Increasing Surplus Food Redistribution to Improve Food Access Through a Partnership Between Public Health and a Technology-Based Company
Redistributing surplus food that would otherwise be discarded represents a viable strategy both for increasing food access and for addressing climate change. This study describes a public-private partnership that scaled such an effort in Los Angeles County. Public health worked with a technology-based company to introduce a mobile app that connected various traditional (e.g., food pantries) and non-traditional (e.g., businesses with surplus food, food rescue organizations, community-based organizations that work in low-income communities) organizations with a countywide surplus food redistribution process. In 11 months, 50 food businesses participated, a total of 43,900 pounds of food were recovered, and surplus food was delivered to 34 community sites, serving 28,400 meals. Lessons from the experience suggest that mobile app use was a key component of the redistribution effort, and that diverting food waste while increasing food access, with a priority towards obtaining food of high nutritional value, was both feasible and practical. It has previously been shown that reducing food loss and waste by at least 50% in the food service sector could help reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Food waste, food recovery, food redistribution, mobile app, public-private partnership, health equity, climate change
Over time, 30–40% of all food that is produced in the United States (U.S.) every year is wasted.1 Simultaneously, 10.5% of U.S. households are food-insecure.2 Food [End Page 7] insecurity is a complex problem with contributing factors such as systemic inequalities including poverty and racism.3 During 2020–21, the COVID-19 pandemic amplified this public health problem, worsening experiences of hunger for many Los Angeles County residents.4,5 Food insecurity is defined as a "household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food."6[para.13] The condition is associated with a number of negative health consequences including increased depressive symptoms, poorer physical health, and higher rates of asthma and overweight/obesity.7,8,9,10 An important dimension to addressing food insecurity is improving food access, defined as the accessibility and affordability of food resources.11 A household's food access is affected by the distance of food retailers, food prices, and availability of healthy foods, which ultimately affect diet quality and food security.11
Food waste, or surplus food that would otherwise be discarded, occurs at different levels in the chain of production including at the farm, farm-to-retail, and consumer levels.12 Some examples of how food waste occurs at each of these levels are overproduction due to difficulty in being able to accurately predict the number of consumers, misconceptions about food safety regulations causing the rejection of some products for human consumption, overstocking of produce and other perishable food items during retail, and confusion over "use by" and "best before" dates.12 Research shows that reducing food loss and waste by at least 50% in the food service sector could help reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.13 According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the annual impact of food waste on the environment includes greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the emissions of more than 42 coal-fired power plants.14 Additionally, the amount of water and energy losses that result from food waste every year is enough to supply more than 50 million homes; if redistributed, the surplus food could feed many U.S. households experiencing food insecurity.14
The State of California has strategized on how best to target food waste, climate change, and strategies for diverting surplus food to those in need. Recent legislation speaks to these objectives. California Senate Bill 1383, which was adopted into law in 2016 (California's Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy), requires that all local jurisdictions increase edible food recovery by 20% by January 2025.15 The policy expanded upon the California Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 2018, which provides protection from liability for individuals, gleaners, and food facilities that donate surplus food to a non-profit charitable organization or food bank by offering protections similar to those for food facilities that donate food directly to end-recipients of recovered food.15,16
In Los Angeles County (LAC), efforts are under way to translate recent legislation into practice. A 2018 County of Los Angeles ("County") Board motion, for example, instructed several departments under the government's purview to address food waste and food insecurity together.17 The Board directed the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) to use novel technology to improve food redistribution to communities experiencing food insecurity. Emerging research suggests that technology-based solutions can be effective for redistributing food and increasing the efficiency of the food recovery process.18,19 A 2018 evaluation of food distribution efforts in LAC identified time and transportation as the two most critical challenges for community-based [End Page 8] organizations (CBOs) that distribute recovered produce.20 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 CBOs that accept food donations.21
The present study sought to evaluate the progress of a food redistribution program in LAC and to generate insights that can help inform DPH's present and future efforts to address food waste and food access in a more efficient and equitable way. The narrative describes a public-private partnership that integrated new and novel features into the program such as the use of a mobile application (app) and an emphasis on prioritizing nutrition security and donations of healthy food (i.e., food of high nutritional value).
