“Finish that plate! Don’t you know that some people are hungry?” It’s one of those staples of child-rearing. But although that last two bites of potatoes are unlikely to impact food insecurity one way or the other (maybe you should have let Ashley fix her own plate, Mom!) the larger issue is valid: food waste is a massive problem.
Globally, the world wastes about a third of the food produced each year; about 1.3 billion tons; in the United States, it’s estimated at 30-40%. That’s around twenty pounds per person each month. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, producing food that ends up going to waste uses about as much water as flows through the Volga River each year and almost 30% of the planet’s productive land. Direct economic cost: about $750 billion. Carbon footprint: about 3.3 billion tons of CO2.
Yeah. The Clean Plate Club was never going to fix a structural problem of this magnitude. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t actions that can be taken at the local, granular level that will help—and in our area, the FeedHV Community Food Network has been on the case since 2017.
FeedHV was born of community discussions among farmers, volunteers, nonprofit agencies, and other key stakeholders in the region’s food system. “In discussions with pantries and food rescuers, we talked about ways to match donations with need,” says Mary Ann Johnson, Deputy Director of the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation, which leads the initiative in partnership with the nonprofit Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley. “So we found an app called ChowMatch, developed by a guy in the Bay Area whose wife was doing food rescue.”
ChowMatch, developed by Tod Hing in 2013, is currently used in over 500 US communities. Its web- and mobile-based software links food donors of prepared, but unserved food and fresh produce (including farms, restaurants, catering services, grocery stores, hospitals, universities, and more) to nonprofit organizations with food assistance programs (such as food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters) through the efforts of a network of volunteers who transport, harvest, and process donated food.
“The ChowMatch app allows a donor to sign up—a farm, a restaurant, a caterer—and when they have a food run they’re not going to use, that’s about to expire or maybe they over-cooked for an event, to enter the information onto an app that sends an email targeting volunteers based on geography and availability,” explains Johnson. “Say IBM has a food run open 11am-3pm on a Tuesday, the system waits for a volunteer to say, ‘Yup, I’ll grab that,’ and also matches it to an agency that’s open and can accept it—a pantry, soup kitchen, whatever.”
Harvesting and processing are accomplished with the help of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Gleaning Program, which operates a refrigerated box truck affectionately called the GleanMobile that regularly scoops up about 10,000 pounds of food a week during harvest season; with the Carmel-based nonprofit Second Chance Foods and with the Farm to Food Pantry Collaborative organized by Family of Woodstock, which handled 135,000 pounds of donated produce in 2019. Funds come from the Local Economies Project, the NoVo Foundation, the Ralph E. Ogden and Thompson Family Foundations, the Louis Greenspan Charitable Trust and the Bruderhof, along with others who prefer to remain anonymous.
From its “soft opening” in late 2017 through mid-May 2020 FeedHV rescued 223,328 meals, or 267,993 pounds of food, the carbon equivalent of taking 60 vehicles off the road for a year. When the shutdown hit in mid-March, “it was like drinking from a firehose,” says Johnson, as volunteers scrambled to help the region’s hotels, restaurants, and cafeterias minimize the waste fallout. In April of 2020, FeedHV registered four new donors, three new recipient agencies, and eight new volunteers, moving nearly 10,000 pounds of food on 27 runs.
With businesses closed for a while, the gusher slowed. “It’s been a cold spring, but once the farmers start having produce, it will pick up again,” says Johnson. “And some might be willing to put in an extra row or two of this and that. Farmers are resilient.”
New initiatives are being developed to meet the needs of the moment. A collaboration with Scenic Hudson announced at the beginning of May will allow FeedHV to purchase dairy products from Hudson Valley Fresh and Ronnybrook Farm Dairy to supply the Kingston YMCA Farm Project, Dutchess Outreach, and Friends of Hudson Youth. Combined, the agencies will receive more than 12,000 gallon and 1,800 half-gallon containers of milk, 1,250 containers of yogurt and 210 pounds of butter in eight-ounce packages, all of it procured at cost from the dairies. “Other organizations are looking at that model as a way to combine helping the farmers with feeding the people that are hungry,” says Johnson.
Staffers Brianna Merrill and Erica Doyle are on the front lines, troubleshooting the app and picking up the phone for old-fashioned conversation as needed. “They also do outreach to recruit volunteers and donors and assess needs,” says Johnson. “We expect there may be anything from a 20 to 80 percent increase in people needing food as the situation develops.”
Nonprofits and other organizations with feeding programs and appropriate storage should sign up to share in the bounty. Anyone over 18 with reliable transportation and a license is very welcome to help pick up and deliver. And FeedHV is always looking to forge new connections with regulated, licensed food businesses and farms who’d rather have a tax deduction than a dumpster full of leftovers. (No, they can’t come clean Ashley’s plate—that’s what parents are for.) Reach out to them at feedhv.org or find them on Facebook.