Fighting Climate Change by Feeding the Hungry

Local food recovery networks key to cutting California GHG emissions

It’s 10 a.m. on a typical Wednesday at FoodLink for Tulare Countyand Executive Director Sarah Ramirez, PhD, MPH has to make some quick decisions. The California Association of Food Banks has four truckloads (92 pallets) of California-grown mixed vegetables—radishes, celery, and kale—available, thanks to a donation from a grower or packing house.

“Maybe they have too much, it’s sitting in their cold box for too long, it doesn’t meet retail standards, or it could be imperfect ugly produce,” Ramirez explains.

The kale might last a week once it arrives, and only four of the county’s 27 food pantries have cold storage. She continues, “Then you get into, ‘If we only have one produce truck, how many distributions do we (Foodlink) have left this month? Can we get it all out?’”

Ideally, all of that produce will make it into the bellies of the roughly1 in 3 Tulare County residents (or 1 in 8 Californians) considered food insecure. But if a pantry receives more radishes, celery, or kale than it can handle, chances are good that some of it will wind up among the nearly 6 million tons of food waste landfilled in California each year. Preventing that scenario is top priority for Ramirez and her colleagues within California’s vast network of food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, and other food recovery organizations throughout the state. 

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Photo courtesy of FoodLink Tulare County

It’s also a crucial part of California’s strategy to combat climate change.

When sent to landfills, food and other organic waste decomposes and generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a heat-trapping effect at least 70 times greater than carbon dioxide.

“Bolstering California’s food recovery infrastructure will help feed communities in need and also result in significant greenhouse gas reductions,” says Kyle Pogue, organics program manager with the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

Food recovery also helps ease the looming burden on the state’s limited organic waste recycling facilities, which California must roughly double in order to meet the legislative mandates and climate goals passed in recent years. The most recent legislation, SB 1383 (Lara, Chapter 395, Statutes of 2016), establishes significant methane emissions reduction targets that require the near elimination of organic waste in landfills. It also sets forth a requirement to recover 20 percent of edible food, currently sent to landfills, for human consumption by 2025.

With that in mind, CalRecycle has expanded grant opportunities for food recovery organizations through California Climate Investments. The statewide program puts billions of cap-and-trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy and improving public health and the environment—particularly in disadvantaged communities. During fiscal year 2016/17, CalRecycle is debuting a new Food Waste Prevention and Rescue Grant program with $5 million dedicated specifically to this effort.

“Many food recovery organizations tell us there’s a shortage in infrastructure,” Pogue says. “We want to help these groups recover more food by growing their capacity to collect, transport, store, and distribute more product.”

The designated dollars for food recovery could help groups like Foodlink for Tulare County add more refrigerated trucks, or increase the number of cold storage units within the county’s food pantries. “We live in a county where about 40 percent of our children are living in poverty,” Ramirez says. “Just think about what that additional food could be doing for these families.”

The renewed focus on food recovery is also welcome news for people like Patti Larson, executive director for Los Angeles-basedFood Finders. “It’s definitely helping us and putting food recovery in the spotlight where it wasn’t before.”

Larson’s organization relies on donations of primarily prepared and perishable food from grocers, restaurants, schools, hotels, and other venues, which volunteers help deliver to area shelters in need. Larson says she’s always looking for new funding opportunities and appreciates the investments California is making in this area. “If it’s still good food and you know there’s a need in your community, why wouldn’t helping feed people be your priority?”

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Photo courtesy of FoodLink Tulare County

Ultimately, reducing the amount of surplus food generated in the first place is the most environmentally beneficial way to cut emissions associated with growing, transporting, processing, and storing food.

“As much as we can prevent food waste or recover food waste and get it into California’s food recovery network, it’s less of a burden on the organics infrastructure to either compost or digest it,” Pogue continues. “We could potentially be talking about a lot of food that could be used to feed a lot of people in need.”

Contact your local food recovery nonprofit or the California Association of Food Banks to find out how you can get involved.

— Lance Klug
Posted on May 18, 2017

Summary: It’s 10 a.m. on a typical Wednesday at FoodLink for Tulare Countyand Executive Director Sarah Ramirez, PhD, MPH has to make some quick decisions. The California Association of Food Banks has four truckloads (92 pallets) of California-grown mixed vegetables—radishes, celery, and kale—available, thanks to a donation from a grower or packing house.