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Going Digital to Rescue Food
Like many people in America, I went to Trader Joe’s on a recent Sunday. Unlike other shoppers, though, I parked around the back near the loading dock and hauled away seven trash bags and cartons stuffed with food the store wasn’t going to sell. Seven minutes later, I pulled up at the side entrance of a men’s homeless shelter, rang the bell and watched as two staff members unloaded the food.
Going Digital to Rescue Food
Tina Rosenberg, NY TIMES FIXES MAY 2, 2017

Like many people in America, I went to Trader Joe’s on a recent Sunday. Unlike other shoppers, though, I parked around the back near the loading dock and hauled away seven trash bags and cartons stuffed with food the store wasn’t going to sell. Seven minutes later, I pulled up at the side entrance of a men’s homeless shelter, rang the bell and watched as two staff members unloaded the food.

That was fun.

So later in the week, I did it again, this time on foot in New York City, as part of a group that rescued surplus fried chicken and biscuits from a restaurant and delivered it to a nearby emergency family shelter.

By some estimates, about 40 percent of all food in America is wasted. Much of it ends up in landfills, where it emits dangerous-to-the-planet methane gas. (Each methane molecule traps 100 times more heat than carbon.)

At the same time, one out of eight American households don’t have enough to eat.

“Hunger in the United States doesn’t make any sense,” said Kevin Mullins, executive director of Food Rescue US, which organized my Trader Joe’s errand.

Wasted food. Hungry people. How do we get the two to meet?

One answer is: Create an app. Just as Airbnb connects producers and consumers of short-stay housing, and eBay connects producers and consumers of, well, everything, new apps can connect stores and restaurants with soup kitchens, pantries and shelters that need their excess food. And apps can also organize volunteers who make the deliveries by car, bike or foot power.

Organizations like Food Rescue US and Rescuing Leftover Cuisine — a new, smaller organization that sent me on the fried chicken pickup — make volunteering simple and painless. It took about a minute to sign up and get access to a calendar of food rescue tasks; I picked convenient ones and downloaded complete instructions. Mullins argues that this strategy is the only way to scale up, because it’s cheap — few staff, no trucks, no warehouse. His organization works in 11 regions and plans to be in at least 50 by the end of 2018. Dozens of other such groups exist around the country.

Last month, however, food rescue made a leap to a national scale. Feeding America is the national network of 200 food banks — large food warehouses that supply local soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters in every county in America. Until now, a restaurant, store or catering service with excess food (unless it was a regular on the organization’s pickup list) had to call around to various feeding programs to see which one wanted food and could come to get it. Or the store could call the food bank, which would pick up the food if the donation was large enough, then refrigerate it, and distribute it the next day.

Now Feeding America matches donors and recipients with an algorithm. A restaurant can go on Meal Connect to post an offer of, say, eight trays of fried chicken and biscuits. Meal Connect will automatically match that offer with the closest food pantry or soup kitchen that can get it up right away.

Diana Aviv, Feeding America’s chief executive, said that Meal Connect makes it possible to rescue prepared food and smaller quantities of food — and to do so quickly. “This allows us to provide real hot meals — virtually at the same time that someone coming off the street and paying for it would get it,” she said.

Food rescue in America began in 1981, when Helen verDuin Palit, a soup kitchen manager in New Haven, ordered potato skins at a nearby restaurant. She asked the chef what he did with the insides of the potatoes, and he told her he threw them out. “We could really use those potatoes,” she said. The next day, the soup kitchen received 30 gallons of cooked potatoes.

The next year, Palit founded City Harvest in New York.

Today, City Harvest rescues and delivers 55 million pounds of food a year, most of it fresh produce. New York City has 1.4 million people who can’t put food on their table. It’s not clear how many of them eat because of City Harvest, but it’s a lot.

The group picks up donations — from farms, manufacturers, supermarkets (Fresh Direct donated 2.5 million pounds of food last year), caterers, hotels, bakeries, synagogues, meal kit services such as Blue Apron (three million pounds), restaurants, greenmarkets and the world’s largest wholesale produce market, Hunts Point in the Bronx. Lisa Sposado, City Harvest’s director of food sourcing, said that 9 percent of the produce in America passes through Hunts Point. (Here is a list of City Harvest’s biggest food donors.)

