What Is Food Rescue?

If you’ve worked in a restaurant, browsed piles of produce at a grocery store, or driven behind trucks loaded with onions or potatoes and idly wondered how much of that food is wasted, you’re asking the right questions. And you might be surprised by the answer: up to 40% of food in the US is never eaten.

Here’s a look at food waste in the United States, and how food rescue programs are combating it—and reducing hunger along the way.

Food Waste in the US

Food waste occurs at all points of the food production process, from the farming stage to the delivery, selling, and consumption stages. A variety of reasons account for this loss, such as damage and disease, equipment malfunction, surplus food and overproduction, the removal of blemished produce, cooking too much food at once, and more. All of this contributes to staggering levels of food waste in the US. Here are some food waste statistics that demonstrate just how substantial this problem is:

  • The US alone throws away 103 million tons (206 billion pounds) of food each year, the equivalent of over 450,000 Statue of Liberties and more than any other country in the world. All this wasted food would be enough to provide nearly 130 billion meals.
  • Food waste in the US has skyrocketed in recent years, tripling in just five decades, and it is now estimated to be 30%-40% of its entire food supply.
  • 21%-33% of water used across US farms is wasted.
  • Food waste in the US is equivalent to the greenhouse emissions of 37 million cars.
  • Food lost at the commercial level—which comprises manufacturers, retailers, and farmers—contributes to about 61% of all food waste, nearly 33 million tons (66 billion pounds) every year.


This immense food waste leads to significant detrimental effects on both the environment and our communities. As evidenced by the above statistics, food waste contributes heavily to environmental issues, particularly greenhouse gas emissions and misuse of natural resources. When food is wasted, all of the resources that went into producing and/or delivering that food—water, labor, energy, transportation, and more—is wasted, too.

Furthermore, wasted food highlights the inefficiency of our food distribution system and contributes to issues of food insecurity. With more than 38 million Americans affected by hunger in 2020 alone, the food that’s ending up in landfills can be put to much better use. That’s where food rescue comes in.

Food Rescue

Food rescue, also known as food recovery, comprises multiple methods of preventing food waste. Here are some of the ways food rescue is confronting our nation’s food waste problem.

Reducing Food Waste

Because waste occurs at all stages of the food production process, there are a wide variety of strategies to reduce food waste at every stage. These methods include adjustments in supply and distribution to mitigate surplus, the sale and promotion of “ugly” produce that fails to meet stores’ aesthetic requirements, and increased awareness about food consumption at home.

The USDA has compiled a Food Recovery Hierarchy that outlines ways to address food waste, from most preferred to least preferred:

  • Source Reduction
  • Feed Hungry People
  • Feed Animals
  • Industrial Uses
  • Composting
  • Incineration or Landfill

While adjusting food production at its source can be tricky and complex, the solution of using would-be-wasted food to feed hungry people is one that many individuals and nonprofit organizations are currently implementing, to great effect. This helps to solve the combined problems of food waste and food insecurity in local communities. This can be accomplished in a few different ways, but one particularly effective approach is a process known as gleaning.

What is Gleaning?

The USDA defines gleaning as “the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, grocers, restaurants, state/county fairs, or any other sources in order to provide it to those in need.” Gleaning allows for the harvesting of the remaining produce of crops that were not economically efficient for a farmer or gardener to harvest themselves. It’s an idea that dates back thousands of years, when farmers would leave their leftover crops to be gleaned by the rural poor. In this way, gleaning not only addresses food waste and insecurity, but also fosters strong local communities and food systems.

How SLO Food Bank Supports Food Rescue

Here at SLO Food Bank, we have our own gleaning program, GleanSLO! Through GleanSLO, we’ve rescued 2,610,291 pounds of fresh, local produce from SLO County farms and backyards since 2010! Our work with local farmers and gardeners allows us to connect and nourish our community and build stronger relationships, all while battling food waste and providing for those in need.

We also run a Grocery Rescue Program, which connects charitable agencies with near-date food from grocery chains and local markets that they cannot sell but is still safe to eat. This agreement between grocery stores participating as Distribution Partners for Feeding America and the SLO Food Bank’s Agency Partners helps reduce food waste while providing local families with nutritious foods for free.

Additionally, California has recently implemented a new law, SB 1383, making the donation of edible food mandatory for grocery stores and wholesale food vendors. Soon restaurants and educational facilities of a certain size will be mandated to donate prepared food as well. SLO Food Bank is working with community partners and key stakeholders to ensure these donations are fed into our Hunger Relief Network and distributed to neighbors in need.

Donate today to help us fight food waste and champion health and nutrition in our communities!

About the SLO Food Bank

We at the SLO Food Bank believe that everyone has the right to nutritious food. That’s why we work hard to ensure access to fresh food for everyone in our community. We structure our programs in a few different ways to make fresh produce more accessible and affordable for those who need it. We also promote food assistance programs like CalFresh, while hosting food distributions in the most rural areas of our county, where a grocery store may be more than 50 miles away.

With our network of community partners in San Luis Obispo, we strive to alleviate hunger and to build a healthier community. If you’re in the area, check out our Food Locator to find food sources near you, or support our cause through volunteer opportunities or donations, if you are able to give. With reliable access to wholesome food, we are all healthier, happier, and more productive members of our communities. Donate today to help us bring health and happiness to San Luis Obispo County!