With DPH leading the way, a public-private partnership was established to serve as a backbone infrastructure to support a food redistribution program in LAC. Three groups participated centrally in this partnership. They included (i) Copia, a technology-based company that developed and operated a food recovery mobile app; (ii) food businesses with surplus food to donate; and (iii) CBOs (potential recipients of the food donations) that redistribute recovered food to communities in need. The launch of the program comprised several key steps, including the selection of a food recovery mobile app (guided interviews with multiple technology or technology-based companies were conducted); identification of food donors and potential food recipient CBOs; and introduction of the food redistribution program to these partners and stakeholders.
Selection of food-recovery mobile app
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 DPH 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. Using an internally developed tracking form, a web-based search was initially conducted to find an app that met the needs of the food redistribution program. This initial search yielded 29 food-recovery mobile apps that met the program's predetermined criteria; two of the criteria were: (a) the mobile app company must operate in the U.S., and (b) the company's business model must include an emphasis on matching food businesses to CBOs that distribute recovered food to communities in need (e.g., low-income, communities of color). Based on these two criteria, DPH staff contacted eight of the companies (i.e., at least one phone call was made and one email correspondence was sent); all eight responded to the outreach. They were then invited for an interview. The interview process was guided by a standard script containing 15 questions with probes and follow-ups. The eight interviews were conducted from January thru February 2020. Each took approximately one hour to complete. Seven of them were administered by telephone and one via a virtual platform.
Box 1 lists the 15 questions (with probes and follow-ups) used in the interviews to evaluate the eight food-recovery mobile app companies. The questions were designed to elicit information most pertinent to developing an efficient, strong partnership. They [End Page 9]
. INTERVIEW SCRIPT FOR THE EIGHT FOOD-RECOVERY MOBILE APP COMPANIES, CONTAINING THE 15 QUESTIONS WITH PROBES AND FOLLOW-UPS USED IN THE DATA COLLECTION
[End Page 10] were also based on research that had considered some of the common barriers to using food-recovery mobile apps (e.g., limitation or inability to track food and its value, food safety information often not included, issues with accessibility).18,22 The specific line of questioning centered around more than the general features of each company's food-recovery mobile app. It included inquiries about the app's operational costs for food businesses; the app's capability to track CBO information and to track food and its approximate monetary value; the app's potential capacity to provide food safety information to businesses or charities and to market the app's utility to businesses and charities; and the app's ability to protect personal information (Box 1).
Qualitative data from the interview discussions were collected via notes taken during the interviews. Using thematic analysis (including short descriptors derived from each conversation and sub-theme categorization), DPH staff compiled the responses and coded them for emerging themes. These themes and related information were then shared with and used by DPH and partnership members to arrive at a decision about the mobile app that best suited the needs of the food redistribution program.
Donors: food businesses and school districts
The main goal of the food redistribution program was to provide funding for 50 subscriptions to the selected food-recovery mobile app. For those food businesses and school districts that gained access to the app, 12 months of services were provided; these included on-demand pick-up of surplus food and up-to-the-minute tracking of the donations.
To facilitate subscription enrollment, DPH conducted outreach and promotion of the app to potential food businesses. Outreach efforts included e-mail messages, postings on DPH websites, and two virtual information sessions for CBOs. Collectively, these efforts were able to reach several CBOs, including through existing networks such as city recycling managers (courtesy of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works), the Hospital Association of Southern California, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health's Environmental Health Division, the county's school districts, and Nutrition Access LA, a multi-sector coalition focused on improving healthy food access in LAC.
Food businesses that expressed interest in receiving a subscription completed an online form providing information about themselves. They 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 DPH 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 CBOs. For each food transaction, the mobile app company provided updates on its online dashboard, displaying key program [End Page 11] metrics such as pounds of food donated, meal equivalents, pounds of CO2 emissions averted, and gallons of water saved.
Recipients: Community-based organizations
To facilitate app use and program workflow, DPH and the partnership invested in ample efforts to raise awareness and generate referrals of CBOs to the food-recovery mobile app. As the agreed-upon intermediary for the food transactions, the selected food-recovery mobile app company limited recipients of food donations to 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations based on the recommendation of the partnership. The CBOs could accept or reject all or part of the food available for donation. As part of this outreach, DPH and the partnership provided two online information sessions, one in 2021 through the Nutrition Access LA network and another in January 2022.
