Food Rescue Innovation

Food rescue is the process of collecting good, nutritious, surplus food from retail establishments and donating it to organizations that serve people who need it the most. Food banks and meal programs are examples of these organizations. Food rescue requires partnerships with businesses, non-profits and public agencies to tackle complex problems like transportation, logistics, food safety, communication, timing, storage and distribution.


Why is Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) involved?

Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities in the US which presents both opportunities and challenges. As more people and businesses enter the city, more food enters our waste stream. Food is nearly thirty percent of what is going to the landfill. At the same time, the rising cost of living here is contributing to an increase in families experiencing food insecurity.

SPU oversees garbage, recycling and compost collection contracts, develops policies to encourage waste prevention and recycling and manages significant infrastructure to ensure safe, efficient disposal. As a city, Seattle has been an international leader in solid waste management for decades. And much of this credit belongs to Seattle residents and businesses who support new and environmentally progressive solid waste, recycling and waste prevention actions. As a leader in the industry, SPU can lend its expertise in convening a wide variety of partners to come together to address this complex problem of food in our waste stream through innovative solutions.

Photo of food line service
Donating surplus food to meal programs helps Seattle residents who need food the most.


Using a community-centered approach

Preventing food from going into our waste stream is a high priority not only for Seattle Public Utilities, but also for our community. Seattle businesses are putting their food scraps into compost collection in vast volumes. While this is a significant step - it avoids creating greenhouse gas emissions caused by decaying food in landfills - more can be done.

Some of that food is safe, edible, healthy food that could help address hunger. Feeding America estimates over 250,000 people in King County don't have enough food to lead healthy lives. Over one quarter are children. Food rescue is one solution that uses the food as it was originally intended - to be eaten and gets it to individuals and families in need.


Challenges of food rescue

A graphic depicting challenges in food rescue, including transportation, storage, and redistribution Hunger relief organizations describe that food they need the most is nutrient-dense, perishable foods (i.e., fresh protein, fruits and vegetables and dairy) while ReFED has estimated that nearly 80% of food waste nationally comes from perishable foods.1

Rescuing food is complex and expensive. Moving volumes of food, takes trucks, drivers, cold storage, kitchens and staff to sort, de-package and turn it into new meals or stock food pantry shelves. Local organizations consistently inform Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) that they have insufficient equipment (such as trucks and cold storage) and staffing to rescue enough food to meet the demand.


Food rescue innovation labs

In 2018 and 2019, SPU and Mary's Place, a local non-profit organization that provides shelter and services to families experiencing homelessness, hosted two Food Rescue Innovation Labs. These one-day events brought together some of the region's most diverse expertise. Our primary goals were to:

  • Understand the human impact of hunger in our community while reducing the amount of food flowing into the waste stream
  • Explore opportunities to collaborate and facilitate real time solutions
  • Identify areas where innovation could foster a more efficient, safe and contemporary approach that matches our community values

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View larger version of this graphic.


What are our next steps?

The Food Rescue Innovation Labs reinforced SPU's commitment to building collaborative relationships across hunger relief organizations, businesses who actively donate food and stakeholders who have a stake in the benefits of addressing food in our waste stream and food insecurity. We're currently in the process of:

  • Strengthening existing relationships
  • Inviting strategic collaboration
  • Identifying what will create the best impacts for our shared community

    Together with Mary's Place and other stakeholders, we're asking questions such as:
  • What would be a more contemporary approach to transportation, storage, and logistics?
  • What collaboration opportunities would accelerate change?
  • What opportunities cross over into employment or economic development?
  • How will potential solutions enhance both public health and our environment?
  • How will we ensure equity and inclusion?

As we gather results of collaboration and take next steps, we will share them here.


Related links


1 ReFED. "A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent." 2016.