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Rescuing food is not just a supplement to traditional hunger relief but a transformative approach to food waste and food insecurity.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Mon., June 10, 2024) — As the annual ReFed conference on food waste kicks off in Baltimore this week, we’re more aware than ever of the impact of food waste and food insecurity. Yet many stakeholders – from community members, to elected officials, to philanthropic foundations – are still unclear on one of the most promising solutions to these challenges: food recovery.

The term “food recovery” may evoke images of a church or food pantry picking up surplus from a local grocery store for a distribution event. Food recovery can include such intermittent rescues, but it also extends far beyond them, pioneering a comprehensive, systemic approach that tackles the intertwined issues of food insecurity and food waste simultaneously.

The Complex Landscape of Food Waste

Food waste occurs during every step of the food production and transportation process. Consumer-facing businesses, from supermarkets to cafes, contribute most significantly to the waste that occurs before food makes it into our homes.

In the United States, there are more than:

  • 26,149 conventional supermarkets
  • 4,412 supercenters like Walmart or Target
  • 150,174 convenience stores
  • 3,507 natural/gourmet stores

When these food retailers find themselves with surplus, that food typically needs to be recovered and distributed quickly – it is approaching its sell-by date, is ripe and ready to eat today, and/or requires refrigeration to stay fresh.

This type of food is not readily metabolized by the traditional, hub-and-spoke model of retail food donation, based on regularly scheduled pick-ups from refrigerated trucks, which then bring donations back to food banks to be sorted, inventoried, stored, and redistributed through a network of food pantries and emergency food assistance organizations. In fact, this system can itself become the site of food waste when it is forced to receive food that is inappropriate for its model.

To capture a broad enough swath of retail surplus to make a dent in our food waste problem, we need a flexible donation transportation system – one that can efficiently navigate the expansive nature of surplus food, its time-sensitivity, and the diverse logistical accommodations needed by donors and nonprofit distribution sites.

A Nimble Approach

A solution field-tested by organizations like Food Rescue Hero combines a flexible donation transportation system with a varied donation distribution network. In this model, a fleet driver or volunteer picks up surplus food from the point of surplus and then directly delivers it to a community access point for potential immediate distribution. This model solves the bottlenecks on both the food donor and the distribution side of the system.

On the donation side, food rescue organizations can coordinate both one-time donations and regular weekly pickups of surplus food by mobilizing volunteer transporters as well as an organizational fleet of trucks. This approach ensures that any size of donation can be picked up, even between highly distributed retailer locations. In this way, food recovery is focusing on the needs of the donor as well as the climate impact of the food.

On the distribution side, this same flexible model translates to a diverse network of partners, including nontraditional distribution sites such as subsidized housing, Head Start programs, WIC offices, veterans organizations and job training centers.

Through this expansive network, good food can get to people who need it, at the places they already frequent, seven days a week and regardless of quantity – whether the rescue is one tray of deli sandwiches or 10 pallets of cucumbers.

Food Rescue Hero’s vice president of external affairs, Jennifer England, notes, “Not only is this robust, flexible system critical in ensuring a grocer’s surplus does not become a nonprofit’s garbage, but it also means greater opportunities for food access in the community. Initiatives like providing subsidized housing residents with groceries—effectively ending hunger at our Pittsburgh partner, Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh—exemplify the transformative power of community-focused approaches.”

She adds, “Community collaboration and cooperation become vital tools in meeting the dual goals of reducing food waste and ensuring equitable access to nourishment.”

Current organizations using the Food Rescue Hero app include:

  • 412 Food Rescue in Pittsburgh, PA
  • 302 Food Rescue Crew in Delaware
  • 530 Food Rescue Coalition in Butte County, CA
  • Food Finders in Los Angeles, CA
  • Haven’s Harvest in New Haven, CT
  • Hunger Network in Cleveland, OH
  • Kentucky Harvest in Louisville, KY
  • Lake Erie Food Rescue in Erie, PA
  • Lakeshore Food Rescue in Holland, MI
  • Last Mile Food Rescue in Cincinnati, OH
  • Northern Virginia Food Rescue in Northern VA
  • Philly Food Rescue in Philadelphia, PA
  • Supply Hive in Des Moines, IA
  • Table to Table in Bergen, NJ
  • Vancouver Food Runners in Vancouver, Canada
  • We Don’t Waste in Denver and Boulder, CO
  • Food Rescue White Pony Express in Contra Costa, CA


About Food Rescue Hero™: Purposefully designed to automate the time consuming and variable coordination of food recovery, Food Rescue Hero enables scalable impact on food waste, food insecurity and climate change. Since 80-90% of the food for pick up is fresh, timely delivery is essential. In the United States, as much as 40 percent of the food produced is wasted while one in ten people goes hungry.

Food waste is also one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2016, the Food Rescue Hero Network, made up of 16 partner organizations in the US and Canada, and a growing community of 48K volunteer drivers, has diverted 160 million pounds (the equivalent of more than 130 million meals) of perfectly good food from the landfill and mitigated over 310 million pounds of CO2 emissions.

In 2022, Food Rescue Hero facilitated the rescue of 120 meals per minute, with one rescue being completed every four minutes. Food Rescue Hero facilitates partner growth and multi-county expansion, aiming to scale food recovery in 100 cities by 2030 and measurably support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2, 12 and 13.