Cities Respond to COVID Needs by Rescuing Surplus Food

When businesses closed to help control the spread of the pandemic and millions of people flocked to food pantries and emergency food distributors, Baltimore, Denver, and several cities across the country were well-prepared to respond to the needs of their communities because they were already connected to the network of local anti-hunger groups.

The Growhaus, Denver, CO

With millions out of work due to the pandemic, the number of Americans without enough food to feed their families has skyrocketed. However, this is not a new problem: low wages, high cost of housing and healthcare, inequitable access to healthy and desirable food especially in low-income black and brown communities, means that many people don’t have a stable supply of food to their table.  

The US has enough food to feed everyone. We are using a lot of water, chemicals, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and money on food that is not eaten. And yet, in 2018, 37 million Americans did not have enough food to feed their families—that number has likely risen substantially in recent months. A critical strategy in our efforts to reduce food waste is to ensure that surplus, safe and healthy food nourishes people rather than rotting in landfills. Rescuing and redistributing surplus food is not a cure for hunger, but it is an important stopgap in meeting immediate anti-hunger efforts.

Rescuing surplus food to feed our communities is a central goal of NRDC’s Food Matters project to help cities make substantial reductions to municipal food waste. 

Through Food Matters we help cities assess how much food could potentially be available for redistribution to families facing food insecurity. We use our calculator tool to replicate research we undertook in Denver, Nashville, and New York City looking at how much surplus food is available in a variety of food businesses and could be rescued rather than going to waste. A city can use this information to help the network of nonprofit hunger relief organizations better target potential surplus food donations.   

Over the last two years, Food Matters has worked with Baltimore and Denver to build better connections among the network of local nonprofit hunger relief organizations. We worked with the cities to identify who is working in this space, what they see as the biggest needs in infrastructure and organization, and how the cities can build collaboration and authentically engage with food rescuers. 

We also see these lifeline organizations as a critical element of Food Matters’ success. We depend on the foundation laid by these local groups to make progress on our shared goals. For this reason, we ensured that a portion of the philanthropic funding we received was channeled to local organizations.  

When businesses closed to help control the spread of the pandemic and millions of people flocked to food pantries and emergency food distributors, Baltimore, Denver, and several cities across the country were well-prepared to respond to the needs of their communities because they were already connected to the network of local anti-hunger groups. 

COVID Responses from Denver and Baltimore

The City of Baltimore, as a direct response to COVID, is working on boosting food production on urban farms and gardens in low-income neighborhoods that currently face high levels of food insecurity and have faced additional food shortages due to COVID. For example, the city contracted with one small urban farm with a greenhouse to grow hundreds of seedlings, which were then distributed to other urban farms in short supply because of labor shortages (many of whom rely on volunteers who were not able to volunteer due to stay at home orders) to help them keep up their level of production. Some of these urban farms and gardens were set up with food scrap drop off and compost processing pre-pandemic through Food Matters.  The compost they make will be a valuable component of growing more nutritious food for the surrounding communities. Baltimore’s urban farms help to build resilience in the local food system so that when a crisis like COVID hits, people have healthy food sources.  

In Baltimore, the community identified the need for a central person who could help coordinate small-scale food rescue in Baltimore. Working through the Maryland Food Bank, the Food Sourcer works to connect potential donors to nonprofit food rescue organizations, helping to feed people and to standardize a process for small-scale food rescue in the city. When COVID-19 hit, the Food Sourcer played a critical role in locating donations for people in need. The Sourcer also helped to manage logistics of large and small food donation drop-offs and pickups from catering companies and food service operations of all sizes, including the Baltimore-Washington Airport. Without this resource in place, providing food for thousands of people impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak would have been much more difficult.  

As part of Food Matters in Denver, in late 2019, the Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) and NRDC convened a group of local food rescue stakeholders including food banks, pantries and food rescuers like MetroCaring and We Don’t Waste, and city agencies like Health and Human Services. The meetings uncovered the needs and wants of food rescue agencies in Denver and opportunities for city support. When COVID began spreading, the infrastructure and relationships already built were helpful in setting up the City of Denver for a quick response to help meet the needs of food rescue organizations, which were facing up to a tenfold increase in demand for food. In response, together with various partners throughout the Denver-Metro region and Colorado, the city created a local grants program for food organizations, organized twice-weekly calls to continue to coordinate, and sent out weekly surveys to gather feedback. Denver’s Food Waste Recovery Program Administrator, the position created through the Food Matters partnership, was able to work directly with food rescue agency requests to provide them with essential items such as PPE, boxes, reusable bag, and sanitation items. The graph below shows where the greatest need has been in Denver based on requests from food rescue organizations.  

Credit: Source: Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, 2020


Many cities across the country are engaging with food rescue partners to meet the needs of their communities, during the current emergency and beyond. There are innovative projects happening in San Diego, Washington DC, Cincinnati, Vancouver and others. Over the next few weeks, we will be writing additional blogs about the specific projects and responses that local anti-hunger organizations in Denver, Baltimore and other cities around the country are seeing during the pandemic. Check back for those blogs and if you have a good example of this work that you would like to see highlighted, please reach out to

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