Perishable food then goes directly to food pantries, soup kitchens and mobile produce trucks that park in food-insecure neighborhoods. The organization has 22 refrigerated trucks, including two tractor-trailers. Nonperishable foods and excess perishables — a truckload of apples, for example — go to the 45,000-square-foot food rescue facility in Queens, where they are divided up.

City Harvest is a New York phenomenon. New York is dense — a City Harvest truck may need to drive only 50 miles in a day, Sposato said. The city has an unusual quantity of fancy food and events featuring food. And in New York, City Harvest can raise the $28 million per year (in addition to $95 million in donated food) necessary to run all this.

Food rescue is an attractive response to waste because it feeds people as well. But there are many other solutions. ReFED, a new think tank for food waste, identifies 27 and ranks them by various impacts. (Most cost-effective: consumer education campaigns; better, clearer labeling of food dates; and new packaging, such as half-loaves of bread.)

ReFED also examines business opportunities using new waste-reduction technologies, such as refrigerator devices that extend produce shelf life and products manufactured from discarded food.

For what else needs to happen, we can turn to John Oliver. Here’s his story on food waste from 2015.

There has been some progress since Oliver’s show. A new law increases tax deductions for food donations and extends them to all kinds of businesses.

The Department of Agriculture and the two largest grocery industry trade associations recently announced they are asking manufacturers to stop using a “sell by” date — almost always a meaningless date set by manufacturers to indicate peak taste, not safety. These dates encourage consumers to throw out perfectly good food. Instead, they recommend using only “best if used by” for most products, and “use by” for the few products where food safety is a concern, such as meat.

As Oliver said, many potential donors are deterred by fear of getting sued. Donors are protected by a good Samaritan law, but a new bill in Congress would clarify some of the confusion that still blocks donations. Donors really have nothing to worry about; experts in this field (pdf) do not know of a single case of a food donor being sued.

It’s not just consumers who throw out food, of course. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that worldwide, 30 percent of arable land grows food that is never eaten, and agricultural waste is the biggest culprit.

Produce goes to waste in the field largely because it’s misshapen. Jordan Figueiredo, a California activist, created the Ugly Fruit and Veg campaign to promote ways to sell this produce. “It works out well when it’s sort of fun,” he said. “That way you can educate shoppers on why you’re doing it — it’s not just the scarred plums in the corner.”

Imperfect Produce delivers heavily discounted baskets of cosmetically challenged fruit and vegetables to subscribers in the Bay Area. Hungry Harvest does the same on the East Coast.

These are niche services. But everyone goes to supermarkets, so the Misfits program is a big deal.

Misfits is run by Robinson Fresh, a giant wholesaler of all kinds of fruit and vegetables. The company buys cosmetically undesirable produce and sells it to retail chains: at the moment, the Midwest-based Hy-Vee and Meijer, and the New England-based Hannaford.

Jim Lemke, president of Robinson Fresh, said that while some chains are receptive to Misfits, others worry about how to manage it internally. “There are questions around how do we segregate this? How do we catalog them and differentiate them? We’re using lots of different experiments to figure out the most efficient way.”

All 242 Hy-Vee stores feature a Misfits bin in the produce section, with playful, colorful signage advertising bags of tasty but funny-looking peppers, squash, cucumbers, oranges, apples, pineapples and other produce, sold at around a 25 percent discount. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised with sales,” said Brett Bremser, Hy-Vee’s executive vice president of perishables. “The biggest challenge has been educating consumers. They’re used to searching through the aisle to find the perfect orange.”

One advantage for Hy-Vee, he said, is that its stores are in so many Midwestern farming communities. “Our customers understand agriculture,” he said. “They totally get that this product could have ended up in a landfill.”

Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book "The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism." She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of "Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World" and the World War II spy story e-book "D for Deception." She is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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