The food-recovery mobile app tracked all food donations and transactions between food businesses and CBOs 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 school districts and the CBOs 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 CBO 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 school district to the recipient CBO.
Program materials and protocols for generating and monitoring these program metrics were reviewed by DPH's institutional review board (IRB); it received an exemption from further IRB consideration as the activities were not considered human subjects research.
Common themes that emerged from the initial interviews of the eight food-recovery mobile app companies are displayed in Box 2. The themes described the operation of food-recovery mobile apps and the companies' working experiences with CBOs involved in food recovery and redistribution. Three main barriers were found: (1) liability and safety concerns among the intended users of the mobile app were common; (2) adoption and integration of new technology into the regular workflow of the food businesses were often time-consuming; and (3) hesitancy in using the app was frequently rooted in a reluctance to pay the subscription cost, even though this small payment provided access to transportation of the food and generation of individualized donation metrics for documenting the chain of custody and program impact.
Interview findings also showed that food-recovery mobile apps had a wide range of pricing models and application interfaces (Box 2). In general, many of the food-recovery mobile app companies shared interests in tracking the same type of metrics such as total food rescues or pick-ups within a specified time as well as environmental measures [End Page 12]
. THEMES EXTRACTED FROM INTERVIEWS WITH THE EIGHT FOOD-RECOVERY MOBILE APP COMPANIES, LOS ANGELES COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, 2020
[End Page 16] that show impacts on program delivery and health. Non-profit data (e.g., timing and amount of food for drop-offs) were tracked by some of the apps, a function that is considered by many companies to be an essential element of the food redistribution process. Food-safety concerns were commonly raised in the interviews, with some companies accepting only food that comes from permitted food businesses, which are businesses that have an active and paid public health permit in LAC, or requiring that food-safety agreements be already in place with the recipient CBOs.
The final choice of DPH and the partnership reflected the desired quality and versatility of the company and a food-recovery mobile app that could offer services in any city, had the ability to transport food from food businesses to CBO sites, and was fully operational in California.23 The final selection also affirmed DPH's and the partnership's confidence in the app, its sustainability, and the business model of the mobile application company, ensuring that the food redistribution program could be operational immediately and be effective over time.
Box 3 describes the process of program implementation and the challenges that were encountered during and after the launch. For example, in the program-planning stage, local challenges included the need to quickly identify gaps in LAC'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 CBOs included potential disruptions in workflow coordination as a result 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, school districts, or CBOs that joined the food redistribution program in LAC. Finally, in the recruitment of food businesses stage, ensuring nutrition security and access to nutritious food was a main driver.
Lastly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many food businesses 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.
Table 1 describes the food businesses that became part of the food redistribution program by food business type. To date, the program has added a total of 40 public schools, one private school, four restaurants, three warehouse stores, one grocery store, and one catering company using the allotted 50 subscriptions. Presently it serves 14 community centers, four food pantries, six rehabilitation centers, and 10 homeless shelters throughout LAC. Each CBO was responsible for informing the general public of the availability of food, some of which may have also included the redistributed food. From May 2021 to April 2022, a total of 43,900 pounds of food were recovered, saving a total of 196,000 pounds in CO2 emissions and 4.35 million gallons of water. Collectively, surplus food was donated to 34 community sites in the county, serving 28,400 meals to individuals known to be experiencing food insecurity. The average food donation traveled 8.62 miles from food businesses or school districts to recipient CBOs, and the average food donation weighed 103 pounds. Most donations were routed to [End Page 17]
. IMPLEMENTATION OF THE FOOD REDISTRIBUTION PROGRAM IN LOS ANGELES COUNTY: STRATEGIES AND ASSOCIATED CHALLENGES
[End Page 19]
the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Downtown Los Angeles, and the South Los Angeles regions of the county, all areas with a high prevalence of food insecurity.
The present study describes how a local public health department increased food business, school district, and CBO involvement in food recovery and redistribution efforts across a large metropolitan region of the U.S. The food redistribution program initiated and scaled a public-private partnership that was able to achieve its objective of using novel, easy-to-use technology to spearhead a food recovery and repurposing infrastructure in the county. From 2021 to 2022, using a mobile app, the program achieved milestones and met the expectations of the partnership, donating 28,400 meals to CBOs that serve low-income communities, food that would have otherwise been wasted, and avoiding 196,000 pounds in CO2 emissions.
