Long Island organizations target hunger through food waste
Written by Scott Terwilliger
At Island Harvest Food Bank, a few volunteers swivel around on forklifts, moving pallets into and out of the refrigerator. Others pulled out produce to stock their gleaming white trucks. The organization provides food assistance to an estimated one in ten Long Islanders. Recent data shows that there are nearly 76,000 hungry children across Nassau and Suffolk County.
With Long Island supermarkets wasting nearly 27 million pounds of food every day, many organizations in the area like this food bank are working to reduce the refuse. The wasted food could be used to serve people who suffer from food insecurity, a measure of how reliably an individual can obtain food.
“Twenty years ago, it was an issue that people didn’t want to talk about,” Randi Shubin Dresner, President and CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank, said. “Many communities wouldn’t admit that they had people struggling with hunger. Over these number of years, I’ve seen that change. People are listening, they’re interested, they want to know more about it.”
Island Harvest Food Bank is Long Island’s largest hunger relief organization. Since its inception in 1992, it has grown to deliver surplus food to nearly 600 food pantries and soup kitchens. They also host hunger awareness presentations and have partnered with nutritionists to develop a cookbook for families in need. The food bank has nearly 5,000 volunteers.
“These are people who are in your church, in your school, on your block, on your bus, but no one shouts it from the rooftops that they need help,” Loretta Sehlmeyer, a 19-year volunteer who now serves on the advisory board, said.
Another organization targeting food waste on Long Island is Community Solidarity, with volunteers across the Island and New York City that keep fresh produce out of landfills and provides for 6,500 people each week. It aims to eliminate hunger by reducing food waste.
“Hunger is a serious issue on the island,” Jon Stepanian, President and CEO of Community Solidarity, said. “It’s something that’s affecting people across Nassau and Suffolk County, and it’s shameful to me because there’s so much food we’re throwing out. The solution’s right in front of our face.”
Food waste is the “discarding or alternative (nonfood) use of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“There’s loss everywhere from the field to the plate,” Levi Rogers, Director of Sustainability Programs and Assessment at Skidmore College in upstate New York, said. “The perfectly good food that’s sometimes turned [into] ugly food doesn’t make it to the shelves, and there’s a lot of waste simply from an aesthetic standpoint.”
The USDA estimates that 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted. For consumers, buying too much food could mean tossing it instead of using it, which can affect the food markets.
“We like the idea of abundance,” Dr. Lori Leonard, who works in the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University, said. “We’re taking that food out of global food markets. That food could be sold on global markets.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new law requires commercial food retailers to donate unused products to food banks. The law is set to take effect in 2022. An anaerobic digester will also be constructed in Yaphank, which is slated to open in 2020.
“Moving forward, New York will work with various stakeholders including associations representing large generators of food scraps, local government, organics recycling facilities, organics haulers, food banks, emergency food relief organizations, etc. to effectively implement this legislation,” Jomo Miller, Public Relations Officer at the Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an email.
The Yaphank anaerobic digester would accept 180,000 tons per year of food waste, according to American Organic Energy’s website. The project is expected to cut 40,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually.
“It should go to digesters, that should be the direction,” Dr. Marco J. Castaldi, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the City College of New York, said. “The basic process is to take the solid material and react it with microbes or vermin or worms and decompose the organic matter to methane and CO2 and you would harvest the gas and use it for energy.”
Organizations like Amagansett Food Institute, located on the East End of Long Island, are able to act as liaisons between farmers, producers, and food consumers. To minimize waste and ensure variety, the Food Institute takes excess farm produce and creates value-added products. This would mean creating products like pesto and salsa from the yield.
“We started taking things and minimally processing it for distribution to food pantries and potentially institutions like hospitals or schools that maybe don’t have enough time to chop up a butternut squash,” Kate Fullam, Executive Director at the Amagansett Food Institute, said. “We can take that product into our kitchen prepare it, and get them that product so it’s ready to go.”
Donating to food banks, however, comes with its own challenges, Peter Braglia, Chief Operations Officer at Long Island Cares, said. Long Island Cares delivers food to nearly 600 locations including food pantries, shelters, and day care centers.
“The food pantries are small, so their ability for capacity is limited by their space,” Braglia added. “Most food pantries are run out of a house of worship. They’re given a room, a small section, so there’s only so much refrigeration they can have.”
Tackling food waste not only involves organizations, but students as well. Lucas Grove, a sustainability director for student government at SUNY Oswego, encourages the reuse of uneaten food.
“If we end up using all of those or taking less, we can feed the hungry, we can feed so many different types of environments,” Grove said. “If you repurpose, or reuse the food you do not use, then you can give people the opportunity to not worry about their food income, but more worry about getting a job.”