Advancing Food Recovery to Reduce Food Waste in Los Angeles County, California

State: CA Type: Model Practice Year: 2023

The Los Angeles County is home to approximately 10 million people, making it the most populous county in the United States and the State of California. It is comprised of 88 cities, including the City of Los Angeles (>3.5 million residents). The County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health (DPH) serves 85 of these 88 cities (Pasadena, Long Beach, and Vernon have their own public health departments) as well as County's unincorporated communities. Within DPH, the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention's Nutrition and Physical Activity Program (NPAP) implements a variety of local, state, and federal grant-supported programs, which provides nutrition education and implements policy, system, and environmental change strategies to improve healthy food access among low-income communities experiencing food and nutrition insecurity.  

The dual issues of food insecurity and food waste converge at the challenge of effective food recovery systems (for the purposes of this narrative, the terms donation”, recovery”, and rescue” are used interchangeably). In Los Angeles County, approximately half a million households experience food insecurity, which is the reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Food insecurity poses both short and long-term health risks for children and adults. At the same time, approximately 1.7 million tons of food are sent to landfills from businesses, schools, etc., accounting for one-third of the state's total food waste stream. Food waste has an environmental impact for example, when food breaks down in a landfill, it produces large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is at least 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide. As such, connecting surplus food to those in need increases the amount of food for low-income communities and repurposes food so that it does not end up in landfills. Surplus food donations, however, will not solve food insecurity by itself (albeit, they do address the immediate needs of communities). Rather, eliminating food insecurity will require addressing other underlying determinants that causes poor nutrition security such as poverty.

In 2016, ReFED, a national nonprofit focused on advancing data-driven solutions to end food waste, published a report titled, The 2016 Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent.” The report cited that barriers such as liability concerns, handling, transportation, storage, and financial challenges are common factors that prevent efficient and reliable processes needed to solicit and process food donations so that they can benefit those in need. Conducting this work can also become labor-intensive because of the inefficiencies caused by a lack of real-time information on food availability. The present pilot project was launched with this in mind. With limited funding, the pilot sought to build out a local infrastructure for food recovery work by using a technology-based solution to connect surplus, wholesome food to those in need. It aims to accomplish two goals: (a) increase the amount of food for low-income communities, and (b) prevent food from ending up in landfills and contributing to environmental impacts and climate change.

The first activity of this food redistribution program was to provide 50 subscriptions to the selected food-recovery mobile app (the technology-based solution). For those food businesses and entities (e.g., including school districts' food service/meal programs) that gained access to the app, 12 months of app and program support were provided these included on-demand pick‑up of surplus food and simultaneous tracking of the donations. NPAP and other DPH staff kickstarted the project through initial outreach and education about the services offered to hospitals, schools, city officials, community-based organizations, and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (Public Works”).

The pilot project leveraged County relationships as well as external community partnerships to raise awareness about this program's efforts to increase efficiency in food redistribution and to recruit businesses and other eligible entities to participate in the redistribution initiative. For example, project staff conducted presentations at Public Works' Los Angeles County Food Recovery Workshop, at a convening by the Hospital Association of Southern California, and for members of the Nutrition Access LA network a multi-sector coalition comprising of government, community-based organizations, advocacy, health care, school districts, and other sectors working collaboratively to ensure that all people in Los Angeles County have access to sufficient, nutritious, and affordable food. In Winter 2021, Public Work's Food DROP (Food Donation and Recovery Program) team promoted the project during its check-in calls to businesses needing resources to redirect their surplus foods. NPAP also leveraged the resources of its Environmental Health Division within DPH to contact all permitted food businesses in the county via email to recruit them.

The mobile app technology was free for nonprofit organizations and helped them track pounds of food rescued and the number of meals they served to their communities. In addition, several public school districts from across the county also participated in the project. All applications for the app and program were screened to ensure that participating businesses/entities were more likely to donate nutrient dense foods such as lean proteins, whole grains, and fresh produce versus unhealthy foods to end user organizations (e.g., food pantries, non-traditional meal program sites). Through a grant from the County of Los Angeles Quality and Productivity Commission Productivity Investment Fund (PIF), the pilot project paid for 50 out of 50 planned subscriptions; onboarded 21 county region CBOs into the recipient network; and coordinated the rescue of 102,000 pounds of edible food (approximately 84,900 meals) donated to end user (nonprofit) organizations. These activities equate to traveling an average of 7.4 miles from donor to an end user (nonprofit) organization. 455,000 pounds of CO2 emissions and 10.1 million gallons of water were saved from these donations. Taking the social cost of carbon, agricultural value of water, and value of each meal into consideration, this yielded a total cost benefit of about $1 million. The top five types of foods donated included bread, fruit, pre-packaged foods, dairy, and vegetables.

