I wrote and researched this paper for a course on Food Security Concepts and Principles at Ryerson University in fall 2019. I was fortunate to be able to interview the FoodRescue.ca Senior Manager as well as several organizations/businesses using the platform. Names of organizations/businesses and of participants have been omitted for online publication.
Four million Canadians are experiencing food insecurity at the same time that 58% of all food produced in this country is lost or wasted (Janus, 2019). Statistics like these are often juxtaposed in the news and in reports. The implication is that, if all the food that is currently being thrown out were saved and redistributed, food insecurity would not exist. This suggests that food insecurity is primarily an issue of access and provides a simple answer to a complex problem. While such figures paint a damning picture of how poorly Canada’s food system is functioning, they also raise the question, can you address food insecurity by rescuing edible food otherwise destined for landfills?
Second Harvest (est. 1985) is Canada’s largest food rescue organization, recovering over 15 million pounds of unsold, primarily perishable food each year and distributing it to social service organizations such as food banks, meal programs and homeless shelters (“Who we are,” n.d.). In order to make the most of its resources, Second Harvest (n.d.) only collects donations that weigh a minimum of 100 lbs, leaving a gap for businesses with smaller quantities of surplus food. Recognizing this, in 2018, Second Harvest launched FoodRescue.ca, an online platform that directly connects businesses that want to donate food of any quantity with social services organizations that can use it (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). This paper will undertake an analysis of FoodRescue.ca, examining how the platform works and the implications of technology-enabled food rescue for food security, as well as opportunities and challenges in replicating this model.
This research paper is based on a review of relevant reports and academic research about food rescue and food waste, as well as interviews with key stakeholders. I researched other organizations doing food rescue work in Canada and internationally for the purposes of comparison with FoodRescue.ca. I read many of the available resources on the FoodRescue.ca website, including pages for businesses and non-profits, FAQs, and fact sheets and reports. I conducted a site visit to Second Harvest, where I toured the facility and interviewed FoodRescue.ca’s Senior Manager of Program Development, V. Summerhill. Phone interviews were conducted with one donor business and two recipient organizations. While these interviews provide helpful context, it cannot be assumed that the experiences of these interviewees are representative of others using the platform.
FoodRescue.ca is a web-based platform that matches businesses that want to donate food with organizations that can use it. It has been described by Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel as the “eHarmony of food” (CBC News: The National, 2018). Initial funding to develop the technology came from a Walmart Foundation grant (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). The Ontario Ministry of Environment also provided funding in the first phase of the rollout, which included Sudbury, Kingston, Niagara and Toronto. FoodRescue.ca is now funded by a mixture of grants as well as some donations. It has since expanded to across Ontario and British Columbia, with a gradual national rollout planned. The organization is also planning to develop an app and engage volunteers in FoodRescue.ca. Second Harvest has enlisted the help of local partner organizations to facilitate regional implementation. Currently, FoodRescue.ca employs six full-time staff and has funded partners/co-ordinators in 12 regions.
How FoodRescue.ca operates and measures impact
Businesses register to be donors and social service organizations sign up to be recipients. FoodRescue.ca staff check to ensure that both parties are registered and Public Health-inspected (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). When a business wants to post a donation, it shares the type of food, the approximate weight of the donation, whether it is perishable or shelf stable, how it needs to be stored, when it will be available for pick-up and a brief description of the donation (Second Harvest, 2019a). An email goes out to organizations whose profiles are a match with the donation in terms of location, food preferences and safe food-handling capacity. If an organization accepts the donation, it is responsible for picking up the food (Second Harvest, 2019b).
FoodRescue.ca measures impact in terms of pounds of food recovered (700,000 lbs to date), non-profits registered (848), businesses registered (1,077), greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions averted (over 2.5 kg) and food claim rate (96%) (V. Summerhill, personal communications, Nov. 8 & 28, 2019).
Canadian and international models for reducing food waste
While there are other organizations in Canada seeking to reduce food waste, no initiative compares in scope to FoodRescue.ca or uses an identical model. Several organizations operate similarly to Second Harvest, in that large donations are collected by one food rescue organization and redistributed to non-profits and charities (e.g. the Alberta-based Leftovers Foundation, Food Rescue Yellowknife and BC’s Victoria Foundation Food Rescue Project). The FoodMesh Marketplace, which started in Chilliwack, BC, is perhaps most similar to FoodRescue.ca in that it uses an app to track donations from retailers that are redistributed to charities. However, a designated charity ‘hub’ collects all donations and other charities pick up food from the lead charity.
