Leftovers and Ugly Produce: Garbage, or A Solution to Hunger?

Food waste is the type of global issue that flies under the radar because we can’t see how our leftovers accumulate into a major problem. Once it’s in the trash, it’s as if it never existed.  Yet each year 1.6 billion tons of food gets lost or wasted, 1.3 billion of which is still perfectly edible. That’s one third of the food produced worldwide.

Despite the growing number of hunger relief programs accepting donations of leftovers, many restaurants and other foodservice providers still struggle to manage their excess food. They have to take extra time, money and labor to package, store and transport food before it spoils when ultimately, it’s always easier to just toss it out. However, food rescue initiatives have a two-in-one solution: make the process of collecting and redistributing food cheaper and easier, while also addressing food insecurity.

Volunteers from City Harvest load trucks with unused food from local restaurants and markets to be distributed to hunger relief programs all throughout New York City. (Ben Hider, Image courtesy City Harvest)

Some nonprofit organizations like City Harvest bridge this gap between wasted food and empty stomachs by taking care of the transportation and storage every day for free. Volunteers collect from over 2,500 markets, restaurants and manufacturers and deliver in refrigerated food trucks to 500 hunger relief programs in New York City. The Food Recovery Network, which has recovered 2.5 million pounds of food since 2011, works similarly — student volunteers repackage surplus food from their college dining halls, freeze or refrigerate overnight and transport to donation sites the next day.

A lot of food waste also traces back to farms, which are often forced to throw out “ugly produce” that markets and restaurants won’t buy because of minor physical deformities like scarring, bruises or just being a slightly unusual shape. Although this ugly produce isn’t Instagram-perfect, it tastes no different from the fruits and vegetables that make it to home and restaurant kitchens, so some organizations are rescuing this produce for people in need of a nutritional meal. North Hollywood based Food Forward, for instance, collects fruits and vegetables from farmers markets as well as backyard gardens and fruit trees on private and public property. They donate 300,000 pounds of produce across Southern California every week.

Borderlands Produce Rescue addresses the 25 to 40 million pounds of good Mexican produce dumped annually in Arizona landfills after crossing the border and deemed too “ugly” to be sold. They distribute at public markets, where people can buy up to 60 pounds of food for just ten dollars.

The above video captures the shocking practice of dumping “ugly produce” by the truckload along the US-Mexico border, and how Borderlands Produce Rescue is working to stop this disgraceful practice. (Video Courtesy of Borderlands Produce Rescue)

While these organizations take on most of the work to solve a double-sided issue, new uses of technology can make food rescue even faster and more convenient. Food Rescue US is another large volunteer-driven nonprofit, but operates through an app in which restaurants and markets indicate they have excess food available, and volunteers can respond by picking up and delivering the food in their own cars straight to hunger relief sites. No Food Waste works similarly in India, where weddings and parties, often attended by hundreds of people, can offer their leftovers on the app. Volunteers deliver to three nearby cities and feed an average of 700 hungry people in each city every day.

If restaurants also want to sell surplus food, the Too Good to Go app allows restaurants to post menu items at a deep discount, which people can buy and pick up before they close for the day. Users saved over 2 million meals in 2017, cutting out the need for transportation, storage and volunteers to make use of good food. While Too Good to Go is only available in six European countries at the moment, other apps like Food for All, available in Boston and New York City, are taking on the same model and helping it expand worldwide.

The Llama Inn’s deep discount offer on the Food for All app (Screenshot by Liya Cui / CulEpi)

These food rescue initiatives may seem like daunting tasks, requiring manpower and time to keep them rolling, but with the ease of social media, even a handful of people can find ways to offer extra food. MIT created a Foodcam in 1999 for the Tech Insider office, which consists of just a camera, a wire, and a button. The camera is aimed at a breakroom countertop where employees can put down leftover catered food, push the button, and snap a photo that sends an alert across several social media platforms to “COME AND GET IT!”

Even more simply, The New School in New York City has a Facebook group for students, the Student Senate-Meal Share, in which students post photos, descriptions and locations of leftover catered food across campus. Run by the school’s student senate, the group is for anyone looking for a snack but is also a valuable resource for food insecure students, which, believe it or not, describes half of all college students in the US.

Everyone’s got to eat, and no one likes to waste food. So why is it so difficult to change our bad, food-wasting habits?  It’s more cost effective for restaurants to use every ingredient they buy, so what resources would motivate them to develop minimal waste policies? How can we all be more mindful of the food we don’t consume?  What’s stopping us from buying ugly produce or leftovers when they’re still high quality?  By answering these questions with simple, tangible solutions, we can shrink our landfills, lighten the burden on our kitchens, and alleviate hunger.


Leave a Reply