In October 2022, NPAP (DPH) and Public Works were awarded a Top Ten Award” for 2022 by the County's Quality and Productivity Commission.

Access the program website here:

The target population for the food redistribution program was all permitted food businesses and eligible entities such as public school districts in the county. In Los Angeles County there are approximately 32,000 brick and mortar” permitted food businesses and 79 primary and secondary school districts, many of which have cafeteria kitchens. The total number of food permits in the county is higher, at roughly 40,000 because one business address may hold several different food permits. Supermarkets, for example, may hold different permits for their deli, bakery, and grocery sections, respectively.

The causes of food donation inefficiency primarily lie in the complexity of handling perishable products in difficult geographies, schedules, and with limited capacity to quickly transport them. ReFED frames this challenge succinctly in their report, The 2016 Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent”, In this complex web of overlapping local networks, scale and transaction costs matter immensely. Large batches of food, such as a few dozen tons of potatoes, need significant transport, storage, and nonprofit labor and processing resources to be effectively utilized before spoiling. Conversely, if one bakery wants to donate a bag of 50 bagels, it is often hard to justify the labor and infrastructure costs needed to transport it to a donor recipient. The sector relies heavily on volunteer and philanthropic support.”

As a response to this challenge, mobile applications and end user (nonprofit) organizations focused on food recovery began to grow in popularity. Local health departments in California, including DPH, took initiative to train their environmental health enforcement officials to inform food businesses about safely donating surplus food. Los Angeles County leads the way in California to advance food waste reduction, edible food recovery, and food distribution. Since 2016, the County of Los Angeles implemented several programs and initiatives to address the growing issue of food waste and food insecurity. From 2016 through 2019, NPAP, through its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) partnered with several community-based organizations to provide nutrition education in conjunction with food waste prevention and surplus food distribution efforts. This work was well received among the organizations and their clients. In 2016, DPH's Environmental Health Division established the Los Angeles County Food Redistribution Initiative, a multi- sector initiative that brought together County departments, businesses, community members, and nonprofit organizations to provide resources to the public about safe methods to prevent, donate, and recycle food, as well as support policies that divert food from landfills.”

Various mobile applications operating on the basic function of connecting those with food to those who need it most have come and gone, while others have thrived. In the ReFED report, an analysis was conducted of 25 prevention, recovery, and recycling strategies to reduce food waste. ReFED determined that donation matching software was the 4th most cost-effective strategy to mitigate food waste after standardized date labeling, consumer education campaigns, and packaging adjustments. A 2018 evaluation of food distribution efforts in Los Angeles County identified time and transportation as the two most critical challenges for community-based organizations (CBOs) that distribute recovered produce. Additionally, a 2019 report by the Public Health Alliance of Southern California included a recommendation to support further development and use of technology (e.g., mobile applications) to help connect businesses with surplus food to community-based organizations that accept food donations.

The basic functionality of these apps differ in whether they match” or list” available food donations. Matching of food donations refers to a process in which a food business alerts that a certain quantity or type of food is available for free and a nonprofit that has identified its parameters for what it is willing to accept, is notified of a compatible food type, quantity, its location, and pickup window. Listing of food donations is akin to a Craigslist-type of posting in which a food business notifies the app of its available food, allowing for the food to be found by a nonprofit organization. Some food donation software companies have embedded the feature to provide transportation for donated foods, and though these incur fees for the user, it allows community-based organizations to save time and labor by not needing to dispatch a volunteer at odd hours of the day.

Due to growing concerns about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions in accelerating climate change, the State of California passed SB 1383, the Short-Lived Climate Pollutants law. The Short-Lived Climate Pollutants: Organic Waste Methane Emissions Reductions” law (SB 1383) took effect on January 1, 2022 and is the most significant waste reduction mandate to be adopted in California in the last 30 years. Per California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, part of this law requires that 20% of currently disposed edible food be recovered for human consumption by 2025. Part of the requirement for jurisdictions is to establish an edible food recovery program that recovers edible food from the waste stream and conduct outreach and education to all affected parties, including generators, haulers, facilities, edible food recovery organizations, and city/county departments about the law and food waste reduction strategies.