In each stage of the program implementation, DPH and the partnership encountered challenges and learned lessons about how to improve program efficiency and food access for underserved communities. These lessons were later used to inform program improvements. For instance, having experienced DPH staff who could conduct outreach to stakeholders was a critical driver of program development and field execution. Similarly, selecting and adding to the program food businesses and school districts [End Page 20] 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 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.
A successful outcome of the program was the ongoing alignment with the food redistribution and climate change initiatives within the state. Although the food redistribution program in LAC was developed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was designed to fill a large need in the county, particularly during the pandemic's worst phase. A recent report found that during the COVID-19 pandemic one in three LAC households experienced food insecurity despite the expansions of public nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).24 According to the report, a contributing factor to this was that 78% of people who experienced food insecurity in LAC were not enrolled in SNAP, although 38–48% were likely eligible to receive benefits.24 As it turned out, the implementation of the food redistribution program in LAC was timely and instrumental for helping to fill the gap caused by the pandemic, when food insecurity increased substantially and the need for food access grew, especially among communities in need.24
Key design limitations of this study included the small sample of food-recovery mobile application companies that were interviewed (n = 8) and the nature of the qualitative data used in the analysis——the data are not generalizable to other types of food-recovery mobile applications nor to similar situations outside of LAC. Reduced DPH staffing capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic may have also limited the capability and quality of the thematic analysis; due to emergency deployments, DPH only had one staff member dedicated to conducting the analysis. Another limitation was the inability to measure the program's impact on food insecurity since the data were not collected from individual recipient CBOs. Finally, results related to program implementation largely reflected progressive policies on climate change and food waste in California and LAC. Early program achievements seen in LAC may not be replicable in jurisdictions outside of California, given the different political dynamics, contexts, and support for food redistribution in other states.
The need for complementary system changes
The present food-redistribution program in LAC sought to address gaps in food waste and food access, recognizing that previous food-recovery initiatives have been criticized for not mitigating many of the root causes of these conditions, at least not in a comprehensive, equitable, or efficient way. For this reason, technology-based solutions are seen as a starting point that could change how these conditions are dealt with efficiently.18,19 The food-recovery mobile app allowed recipient CBOs to choose the type and amount of food they would like to have; therefore, they were not left with handling food waste (i.e., they were protected against "donation dumping").24 None the less, the developers and administrators of the present program understood that there is a need to concurrently change the larger systemic drivers of food and nutrition security. In the future, complementary system changes should consider and include efforts to adopt economic and social policies that [End Page 21] can address gaps in living wages and affordable housing and that can mitigate the rising costs of food, which have been increasing even as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.19,25
Local jurisdictions can play a pivotal role in food recovery and redistribution. While food redistribution programs can be designed to achieve tangible outcomes such as recovering unused food to meet the immediate needs of underserved communities, addressing and reducing food waste and food insecurity ultimately rests on making strategic changes at different levels of the production chain.18,19,25,26,27 Industry standards or regulations aimed at reducing the production of surplus food remain a key complementary target for intervention.19,27 Only through the confluence of these actions at multiple levels can the U.S. meaningfully advance its goal of moving towards health equity by eliminating food waste and food insecurity.
VICTORIA AYALA, JULIA I. CALDWELL, BERNADET GARCIA-SILVA, DIPA SHAH, and VANESSA GARCIA are all affiliated with the Nutrition and Physical Activity Program, Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Los Angeles, California. TONY KUO is affiliated with the Department of Epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Fielding School of Public Health; the Department of Family Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the Population Health Program, UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Los Angeles, California.
The food redistribution program in Los Angeles County was supported in part by a grant from the County of Los Angeles Productivity Investment Fund (20.11). The program evaluation, however, was not supported by this funding source. The authors thank Copia for their partnership, for helping to develop the mobile app, and for providing program metrics that guided the implementation of the program. The content of this article and any views expressed in it are those of the authors and do not represent the position(s) or viewpoint(s) of the affiliated agencies or the organizations mentioned in the text.