The idea of “using less” is at the core of the contemporary environmentalist movement. We are instructed to reduce, reuse, and recycle, in that particular order.
This applies not only to using reusable shopping bags and avoiding cheap textiles, but also to reducing food waste.
Americans throw away more than 150,000 pounds of food every day, according to research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with restaurants and grocery stores being some of the worst offenders.
The Environmental Protection Agency also estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in our country is lost to waste.
This is food that could feed the homeless and impoverished and help toward eliminating hunger in America.
In the United States, 35.2 million people lived in “food insecure” households in 2019, according to the most recent data from the USDA.
These families frequently don’t have enough food to make it to their next paycheck, rely on federal programs to help them afford food, are fed by local pantries and community centers, or get by eating an unhealthy or unvaried diet.
For a long time, most food-related businesses simply accepted the fact that they would have to dispose of some of their stock due to rot or expiration. But now, there are a number of groups that aren’t afraid to take on the daunting task of feeding the hungry, while combating the nation’s food waste problem.
Here are a few fighting the good fight, and how you can partner with them in ending domestic food insecurity:
Apps That Reduce Food Waste
A number of companies and tech startups have taken a contemporary approach to tackling the food waste problem. These companies serve as a connection for people looking for free (or heavily discounted) food and businesses and individuals who have food to give away.
One such app is Olio, founded in 2015 and available for iPhone and Android. Olio allows users to take and post pictures of their unwanted food. It then matches them with nearby individuals who may want to take that food off their hands.
Olio provides its users with a win-win scenario; individuals who are conscious of their food waste can rest assured their leftovers aren’t going to waste.
Users can meet with the person or use an Olio drop box available in select cities to give him or her their food. It’s that simple.
Individuals using Olio don’t even need to make contact in order to leave food for those in need. And they’re certainly not the only ones taking advantage of smartphone technology as a means to reduce food insecurity in America’s cities.
They’re available for use by anyone, regardless of economic background, so they’re a good fit for individuals who either cannot afford meals at full price or individuals seeking to save soon-to-expire sustenance from a landfill.
Likewise, food sustainability nonprofit Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is one of the country’s largest combatants of food waste and insecurity, using a web application that allows restaurants and grocery stores to directly notify their partner shelters when they have food available, providing a pipeline directly between the vendors and those in need.
How Restaurants Combat the Food Waste Problem
For many restaurateurs, it can be difficult to set aside the time and resources to donate unused food — especially when your first focus is your business’ bottom line.
“The food-service industry typically does not participate in food rescue programs because of the logistics and associated expense,” says food systems educator Jennifer Kaplan, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. “Even when recovery services are free of charge, the logistics of preparing for food recovery cost money in time [opportunity cost] and labor.”
That being said, many restaurants are trying to make an impact in the world of food waste.
To that end, some of these businesses partner with organizations to give away their unsold food and ingredients — as they are encouraged to under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and through the tax breaks they can receive for donating.
Others are taking things to the next level by using waste food to create fine-dining experiences that would impress even the toughest food critics. For example, Graffiti Earth is a restaurant in Manhattan that heavily uses “ugly” produce — vegetables and fruits with cosmetic blemishes — that would otherwise go to waste.
The restaurant transforms these vegetables and fruits into astonishingly beautiful dishes with unique Indian and Persian twists by head chef Jehangir Mehta.
Graffiti Earth also prides itself on using sustainable proteins and underused fish that put less stress on the environment. All of this is packed into an intimate, farmhouse-inspired space and results in an unparalleled, guilt-free dining experience.
Add to that, there are numerous go-between organizations, such as Food Cowboy and Food Rescue, help connect restaurants with volunteers willing to shuttle leftovers from businesses to food pantries and donation centers.
By building networks among community organizations and businesses who may not have the human capital to drop off donations, these organizations help cut down on food waste unnecessary from bars, restaurants, and cafés.
The government also helps incentivize food donations through tax deductions.
“For-profit entities may be eligible for tax deductions, as businesses can deduct the lesser of twice the base value of the donated food, or the profit margin if the food were sold at its fair market value,” adds Kaplan.
In addition, 25 percent of a restaurant's taxable income can be deducted due to food donation, due to the passage of the CARES Act. Consider that a win-win —for a business’ profitability and the fight against hunger.
What We All Can Do
Besides buying only what we need, there are steps we can all take in our day-to-day lives to help reduce food waste.
Steps like repurposing fruits and vegetables that you would normally throw away — or simply shopping more often to eliminate the likelihood that something will go bad in your fridge or pantry — are great ways to eliminate food waste on an individual level.
Additionally, donating to food pantries, food banks, and food rescue programs (if you have an excess of already prepared food) can ensure your already purchased or cooked food doesn’t end up in a landfill.
To that end, you can use Feeding America’s food bank locator, FoodPantries.org, Ample Harvest’s food pantry database, and the Homeless Shelter Directory to find centers in your area fighting food insecurity.
If we all — businesses and individuals alike — do our part to reduce food waste, we can help to lessen the burden of food insecurity and hunger in the United States while giving back to our planet.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.