The innovative aspect of this pilot project is that most of these newly established or developing edible food recovery programs are managed by city recycling managers in city and county Public Works/Recycling departments in Los Angeles County, not typically public health departments. For example, in January 2018, Public Works established their edible food recovery program titled Food DROP (Food Donation and Recovery Outreach Program) whose mission it is to, provide resources for businesses operating in the County Unincorporated Communities so that they may (1) safely donate their excess edible food to fight hunger, and (2) reduce food waste in Los Angeles County.” Food DROP consults businesses with large quantities of surplus food on ways to reduce and donate their food to local nonprofit organizations. They do not, however, provide transportation for the food to travel from the business to the recipient organization. The City of Los Angeles Department of Sanitation and Environment (LASAN) established its RecycLA program, a public-private partnership that establishes a waste and recycling franchise system for all businesses and large multifamily residences in the City of Los Angeles. Within RecycLA, waste haulers (also known as RSPs RecycLA Service Providers”) are required to fund and subcontract with food rescue organizations to assist with rescuing edible surplus food from businesses in alignment with SB1383.

Other examples of edible food recovery programs lead by recycling/public works departments exist in many other cities in Los Angeles County and nationwide, and while they may reduce food waste and increase food donations, they do not necessarily align with public health standards that prioritize nutritious food. Per a November 2019 DPH report, Exploring the Feasibility of Implementing Healthy Food Pantries in Los Angeles County”, studies show that clients who obtain food from nonprofit organizations prefer receiving healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, which are also the most expensive foods. High caloric and inexpensive products such as soda, candy, and snack foods also ranked least preferred by clients. Food pantries serve as a localized effort to provide food and support directly to people who struggle with hunger and food insecurity. Their primary sources of food inventory are food banks and smaller food donors, such as local grocers, food retailers, manufacturers, universities, hospitals, and the hospitality industry. Additionally, food pantries may also purchase foods directly from food retailers to provide food inventory they cannot access through other sources.

In 2020, NPAP in DPH was awarded funding through the Productivity Investment Fund from the County's Quality and Productivity Commission to establish a pilot partnership with an existing food donation mobile application service that could match 50 donors with community-based organizations and provide the necessary transportation for a time span of 12 months, allowing for four pickups of donations a month, each donation limited to about 250 lbs. The project prioritized donors who were likely to donate lean proteins, prepared meals, and produce into the program while trying to ensure that high-caloric, low nutritional value foods were minimized in food donations were key in implementing the project through a health equity lens. To ensure equitable distribution of food, and because food within the charitable feeding system primarily serve populations that are directly impacted by food insecurity and diet related chronic disease, food businesses that expressed interest in receiving a subscription completed an online form providing information about themselves and were then screened to ensure they had an active health permit and a high likelihood of donating foods that would meet the program's nutritional standards (e.g., for fruits, vegetables, plant-based proteins, animal proteins, dairy, and whole grains). It was important to the project team and to the public-private partnership that the food redistribution program not only address food donation logistics but also nutrition security; that is, priority was given to food businesses that could provide recovered food that was healthy (i.e., of high quality or nutritional value). For example, if a food business only had non-nutritious food to donate, it was disqualified and excluded from the program. As a result of implementing these standards, most businesses prioritized produce and lean proteins in their donations; however, other food items such as baked goods and pastries were also made available and redistributed. Only food businesses that passed these nutrition standard screenings were connected to the food-recovery mobile app company and given the opportunity to complete transactions with eligible recipient community-based organizations.

The food redistribution program also ensured equity by distributing foods to geographic areas of highest need in the County. According to DPH's most recent food insecurity report, Food Insecurity in Los Angeles County – Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic” (FI Report”), in 2018, 26.8% or 516,000 Los Angeles County households with incomes less than 300% of the federal poverty level (FPL) experienced food insecurity, which includes households reporting low food security and very low food security. Of these, 203,000 households experienced very low food security. For services planning purposes, Los Angeles County is often divided by the County government into eight geographic areas due to its large geographical size (4,300 square miles); this allows for tailoring relevant public health and clinical services to each of these regions which often have differing, specific health and resource needs. These eight areas are referred to as Service Planning Areas (SPAs). Per the FI Report, the top three SPAs with the highest estimated number of food insecure individuals from highest to lowest were San Fernando, Metro, and South Bay SPAs. These three SPAs alone comprise nearly 52% of all food insecure individuals in Los Angeles County and though we do not have the exact number of people who benefitted directly from these food donations, these were the SPAs that received the highest quantity of donations through this pilot partnership.

