Nov 09, 2011 • By

How Second Harvest helps rescue food

Every year more than 30 million tons of food piles up in landfills across the United States.

A growing number of our retail partners’ food rescue programs are working to keep that food from going to waste and get it into the hands of the hungry.

The challenge with food waste is twofold. When food rots in a landfill, it releases methane. This greenhouse gas is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Food waste is one of the largest contributors of methane in our atmosphere.

And of course, food that’s trashed bypasses hungry Americans. On any given day, 50 million Americans – including 17 million children – are hungry. So at a time when the demand for food assistance is up 40 percent since 2009, food retailers across the country are stepping up efforts to combat hunger through food rescue programs.

During a food rescue operation, local food banks visit participating retailers – think Safeway, Publix, and Wegmans – to pick up surplus perishable food items such as meat, dairy, bakery, produce and shelf-stable products. The donations are quickly and efficiently re-distributed to stock the shelves of nearby shelters, soup kitchens, senior centers and after-school care sites.

We recently visited Second Harvest Heartland, the largest food bank in the Upper Midwest, to learn more about the impact of food rescue programs.

Retail food rescue is the organization’s fastest-growing program, according to Bob Chatmas, chief operating officer at the St. Paul, Minn.-based hunger relief non-profit. “Three years ago, we rescued three million pounds of food. This year, we’ll rescue more than 18 million pounds.”

Chatmas says food that would have once gone to waste is an increasingly important source of donations to Second Harvest and other members of Feeding America – a national network of more than 200 food banks serving the United States.

“Food rescue is a wonderful program that certainly helps the environment, but more importantly, it helps people who are hungry,” said Chatmas.

The need for hunger relief services across the country is tremendous – and growing. In the video clip below, Chatmas describes the state of hunger in Minnesota, where for many people – including children –missing meals has become a normal part of everyday life.

Chatmas says his organization will collect, warehouse and distribute more than 70 million pounds of food this year. That’s up from 30 million in 2006.

To get a front-seat view of Second Harvest Heartland’s food rescue program in action, we rode along with Dwight Peach, one of eight Second Harvest drivers who spend their day securing food donations at Twin Cities-area retailers.

We visited Target, Walmart Supercenters, Cub Foods, and Sam’s Club. All of the retailers were expecting us; we were on a regularly scheduled Friday run. Dwight’s refrigerated truck holds about 12 pallets of donations. A great deal of his time each day goes to efficiently packing and stacking the random cartons used to hold to food.

Dwight says that he sees great opportunity to expand the success of the food rescue program. “There’s even more that can be done to prevent perfectly good food from going to waste and get it into the hands of those who need it most.”

To learn more about how Second Harvest Heartland’s food rescue program is bringing hope to those in need, read this feature story or watch this video:

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about food waste. The first post, “The impact of food waste,” was published Nov. 8. The final post, “Foodservice industry talks sustainable food,” was published Nov. 10. You can learn more about our sustainability efforts on