Food waste is a big problem in the United States, with 40% of it being wasted, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Additionally, food insecurity also is an issue with 37 million Americans going hungry in the U.S., according to Feeding America.
As a child of Korean immigrants, Robert Lee knows the struggle of food insecurity and waste prevention in the U.S. first-hand.
To combat both issues, Lee founded New York City-based Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC) in 2013, a national 501(c)3 non-profit food rescue organization that operates in 16 cities. RLC provides solutions to prevent excess wholesome cuisine from being wasted, and provides services such as food waste consulting, excess food delivery, co-branding services, and tax credit assistance.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the non-profit has had to adapt business practices and respond to greater demand and larger donations.
Waste360 recently sat down with Lee to discuss the RLC and what programs it has implemented to accommodate those in need, while reducing waste, during these uncertain times.
Waste360: How was RLC founded?
Robert Lee: RLC was founded in 2013 by three NYU alumni who fought food waste and hunger during their prior four years in college. After realizing the broad applications of food rescue and the ability to use technology for a more efficient solution, (we) launched Rescuing Leftover Cuisine after receiving seed funding from an NYU venture competition.
Waste360: Why is food waste such a big problem?
Robert Lee: Wasting food is a huge problem on a moral, environmental and economic basis. According to the NRDC, 40% of the food the U.S. produces is wasted while according to Feeding America, nearly 37 million Americans including 11 million children do not know where their next meal is coming from. Wasting food also represents a waste of livestock that did not need to be slaughtered.
On an environmental basis, according to the NRDC, producing food uses half of the US land, 80% of fresh water, and 10% of the U.S. energy budget. When we waste nearly half of the food we produce, we waste all of these natural resources.
Furthermore, after wasted food goes to landfills, they emit methane gases thirty times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. If the carbon emissions of wasted food was measured as a nation, it would rank third behind USA and China.
Finally, wasted food is a waste of money. U.S. citizens pay taxes that subsidize food like corn and wasting food is of course a waste of these resources. It is estimated that the amount the U.S. consumer wastes in food is like walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries and dropping one without bothering to pick it up!
Waste360: How has RLC adapted business practices due to COVID-19?
Robert Lee: COVID-19 impacted many of our usual partner food donors and RLC has adapted to accommodating larger sized food donations that are less prepared meals and more shelf stable products. RLC also continues to work with recurring food donors but also now accepts one-off donations given the heightened uncertainty around demand for food.
Waste360: How do you help rescue food and distribute to those who need it? What does the process look like?
Robert Lee: RLC partners with food businesses such as restaurants, kitchens, and catering companies and arranges logistics to pack excess food during their preferred times on a recurring basis.
RLC then finds recipient agencies such as homeless shelters and community centers that align with those times and types of food. The final piece is then RLC recruiting volunteers to transport the food from place to place and get the excess from where it would be wasted to where it can feed the hungry.
Waste360: Do you partner with any recycling or compost companies?
Robert Lee: RLC receives referrals from Common Ground Compost and other recycling companies and recommends these companies to partners to reduce waste across the board.
Waste360: What exactly will you find in those side-street community refrigerators?
Robert Lee: Community refrigerators are a truly crowdsourced solution to fighting food insecurity. You might find fully made meals such as wraps and salads, or ingredients to make a meal as well.
Waste360: While we continue to social distance, what are some ways to safely volunteer this summer?
Robert Lee: Our food rescues are socially distanced events. Our volunteers safely rescue food from their vehicles and transport the food while maintaining a social distance with masks on. We also have opportunities for volunteers to help make phone calls to interested food donor partners and supporters of all kinds.
Waste360: What is the future of food waste in the U.S.?
Robert Lee: Although due to COVID-19 related budgetary issues, many composting and food waste issues are taking a back seat currently; the movement in food waste reduction is one that has been building for many years and has never been more important.
The future of excess food involves a wide array of different solutions targeting the vast issue across the food supply chain. On the retail level, the future of food waste is diversion in many ways as outlined by the EPA's food recovery hierarchy. In the future, we will live in a world where high-quality, excess food is donated to people in need.