There are many international examples of food rescue technology. For instance, in the United States, there is Food Cowboy; Food Rescue US; ChowMatch; and Feeding America’s MealConnect. Copia is a unique for-profit model; donors have to pay to be on the platform, but get access to metrics about their food waste (“Help & support centre,” n.d.). A prominent example outside of North America is FoodCloud, which launched in Ireland in 2013 and has since expanded throughout the UK (Weymes & Davies, 2018). Many food rescue initiatives appear to evaluate success in similar terms to FoodRescue.ca, tracking meals donated, GHG emissions prevented, quantity of food rescued and organizations served (see Figure 1).
The impact of food-rescue technology on food insecurity
Connecting food to people
Perhaps the most obvious link between FoodRescue.ca and food security is that it gets food that otherwise would have been thrown out into the hands of people who need it. For instance, [Business Name]. FoodRescue.ca calculates that its rescued food has provided 669,429 meals to date (“Nourish your community,” n.d.). It is evident that emergency food provision addresses a need, but this does not mean that food rescue technology results in reduced food insecurity. As noted by Dachner & Tarasuk (2017, paragraph 5), “While receiving food charity may diminish hunger in the short-term, this is a far cry from food security; that is, being able to meet future food needs independently.” Weymes and Davies (2019) concur that food rescue initiatives can help people meet their nutritional needs, but do not address root causes of food insecurity. However, FoodRescue.ca does not purport to offer a solution to food insecurity. “Food insecurity is an income issue and an education issue. So, that’s where the solutions lie,” V. Summerhill stated (personal communication, November 8, 2019). Rather, FoodRescue.ca sees reducing food waste as an environmental mission with a social impact.
Despite this, the impact of food rescue on food security can be amplified depending on how donations are used by recipient organizations. V. Summerhill (personal communication, November 8, 2019) said that many social service organizations that use food donations also offer programming or services that address income and education issues. Using donations for food-literacy programming can also improve food security. For instance, some locations of the [Organization Name] offer educational services in meal prep, safe food handling and nutrition. While the organization is unable to provide such programming right now, the representative said that FoodRescue.ca had the potential to positively affect the food security of the organization’s clients.
Mitigating the effects of climate change
Food loss and waste is bad for the environment. It contributes to unnecessary use of water and land, loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2014). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2019) found that from 2010 to 2016, “… global food loss and waste equalled 8–10% of total GHG emissions from food systems …” (5-7). Reducing food waste is an important part of mitigating climate change and can reduce the amount of natural resources used to produce food, which can help protect the food security of future generations (IPCC, 2019).
Notably, transporting donations can also produce GHG emissions. An Italian initiative connecting surplus food to food banks was found to be “very GHG intensive for saving a small amount of food with correspondingly low total emissions” (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2014). ReFED’s assessment of the benefits of 27 solutions to food waste finds that while donation matching software does reduce emissions, centralized composting has the greatest impact on waste diverted and emissions reduced (“27 solutions to food waste,” n.d.). Furthermore, Gooch & Felfel (2014) find that redirecting food waste has considerably fewer environmental benefits than preventing food waste.
However, Second Harvest and FoodRescue.ca also encourage the prevention of food waste through behaviour and policy change. Second Harvest’s landmark report, The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste, measured food loss and waste using a standardized system across the entire food value chain in Canada – a global first in research (Nikkel, Maguire, Gooch, Bucknell, LaPlain, Dent et al., 2019). The report demonstrates the magnitude of Canada’s food loss and waste problem, which is crucial for finding ways to prevent it. It identifies where and why food loss and waste occur at each stage of the food system. It also provides recommendations to industry and government for preventing food loss and waste. Furthermore, FoodRescue.ca shares resources directed toward reducing food waste, including tips for households. FoodRescue.ca and Second Harvest’s two-pronged approach of encouraging prevention of food waste while also redistributing excess food will likely have positive environment impacts and thus indirectly contribute to improved food security.
