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City Harvest - food rescue at scale in NYC

City Harvest inc. collects surplus food from restaurants, stores, farms, and distributes it free to community food programs in New York.

Photo of Delia Kulukundis
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City Harvest is a very successful and long-running food rescue and anti-hunger organization in New York City, and an excellent example of food waste prevention at scale. They started in 1982 as a group of neighbors picking up surplus food and delivering it to soup kitchens in borrowed vans. 

They pick up surplus or unsold food from restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, corporate cafeterias, and farmers' markets, and donate it to community food programs like soup kitchens, shelters, day care centers, and food pantries. They also run their own distribution programs in lower-income neighborhoods called Mobile Markets, which look a lot like farmers' markets, except that the products are free. 

Mobile Market


They also work with grocery stores and bodegas (small neighborhood shops that sell convenience items and occasionally produce) to help them sell more healthy produce, and waste less of it.  An example of this work is to teach shop owners how to display their produce better, so it sells better. 


The food:  

They prioritize collecting and distributing the most perishable and nutritious food that would go to waste.

  • about 50% of the food is fresh produce
  • about 75% of the food is "nutrient-dense" (produce, meats, dairy)
  • City Harvest accepts some prepared food, under strict safety regulations
  • Food comes from licensed food businesses - no home-prepared food, but they can accept excess food from professionally-catered events


The scale:

  • 22 refrigerated trucks make pickups and deliveries 7 days a week
  • 150,000 lbs of food picked up and delivered daily
  • They recently upgraded their facilities to a ~45000 square ft warehouse space (the Food Rescue Facility) for holding and repackaging food.  Having such a large facility apparently helps solve the "first-in, last-out" problem - organizing and redistributing all that food
  • Cold storage at the Food Rescue Facility allows for pickup of more fresh/perishable food, before a recipient has been arranged.  Without this space, City Harvest had to coordinate pickup and immediate delivery, which meant turning down some food
  • Army of volunteers - about 2000 regular volunteers, and 15,000 total 


FAQ about City Harvest, including the foods they work with:

https://www.cityharvest.org/about/faq


Their model has been replicated elsewhere, and they provide a very useful list of starting-point questions for those interested in replicating their work:

https://www.cityharvest.org/about/start


My questions going forward:

  • What would it take to collect and distribute ALL of the eligible excess food in NYC?  How far is City Harvest from its maximum possible scale?
  • At what point does it make sense to start refusing donations, for reasons of nutritional quality?
  • It seems like City Harvest is providing an important aspect of the social safety net for people in NYC facing food insecurity.  What would happen if a large chunk of the businesses donating to City Harvest became more efficient with their food and simply didn't have as much excess food to donate?  How would this impact the social service organizations in NYC that rely on donations of food from City Harvest?

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

What should be the highest priority food waste to reduce?

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Photo of Geoff

What emphasis is placed on the nutritional value of rescued food? How much of an effort can we make to ensure that the food offered by rescue organisations is healthy, or do we focus on the idea that any food is better than no food?
 

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