresh healthy alternative to the typical non-perishable items in food banks. For example, in 2011 Oregon-based grocer, New Seasons Markets, donated 1,040 tons of food to local food rescue organizations. That’s a lot of meals and a lot of avoided waste that results in cost savings and support to local communities. Many other organizations see the value in feeding those in need by donating. They are working with EPA through the Food Recovery Challenge to improve sustainable food waste management practices through donation and other approaches such as improved purchasing, and composting.
Why should nutritious food end up in the dumpster when there are 50 million people in the U.S. that don’t know where their next meal is coming from? While there are challenges to food donation such as refrigerated trucks for perishables, there are also misconceptions that can be overcome through education. For example, some potential food donors may worry about liability, but the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act has protected food donors since 1996 (as long as the donor follows proper handling laws and donates in good faith). Thankfully more and more organizations are signing up for the SMM Food Recovery Challenge, showing how we can address environmental and equity challenges simultaneously by finding ways to feed people instead of landfills. As an individual, you can help by donating food too. Learn how.
Let’s keep this Food Recovery Challenge conversation going, not just in September for Hunger Awareness Month, but all year long.
About the author: Sarah is a University of Southern California Masters Fellow in EPA’s San Francisco Office. She works on the Sustainable Materials Management Program’s Food Recovery Challenge. In her Urban Planning program at USC, she studies sustainable land use and environmental justice focusing on the built environment.