Reducing food prices
One of the purported benefits of reducing food waste is that it will lower food prices, thus making food more financially accessible and improving food security. Such claims are difficult to assess. A report from the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE, 2014) found there was “a lack of quantitative studies to describe the impact of FLW [food loss and waste] on food prices” (p. 36). The lack of data may speak to the fact that food waste is not broadly tracked and food rescue is not a widespread practice. There are also many other factors that can influence global food prices, such as trade, government policy and weather. Assessing the impact of food waste reduction on prices would require an understanding of “the extent of wastage relative to the size of the market, the extent to which they are avoidable, the underlying causes that cause wastage to arise in the first place, the costs of reduction interventions, and interactions in the supply chain with other markets and actors” (Tielens & Candel, 2014, p. 22) It is not clear to what extent reducing food waste would translate to lower food prices and how this would affect food security.
Opportunities and challenges in replicating the FoodRescue.ca model
The prevalence of organizations using food rescue technology similar to FoodRescue.ca suggests that this is a feasible model for reducing food waste. However, there are challenges that may inhibit the participation of donors and recipients, and thus reduce the impact of such initiatives.
FoodRescue.ca has found that storage can be a major challenge, especially for recipients (V. Summerhill, personal communication, November 8, 2019). For instance, [Organization Name] has signed up as a recipient organization, but has been unable to use the service because it does not have a fridge. A report on food waste in Seattle (Otten, Diedrich, Getts, & Benson, 2016) similarly found that anti-hunger agencies reported inadequate storage space, especially for perishables, as their greatest challenge. Storage limitations also exist on the donor side. [Business Name] said that the restaurant is only able to use a small portion of its minimal cold storage space for donations due to auditing reasons and is not able to store excess food for long; they often had to throw food out before it was claimed on FoodRescue.ca. This was influential in that location’s decision to pause using FoodRescue.ca and focus on composting instead.
Time is also a resource that can be in short supply on both sides. Despite the simplicity of the FoodRescue.ca platform, [Representative] said that [Business Name] found it was too much of an investment of administrative time for one person, especially given the low uptake of donations. A staff member had to weigh the food, label it for auditing purposes and post the donation to FoodRescue.ca. If recipients showed up at busy times, staff were not available to help them. While drivers are supposed to come in the time window provided by the business, the business found that they often did not.
This may reflect a lack of resources on the part of the recipients. Small charities and non-profits often operate on skeletal staff and rely heavily on volunteers. They may not have time or regular access to transportation that enables them to pick up as many donations as they could use. [Organization Name], for instance, only has three staff members. [Representative] only picks up donations once every few months, in part due to a lack of time. “Sometimes I don’t have the time to get it. If I have other volunteers here with me, then I could always send them out to get the stuff for me,” she said.
Providing transportation for food can help reduce some logistical challenges for recipients. ReFEd’s analysis finds food donation matching platforms “are most effective when they include mechanisms for arranging and covering transportation” (“Donation matching software, n.d., paragraph 3). The Ireland-based FoodCloud initially did not provide transportation for donations, but now uses volunteers when recipients do not have the capacity to collect food (Weymes & Davies, 2018). However, while a more customizable solution may be helpful for donors and recipients, it creates a heavier administrative footprint for the lead organization.
Although it does not co-ordinate donation transportation, FoodRescue.ca is not as hands-off for staff as it may appear. Its model of finding regional partners to introduce the technology requires an investment of time. It can also be a challenge to convince businesses of the benefits of getting on board. V. Summerhill described the process of finding businesses to sign up as “a lot, a lot of work” (personal communication, November 8, 2019), given that the financial benefits to businesses are not concrete.
One of my biggest learnings in this research project was that FoodRescue.ca is intended to be an environmental – not food – organization. Therefore, it might be more relevant to assess its environmental impact than its food security impact. It is also difficult to fully assess the impact of food rescue technology on food security due to a lack of end-to-end research; it is not clear how the food is used by recipients and how much still goes to waste. However, it is likely that FoodRescue.ca and other similar platforms play an indirect role in reducing food insecurity. FoodRescue.ca helps redirect viable food from landfills to people in need as well as educates businesses and households about how to reduce food waste. If implemented, its government and industry recommendations would lead to less food waste and contribute to better food security.
Of course, food insecurity is much more complex than just access to food. Donated surplus food does not address issues related to income, education, inequality, social safety nets, land rights, industrialized agriculture, trade policies and other factors that can affect people’s ability to obtain safe, nutritious food on a consistent basis. However, the fact remains that there is a substantial amount of waste built into our food systems, from farm to fork. While prevention of food waste will have the greatest impact, food rescue has a role to play in the current landscape. For the benefit of people and the environment, this vast and significant issue demands an immediate response.
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