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Tackling climate change and alleviating hunger: States recycle and donate food headed to landfills

DAVID R. MARTIN and MICHAEL CASEY
November 25, 2023

ELMSFORD, N.Y. (AP) -- When Sean Rafferty got his start in the grocery business, anything that wasn't sold got tossed out.

But on a recent day, Rafferty, the store manager for ShopRite of Elmsford-Greenburgh in New York, was preparing boxes of bread, donuts, fresh produce and dairy products to be picked up by a food bank. It's part of a statewide program requiring larger businesses to donate edible food and, if they can, recycle remaining food scraps.

"Years ago, everything went in the garbage ... to the landfills, the compactors or wherever it was," said Rafferty, who has 40 years in the industry. "Now, over the years, so many programs have developed where we're able to donate all this food ... where we're helping people with food insecurities."

New York is among a growing number of states targeting food waste over concerns it is taking up diminishing landfill space and contributing to global warming as meat, vegetables and dairy release the greenhouse gas methane after being dumped in a landfill. Rescuing unwanted fruits and vegetables, eggs, cereals and other food also helps to feed hungry families.

Globally, about a third of food is wasted. In the United States, it's even higher, at 40%, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. The U.S. spends about $218 billion each year growing and producing food that is wasted. About 63 tons (57 metric tons) goes to waste, including 52.4 tons (47.5 metric tons) that ends up in landfills and 10 tons (9 metric tons) never harvested from farms.

"What's shocking to people often is not only how much we waste ... but also the impact," said Emily Broad Leib, a Harvard University law professor and director of the school's Food Law and Policy Clinic. "Food waste causes about 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions."

Broad Leib says 20% of water in the U.S. is used to grow food "that we then just throw away, so we're basically taking water and putting it directly into a landfill."

But she and others also note there is growing awareness of the need to do something about food waste in the U.S.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency announced a goal of 50% food waste reduction by 2030.

That has prompted a number of state-led initiatives, along with smaller, nonprofit efforts.

Ten states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation or executed policies to reduce, compost or donate waste. All 50 states have passed legislation shielding donors and recovery organizations from criminal and civil liability linked to donated food.

California and Vermont have launched programs converting residents' food waste into compost or energy, while Connecticut requires businesses, including larger food wholesalers and supermarkets, to recycle food waste. Farmers in Maryland can get a tax credit of up to $5,000 per farm for food they donate.

Several states have joined New York in setting up systems allowing food to be donated. Rhode Island requires food vendors servicing education institutions to donate any unused food to food banks, while Massachusetts limits the amount of food that businesses can send to landfills, which Broad Leib said has increased food donations in the state by 22% over two years.

New York's program is in its second year, and state officials believe it's having a significant impact.

As of late October, the program had redistributed 5 million pounds (2.3 million kilograms) of food -- the equivalent of 4 million meals -- through Feeding New York State, which supports the state's 10 regional food banks and is hoping to double that number next year. Among those required to donate food include colleges, prisons, amusement parks and sporting venues.

"Certainly, we should be reducing the amount we waste to start with, but then we should be feeding people before we throw food away if it's good, wholesome food," said Sally Rowland, supervisor with the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Organics, Reduction and Recycling section. "To me, it's a commonsense kind of thing and I think it's just kind of built that momentum of people understanding about how much food we're really wasting."

New York's Westchester County has eight refrigerated trucks that pick up all types of perishable food, according to Danielle Vasquez, food donations coordinator for Feeding Westchester, one of the state's food banks.

The group started working with businesses in 2014 but has seen participation ramp up since the donation law went into effect last year. Much of the food collected goes to nearly 300 programs and partners throughout the county, including a mobile food pantry and the Carver Center, a nonprofit serving Port Chester's families and children, which has a pantry.

"This time of year is very important for us and a lot of families across Westchester," Vasquez said. "There is the high cost of food. There is a high cost of living. Westchester is a very expensive county to live in. ... We are here to supplement our families as much as we can so, that way, they can focus that money on paying their bills."

Among those visiting the Carver Center earlier this month was Betsy Quiroa, who lamented how the cost of everything had gone up since the coronavirus pandemic. She was counting on getting milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables during her visit and said she didn't care if the produce was dented or slightly damaged.

"Coming here is good," said Quiroa, a mother of four who relies on Social Security. "If you are not working, you buy nothing. This is the problem."

Despite New York's success, advocates for food waste worry not enough is being done to meet the 2030 goal. Broad Leib and others have called for a national effort to coordinate the various state and local policies.

There is a goal, "but we don't really have a great roadmap ... and how we're going to actually achieve that end goal by 2030, which is kind of crazy," Broad Leib said, adding that a one-person liaison office in the USDA isn't sufficient to address the problem.

Kathryn Bender, a University of Delaware assistant professor of economics, said donation programs are helpful, but she worries they might shift the burden from businesses to nonprofits, which could struggle to distribute all the food.

"The best solution for food waste is to not have it in the first place," Bender said. "If we don't need to produce all that food, let's not put all the resources into producing that food."

___

Casey reported from Boston.

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