How to Feed Hungry New Yorkers and Fight Climate Change

Two and a half million New Yorkers struggle to have enough to eat. At the same time, 40 percent of the food produced in this country is wasted—and here in New York, food makes up 18 percent of our municipal solid waste stream. The vast majority of this food is disposed of in landfills where it breaks down and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. We are throwing away wholesome food that could instead help feed our fellow citizens in need. The Food Recovery and Recycling Act has the potential to feed hungry New Yorkers and fight climate change at the same time.

Wasted food is a serious economic, environmental, and food security problem. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the United States and China. Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $218 billion of food every year, in addition to consuming huge volumes of fresh water, energy, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are used in the production of food that goes to waste. At the same time, millions of Americans struggle to afford food to feed their families. Less than one-third of the food we throw out in this country would be enough to feed all 42 million food insecure Americans.

Maryland Food Bank

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to tackle these challenges, and a strong proposal to do so here in New York. We can begin to address food production, consumption, and disposal more sustainability by discouraging the production, distribution, and preparation of excess food; by recovering excess food for those in need; and by recycling food scraps that remain. The Food Recovery and Recycling Act includes critical steps to accomplish precisely these objectives.

The best way to reduce food waste is by preventing excess food in the first place. Education and measurement are two of the best tools to prevent food waste. Accordingly, the Act would require the Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) to develop educational materials on food waste minimization for municipalities. It would also encourage those municipalities to share this information with residents on their website and via constituent mailings. This is particularly important, as a relatively large share of food loss occurs in our homes. At the same time, the state will encourage food waste measurement by making available funding for food waste audit and technical assistance grants to help generators prevent waste. 

Denali Water Solutions

While preventing food waste should be the first priority, some food is likely to go uneaten. Rather than being sent to a landfill, wholesome foods should be donated to people in need. Nationally, current food recovery efforts capture only about 10 percent of edible food available. The proposed bill would begin to increase food donation in New York by requiring the state’s largest food waste generators to donate excess edible food through the regional food bank system. This ensures proper handling of food and safe distribution. In addition, the state will provide funding to the regional food bank system to help purchase equipment needed to transport and handle increased food donations.

Excess food that cannot be donated should be separated and used as animal feed or recycled at composting or anaerobic digestion facilities. The State estimates that the largest food scrap generators in New York create 400,000 tons of wasted food each year. Recycling, rather than landfilling this waste, reuses the nutrients and energy in the scraps and could have the same greenhouse gas reduction benefits as removing more than 25,000 cars from the road. This bill would require that the state’s largest generators of food waste begin to recycle their food scraps, provided that adequate processing capacity exists within 40 miles.

Wasting food is bad for our environment, our economy, and our neighbors throughout the state. The Act has the potential to feed hungry New Yorkers, fight climate change, and generate jobs in communities around New York. Building on the incredible success of the Farm to Food Bank Tax Credit, NRDC looks forward to working with a robust coalition of hunger, environmental, and business groups to pass this critical law in the upcoming legislative session. 

About the Authors

Margaret Brown

Senior Attorney, NY Regional, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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