‘It’s A Win-Win’: Food Recovery Programs In The Bay Area Reduce Food Waste While Feeding The Hungry

Approximately 35% of all food produced annually in the U.S. goes to waste, while one in eight households experience food insecurity.

In California, one in five children go hungry every day, yet more than six million tons of food are wasted every year. The goal of a California law enacted in 2022 is to address this imbalance and to reduce food waste and alleviate hunger. The law requires that California by 2025 reduces organic waste in landfills by 75% and recovers 20% of edible food that would otherwise end up in landfills.

While there is still a long way to reach this goal, there are many local organizations working every day to close the gap between hunger and surplus food. Two of them are San Francisco Food Runners and ExtraFood.org.

“As human beings we have a responsibility to help feed other human beings,” said Mary Risley, who founded San Francisco Food Runners in 1987. “There is so much extra food in the world, we should share it.”

Approximately 35% of all food produced annually in the U.S. goes to waste, while one in eight households experience food insecurity. Food insecurity in a household means that there is no consistent access to enough food for everybody to live an active, healthy life. This can be a temporary phenomenon or a long time situation.

Prior to establishing her non-profit Food Runners, Risley ran a cooking school in San Francisco. Upon realizing the significant amount of food being wasted and not being used to assist those in need, Risley decided to create the food recovery program.

Every day she gets in her vibrant red vintage car to start her customary “food run” across San Francisco. One of her most common stops is Mollie Stone’s Market, a grocery store located in the heart of the city. Some days she gets multiple voluminous boxes of edible vegetables, at other times she picks up a dozen unsold loaves of bread.

Under the California law, SB 1383, grocery stores are required to donate unsold food to meet the legal obligation to save 20% of edible food from the trash. This increases incentives to collaborate with food banks and food recovery programs.

For the past 36 years, Risley and hundreds of Food Runners’ volunteers have collected and transported excess food from businesses to organizations that feed the underprivileged. Food Runners delivers more than 17 tons of food weekly in San Francisco, which is adequate for 20,000 meals.

“I don’t know what I can do about the homelessness and drug addiction, there is just so much need,” Risley said. “But I can help with food because I’ve been in the food business all my life.”

The Bay Area is home to roughly ten distinct local food recovery initiatives, each operating within a specific county. Aside from Food Runners, ExtraFood.org is another of these organizations operating in Marin County.

While food banks generally handle large amounts of food, local organizations can process smaller amounts and adjust to individual needs of donors and recipients.

“We rescue excess food from any business, school, hospital, at farmers’ markets, restaurants, anywhere where they have excess food,” said Mandy Willian, senior marketing manager at ExtraFood.org.

Every Thursday, volunteers from ExtraFood head to the farmers’ market located in San Rafael to collect any leftover food from the farmers.

“They can donate to us and we can make sure it gets to the people who need it most,” Willian said. “Plus they can get a tax deduction, so it’s a win-win.”

Starting with just one volunteer a decade ago, it has since grown to include hundreds of food donors and volunteers.

“There’s enough healthy good food for everyone,” said Lynne Simon, who is ExtraFood’s very first volunteer. “It’s just a matter of distributing it and getting it to the right people.”

Hannah holds a bachelor's degree in social science from Humboldt-University in Berlin, Germany. She is passionate about society and politics and chose social science to be a journalist who reports knowledgeable about sociopolitical topics. Hannah worked at Humboldt University as a research assistant to enhance her data science skills and be able to write data-driven stories. Her interest in international politics brought her for half a year to the EU's capital - Brussels - where she interned at the central press office of the European Commission. She supported the digital economy and innovation team in various press announcements and communications about policy proposals by the Commission. In her free time, Hannah enjoys spending active time outside in the nature and discovering new places. At other times, she likes to sing, play the piano or saxophone.

Lisa Setyon-Ortenzio is a trilingual French-raised journalist and graduate of NYU School of Journalism who is passionate about shining a light on issues impacting underserved and often marginalized communities. Prior to enrolling at Stanford, she worked for 2-years as a field producer for France Télévisions in Washington D.C. She covered an array of subjects including the presidential election of 2020, the COVID-19 crisis, Black Lives Matter Protests, Roe v. Wade being overturned and global economic and business matters. She has previously worked as a freelance multimedia journalist in Paris and as a production assistant at ABC News in New York. She is particularly engaged in topics of politics, race and ethnicity, data analysis, business and technology. At Stanford she is interested in incorporating more analytics and graphics into traditional media storytelling and thus promoting a more data-driven journalism that would empower readers to act in a more responsible way.

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