NPAP was the primary lead of the food redistribution program from start to finish. The project was primarily focused on two goals: (a) increasing the amount of food for low-income communities and (b) preventing food from ending up in landfills and contributing to environmental impacts/climate change. The primary objective was to enroll 50 businesses/eligible entities (including school districts) from Los Angeles County into project and granting them access to technology that could streamline the food donation process. The secondary objective was to encourage additional end user (nonprofit) organizations to sign up to the mobile platform and widen the net of recipient organizations (this service is free for nonprofits). The third objective was to track and report the pounds of food recovered, equivalent meals, gallons of water saved, carbon emissions saved, types of food recovered, and geographic spread of the food recovered.

There were four main stages of implementation to the food redistribution program: program planning, identification of the mobile application company partner, recruitment of food businesses and school districts, and program management. Program planning required research and assessment, development of an action plan, and securing funding for the project. Identifying a mobile application company partner involved researching existing food donation mobile application companies, interviewing them, and selecting a mobile application partner that best fit the needs of the target population. Recruiting food businesses and school districts into the program required extensive outreach and promotion, and encouraging prospective food donors to apply through an online application form. Once prospective donors applied, project staff screened them by types/amounts of expected surplus food, and verified their permit, after which they were referred to the mobile application partner for an onboarding session. Management of the project involved project staff monitoring existing donors' activities and new potential recipient organizations, addressing any workflow challenges, and preparing donors for statewide organic waste reduction mandates.

Funding for the food redistribution were not a part of the departmental budget. In addition, current federal and state grants in the NPAP are fairly prescriptive and did not allow for redirection of grant funding to support pilot (demonstration) projects. As a result, NPAP applied for PIF funding in 2019 and received letters of support from the Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office (CSO), the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. In 2020, the project was awarded funding by the County's Quality and Productivity Commission for $300,000, a funding source which allowed for more flexible use of the funds. Funds were disbursed in 2020 and completed in 2022, allowing a 2 year window with which the fifty (50) 12-month long subscriptions could be utilized.

In the wake of the COVID‑19 pandemic, job losses throughout 2020–21 grew, contributing to a sharp increase in food insecurity across the region. This food crisis paralleled the pandemic, generating a sense of urgency among County staff and the project funders. Therefore, all key stakeholders affected by the situation agreed to abbreviate the selection process of finding a food-recovery mobile app, focusing on technology that already existed or was field-ready. The launch of the program comprised several key steps, including the selection of a food recovery mobile app; identification of food donors and potential food recipient community-based organizations; and introduction of the food redistribution program to these partners and stakeholders. Following this process, a public-private partnership was established, with NPAP in DPH and Public Works serving as a backbone organization to support a food redistribution program in the county. Three groups participated centrally in this partnership. They included (i) the technology-based company that developed and operated a food recovery mobile app; (ii) food businesses with surplus food to donate; and (iii) community-based organizations (potential recipients of the food donations) that redistribute recovered food to communities in need.

The pilot project leveraged County relationships as well as external community partnerships and stakeholders to raise awareness about the County's efforts to increase efficiency in food redistribution and recruit businesses to participate in this redistribution effort. Project staff conducted presentations at Public Works' Los Angeles County Food Recovery Workshop, at a convening by the Hospital Association of Southern California (HASC), and for Nutrition Access LA partners. In the Winter of 2021, Public Works' Food DROP (Food Donation and Recovery Program) team promoted the project during its check-in calls to businesses needing resources to redirect their surplus foods. The pilot project also leveraged the resources of its Environmental Health Division (EH) to contact all permitted food businesses such as warehouses, restaurants, catering operations, and supermarkets in the county via email. EH disseminated this email several times throughout the year. Language was included to engage businesses in a manner that offered assistance to businesses managing surplus food. Example language included, Do you need assistance managing surplus food in your businesses? We can help!... the goal of the project is to work with businesses to redistribute surplus food to communities in need, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.” This outreach resulted in many applications to participate and subsequent subscriptions for the program.

