Food Waste to Food Banks: Not That Simple

One of the hallmarks of the EPA's response to food waste is its Food Recovery Hierarchy, a tool which "prioritizes actions organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food."

Second to the top strategy in this hierarchy is to "Feed Hungry People" by "donating extra food to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters."  The strategy is both logical and worthwhile, but it will take more than donation alone to actually reduce food waste.

Even if every pound of the annually estimated 37 million tons of wasted food was consolidated and donated to food banks and the like, this vulnerable inventory would bring with it heavy internal waste management logistics and expenses.  This is not good news for nonprofits whose missions revolve around food distribution.  

Increase in donation not only burdens nonprofit food banks with new budget demands and potential capacity crises, but also transfers the responsibility of landfilling food to these food stewards already at the end of the line.  

"Take the San Diego Food Bank. It receives more than 23 million pounds of food annually, but about 500,000 pounds of that is damaged or expired product that can’t be distributed, costing it about $25,000 a year in landfill fees—which isn’t exactly chump change for a nonprofit."  -Sarah McColl

Mission margin is already tight -  CharityWatch.com gives its highest ratings to nonprofits who spend 25% or less on operating expenses.  Operating budgets will adjust to the new demands of increased, highly vulnerable inventory.  And as they do, Feeding America's estimate that every $1 helps provide 11 meals to people will adjust too.  This growth is likely to threaten, rather than promote food bank missions.

Traditionally, food banks have leveraged food waste to build linear, charitable models to feed hungry people.  But food waste is gaining momentum in media and government as a social/economic/environmental problem worthy of innovation.  And if the burden of innovation falls to food banks, as the EPA promotes, the industry will require re-branding and capitalization.  

Sarah McColl's recent contribution to TakePart.com, a digital news & lifestyle magazine and social action platform for the conscious consumer, demonstrates this impending change in food bank culture.  Her article, "Waste Is a Problem for Food Banks Too - This Nonprofit Is Trying to Fix It," features San Diego Food Bank's "zero landfilled food waste goal, which the food bank hopes to achieve with the help of an aerobic, in-vessel rotary drum composting system that will arrive in November."

It is strategic to look to food banks for fundamental support in addressing food waste.  But it's not as simple as donating more.  

-Brendan McCrann owns Future Pointe, a social enterprise promoting integrated solutions to food waste