How Food Banks Reduce Food Waste and Mitigate Climate Change
It’s widely understood that a food bank’s primary objective is alleviating hunger. While that’s true, food banks are not recognized enough for their role in the reduction of food loss and waste and their impact on climate change mitigation.
Climate change and the world’s food systems are inextricably linked. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2022 report notes that “the [world’s] food systems are both exposed to and contribute to climate change.” The newest IPCC Synthesis Report states that reducing food loss and waste is a cost-effective and viable strategy to reduce global emissions. Globally, more food is wasted or lost than ever before, accounting for 8 to 10% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As food waste ends up in landfills, it gradually decomposes and releases methane, an extremely powerful GHG that is responsible for 30% of global warming since preindustrial times. Food waste alone contributes 20% of global methane emissions today.
This paradox of millions of tons of food decomposing while millions of people go hungry causes significant damage to our communities, our economies and our planet. Food banks help connect the dots between building sustainable food systems and addressing climate change. By recovering wholesome food from partners throughout the supply chain and redistributing it to communities facing hunger, food banks prevent that food from sitting in landfills and emitting GHG.
The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) — the world’s most geographically diverse network of food banks — advances and unites food banks so they can reliably connect their communities to food and reduce food loss and waste.
Last year, 49 GFN member food banks combined to distribute 651 million kilograms of food to 32 million people on six continents. In doing so, food banks collectively prevented 1.5 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e, from entering our atmosphere.
Food banks in action
As community-led organizations, each food bank’s approach to food recovery and redistribution is slightly different and responsive to local needs. For example, GFN member Leket Israel recovers surplus produce from an extensive network of over 700 farmers and packhouses. In 2022, the food bank recovered 26,500 tons of fresh produce, with the help of an app they developed where farmers alert Leket when there is surplus produce available for recovery. Climate change is affecting agricultural productivity and harvest patterns, so to refine their food recovery operations and ensure as little food is lost in the fields as possible, Leket is developing a satellite technology software program to identify when agricultural fields are ripe for harvest and plan food recovery efforts accordingly.
Another example is Bancos de Alimentos de Mexico (BAMX)’s Al Rescate program, which is a collaboration with over 12 hotel groups and 50 restaurants across Mexico. Since 2014, GFN member BAMX has been collecting surplus from hospitality buffet lines, meal services and other sources of prepared foods. According to the United Nations, 7% of all food produced worldwide is wasted at the food service and retail levels. By capturing surplus prepared foods, BAMX has not only provided nearly 250,000 wholesome meals but prevented significant GHG emissions.
Food banks also play a key role in climate adaptation by feeding people who have been made vulnerable to food insecurity from climate-related impacts, such as increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns and greater frequency of extreme weather events. Two recent examples come from GFN members Banque Alimentaire de Madagascar and Food Banking Kenya, which both responded quickly and effectively to hunger crises brought on by severe droughts likely related to climate change. In Madagascar, Banque Alimentaire purchased produce from small-scale farmers and organized trainings on sustainable land management to improve agricultural productivity, which improved food security for both the farmers and the wider community. Food Banking Kenya likewise provided emergency assistance to nomadic communities who rely on livestock and supported them in adopting drought-resistant crop farming practices, which can strengthen resilience in the face of mounting climate challenges.
How to multiply food bank effectiveness
GFN supports the crucial work of these and many other food banks around the world through technical assistance and capacity building, financing and product sourcing — as well as connecting members to each other so they can share their knowledge and expertise. However, more can be done across the global community to help food banks reach their full potential.
On the part of government, more policy support is needed for lasting change. That’s why GFN and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) started The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas, which addresses pressing legal questions and operational barriers to food donation around the world by identifying national laws in an ever-growing list of countries and analyzing common legal barriers to greater food donation.
Atlas research points policymakers to strategies like: tax incentives and tax barriers that can help position food donation as an economic alternative to discarding safe surplus food, streamlined date labeling policies that differentiate between quality-based and safety-based labels to ensure food is not unnecessarily disposed of, and liability protection for food donations to help build confidence in the food banking model in a productive way.
Partnerships between food banks and the private sector are also crucial to addressing food loss and waste. Food banks are an agile, reliable and cost-effective business partner for businesses looking to reduce food loss and waste, and at the same time, contribute to alleviating hunger in their communities. And they work with partners at every stage of the supply chain — farmers, manufacturers, distributors, transporters and the hospitality sector. When companies plan for regular surplus food donation in partnership with local food banks, they play an important role in mitigating the impacts of both hunger and climate change.
Food banks are a win-win solution for people and the planet, and more can be done to scale their impact. With increased acknowledgement and support from governments and more partnerships with businesses, food banks can multiply their effectiveness, redirecting more surplus food to more people in vulnerable situations while reducing food loss and waste and its associated GHG emissions.