Finally, NPAP leveraged its relationships to school districts, disseminating an email to all school district food service directors, offering subscriptions to the mobile food donation platform, and encouraging them to apply. School districts were not initially a major focus of the program in the beginning of the project, however, as soon as multiple school districts began to apply it became apparent that the types of food they had to offer were more often of higher nutritious value. The mobile food donation service representative later wrote a boilerplate MOU for school districts to use for internal approval to use the service. Doing so allowed school districts to streamline the process of adopting the technology faster. After seeing the enrollment of additional schools into the program and the success they were experiencing, other school districts began to apply for a subscription.

It was important for the food redistribution program to ensure customer” service in the form of responsiveness to needs, which luckily the software program was able to provide. If a business or eligible entity adjusted its inventory practices and no longer needed surplus food donation services, or no longer saw the level of surplus they were experiencing prior, they had the option to offboard and allow another location to use the remaining pickups in the subscription. Once a prospective food donor was screened and accepted into the program, a representative from the food donation mobile application began an onboarding process for the new donor and provided technical assistance for usage of the technology during an orientation meeting.

Evaluation of the food redistribution program (pilot project) included both process and outcome measures. Evaluation efforts were led by NPAP staff who collected documentation and extracted data from the online dashboard provided by the food donation mobile application. The food-recovery mobile app tracked all food donations and transactions between food businesses and community-based organizations via an online dashboard in the app, which was continuously updated as food changed hands. The dashboard was designed to display metrics that are entered by both the food businesses or eligible entities and the community-based organizations (end users like food pantries) themselves. For example, for each donation/ pick‑up made, the food business or school district with surplus food reported the type of food and the number of pounds that were donated. The recipient community-based organization then entered the number of meals served once the donation had been accepted, delivered, and processed. To generate program metrics, the food-recovery mobile app company used an algorithm to calculate (a) pounds of CO2 emissions that were averted, (b) gallons of water saved, (c) the total number of non-profits served by the donation(s), and (d) the average distance the food traveled from the food business or eligible entity to the recipient community-based organization. Geographic data was also collected and displayed on the dashboard as a visual map of donations. Additionally, categories/types of food were recorded. The results suggested that the screening process was a success, leading to high levels of donations of fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy and prepared meals.

As stated previously, 50 out of 50 planned donor subscriptions were completed and over 20 new Los Angeles County-area community-based organizations were onboarded into the recipient network. Donors included four restaurants, three warehouse stores, one grocery store, one catering company, 40 public schools, and one private school. 102,000 pounds of edible food (approximately 84,900 meals) were donated to end user (nonprofit) organizations; the food traveled an average distance of 7.4 miles from donor to nonprofit organization. According to the data dashboard, 455,000 pounds of CO2 emissions and 10.1 million gallons of water were saved from these donations.

Many lessons were learned in the planning, implementation, and completion of the food redistribution project. In each stage of the program implementation, NPAP and its partners encountered challenges and learned lessons about how to improve program efficiency and food access for underserved communities. These lessons were later used to inform ongoing program improvements.

In the program-planning stage, local challenges included the need to quickly identify gaps in Los Angeles County's food redistribution landscape, for which staff was needed with institutional knowledge and subject matter expertise in policies and programs related to food recovery who could conduct outreach to key stakeholders. Macro-level challenges that could lead to rifts between food businesses and community-based organizations that receive their food donations included potential disruptions in workflow coordination because of differences in perspectives about the food system or the state legislative policies on food recovery.

Similarly, in the identification of a food-recovery mobile app stage, many technology platforms were discovered to be working already in an area of food recovery, but with scopes of work not aligned with the needs of the food businesses, other eligible entities (e.g., school districts), or end user community-based organizations (e.g., food pantries, meal programs) that joined the food redistribution program in Los Angeles County. Finally, in the recruitment of food businesses/entities stage, ensuring nutrition security and access to nutritious food was a main driver. Selecting and adding to the program food businesses and eligible entities that could increase access to healthy foods, including produce and lean proteins, were important contributors to the early sustainability of field activities. A translational science challenge for many food businesses was the variability in acceptance and use of the new food donation technology. That is, many businesses/eligible entities had a difficult time adopting and scaling the use of this technology quickly, particularly during the pandemic when business practices and staffing patterns were significantly different from pre-pandemic patterns.

Lastly, due to the COVID‑19 pandemic, many food businesses/eligible entities had to reduce or change their usual operations, leading to unmet expectations regarding their ability to quickly adopt and use the new food donation technology to recover and redistribute surplus food.

In total, for $300,000, the partnership yielded a total cost benefit of $1 million when taking the social cost of carbon, agricultural value of water, and value of each meal into consideration.