Food Rescue Landscape Assessment Guide

This guide shares some of NRDC's key lessons learned and is accompanied by an array of additional tools to help cities conduct food rescue landscape assessments of their own.

To kick off our Food Matters work in Denver and Baltimore, NRDC hired local consultants to assess the food rescue landscape in both cities and recommend specific changes to enhance each system’s effectiveness. We recommend this type of assessment in our Tackling Food Waste in Cities: A Policy and Program Toolkit (Strategy #8: Assess and Expand Food Rescue System Capacity).

This guide shares some of our key lessons learned and is accompanied by an array of additional tools to help cities conduct assessments of their own. These tools include a sample Scope of Work for assessment consultants, our final assessment reports for both Denver and Baltimore, a sample agenda for stakeholder roundtables that could be held at the conclusion of an assessment to share results and explore next steps, and a sample PowerPoint deck with assessment results that we shared at our post-assessment Denver roundtable.

Our Goals

In commissioning these analyses, our goals were to:

  1. Have consultants rooted in each community generate a brief overview of the food rescue landscape.
  2. Assess the degree to which recipients of rescued food currently participate in hunger relief systems and the channels through which they do so; inform community dialogue about how these systems in Denver and Baltimore need to evolve; and recommend ways that the voices of clients (or “end users”) could be enhanced in the cities’ hunger relief systems.
  3. Identify enhancements to the city’s food donation and rescue ecosystem that could reduce wastage of surplus food, improve the food rescue system’s overall effectiveness, and increase its responsiveness to community needs, potentially including:
    • improvements to the type, quality, and cultural appropriateness of donated foods
    • increased geographic accessibility of charitable food distribution locations in under-served areas of the community and improved hours of availability
    • opportunities for rescue activities to provide meaningful employment for populations served
    • increased voice for and responsiveness to food-insecure populations themselves
    • other key aspirations/avenues for more effectively rescuing and using donated food to address food insecurity
  4. Identify action strategies for enhancing the human and physical infrastructure of the cities’ rescue and distribution systems as needed to advance the aims identified above. Prioritize the types, purpose, and rough scale of financial investments and related capacity-building strategies that would be needed to optimize the system’s effectiveness over the coming five years, including:
    • recommended innovations in food rescue methods
    • coordination among rescue organizations
    • aggregation and processing needs for donated food
    • strengthening of brick-and-mortar food distribution operations (e.g., paid staff, volunteers, equipment, facilities, outreach capacity, recordkeeping)
    • use of mobile/pop-up food distribution models
    • other investments and innovations in the donation, rescue, and distribution system as appropriate.
  5. Identify and interview four or five relevant trade associations and other sector-level organizations (e.g., a hospital association) that could potentially serve as allies in mobilizing food donations among their members. Priority sectors would include hospitality, health care, universities and colleges, and the local agricultural sector.
  6. Prepare a written report and PowerPoint presentation summarizing the key observations, findings, and conclusions from the above research, and share the research results at two community meetings.

Lessons Learned

Over the course of the assessment, we learned a variety of lessons:

Consultant selection: It was critical to select consultants who brought an appropriate combination of content knowledge, credibility in the local community, the capacity to handle disparate and largely qualitative information, and the ability to complete a complex project in a fairly compressed time frame. A request for proposals (RFP) can be helpful in identifying appropriate consultants.

Research methods: Our food rescue assessments focused on one-on-one interviews as primary sources of information. Interviewees included city government staff; personnel with rescue organizations, food pantries and other “last mile organizations,” and other social service groups; food policy council members; businesses and institutions that currently or potentially could donate food; and representatives of trade associations for area food-related businesses. The assessments were also informed by survey work with food assistance clients. The consultants drew on city government planning documents related to food insecurity, food access, and related topics, as well as research and analysis available from local academic institutions, funders, and others.

Timeline: The assessments took roughly three months, from the time the consulting contracts were signed until the final reports were completed. Afterward, we scheduled community meetings to share the results. This timeline was manageable, but intense given the scope and complexity of the work and the time needed to write a thorough final report.

Challenges: Overall, the assessments yielded the types of information we were seeking. However, one challenge in both Baltimore and Denver was estimating the potential cost of recommended improvements in food rescue infrastructure—particularly for areas like strengthening last-mile organizations, in which actions could take many different forms. A key next step for both communities is working with city agencies, local funders, and others to chart a course for describing and quantifying the cost of needed investments and to identify potential pathways to mobilize those resources.

Client surveys: In Denver we were fortunate that a local organization already had a process in place for conducting annual client surveys at area food pantries. This organization was able to conduct more surveys on our behalf for a modest cost at the same time that the broader food rescue assessment was being conducted. In Baltimore, that type of client survey process did not yet exist. As a result, we included a small initial survey in the assessment process (capturing input from 40 individuals). As funding became available, we later conducted a much larger survey of more than 1,000 individuals. (Ideally, the survey process would be timed so it can inform the assessment process.) Additional lessons from our client survey experience are provided in the End-User Client Survey guide.

Community stakeholder meetings: At the conclusion of the assessment process, we held roundtable events in both Denver and Baltimore to share the results with stakeholders. The results were presented “in draft” to encourage stakeholders to provide additional input and hone findings as needed. These roundtables were key for engaging stakeholders in the process and building buy-in around the results. As part of those events, we divided attendees into small groups and asked them to identify the assessment recommendations they felt were most important for action. That exercise was highly instrumental in gauging where the community had energy to move from analysis to implementation. A sample agenda for this event is included as part of this guide.

Follow-up: After the assessment reports were finalized and released, they were used to inform development of each city government’s Food Matters work plan and were integral to NRDC’s thinking about how to deploy the small grant funding we had available to support capacity building among organizations in both cities. We also heard from local organizations that they used the recommendations to hone their own priorities and build a case with funders for financial support for key areas of investment. The assessments have provided a valuable reference point as we and local stakeholders prioritize future actions; they have also shed light on areas where additional research is needed.

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