7 Tips to Improve Food Recovery: A Case Study from Santa Clara County


In early 2015 Santa Clara County hired Food Shift to research where and why food is being wasted in the region, to identify community insights and solutions, and to make recommendations to the county to make food recovery more efficient, equitable, and sustainable. Food Shift’s research process consisted of interviewing and surveying numerous food businesses (restaurants, grocery stores, schools, etc.), food assistance groups (soup kitchens, food banks, senior centers, etc.), and food recovery groups (gleaning organizations, food recovery apps, etc.) throughout Santa Clara County.

Through this research we sought to understand the gaps and challenges in the sector and better understand where there are opportunities for innovation. We learned that the food assistance sector is vastly under resourced and limited in its capacity to effectively meet demand for food recovery and distribution. These challenges are complex and these groups need investment, strategic support, and infrastructure to establish a more effective system for food rescue.

We hope that these findings will inspire you, your region, your organization, and the nation to think in new ways about hunger and wasted food and we hope that our recommendations will inspire other municipalities around the nation to take action to address the issues of hunger and wasted food in new ways in their communities.

Here is a summary of Food Shift’s key findings:

1.There is a lot more surplus food available. While food recovery groups in the county are making huge strides in redirecting surplus food to feed people in need, there are still millions of pounds of food going to waste in the county. Just in 2013, there were 34,000,000 pounds* of edible food that went to landfills in Santa Clara. There is enormous potential to make use of this abundance!

2. People are still going hungry. Despite the quantity of surplus food available and number of existing food assistance organizations, people are still left underfed and undernourished. One in four people and one in three children are at risk of hunger in the county. In one of the world’s wealthiest nations, where we have more than enough food to feed every single person, it is unacceptable that anyone is unable to access good food.

3. Food assistance groups need more than food donations – they need operating support. About half of the soup kitchens, food banks, and pantries we surveyed identified limited food storage, transportation, and staff/volunteers to handle and distribute food donations as their primary challenge. It’s not enough to donate food if organizations don’t have the capacity to effectively manage and redistribute it. Food Shift recommends that municipalities and foundations expand food recovery grants to food assistance groups for infrastructure and technology. Additionally, we encourage food recovery groups to calculate the social, financial, and environmental contribution of their work as leverage for attracting resources. Next year Food Shift is launching the Alameda Kitchen, a financially-sustainable processing facility for surplus food. Learn more by signing up for our newsletter.



4. It’s not just about quantity – it’s about food quality. Some food assistance groups complained about receiving donations of unhealthy, processed foods. When we fail to provide healthful food for already vulnerable populations, we are simply adding fuel to fire and contributing to health issues like obesity and heart disease. Everyone deserves the option of nutritious food — and food recovery efforts should be no exception. Being blessed to live in an agricultural region with so much fresh produce and high-quality food available, Food Shift recommended that the county prioritize its food recovery expansion efforts to healthy food options, and organic wherever possible.

5. Some agencies receive too much food, and others too little. Groups that receive surplus food donations often do not know what kinds of foods they will receive and in what quantity. As a result, some agencies get more food than they can store or distribute and others not enough. There is a need for sharing items between food assistance groups, and Food Shift recommends that regions establish an interagency food sharing network to better equalize and distribute food and potentially even other resources like vehicles and refrigeration.


6. We need innovation in food assistance. Despite so many food assistance services in place, there are there are still nearly 125 million missing meals** in Santa Clara County each year. Many people are left out of current food assistance programs for a variety of reasons including transportation barriers, being on the waitlist for oversaturated services, complicated government benefit enrollment processes, or being unaware of available services. Food Shift recommends conducting additional community level research to find out what’s missing from food assistance efforts and what is needed to fill the gaps.

7. The fear of being sued for donating food is common and unsubstantiated. Over half (61 percent) of businesses surveyed in the county reported that they are concerned about liability when they consider donating food. Many businesses are unaware that the National Good Samaritan Act protects donors from liability when they donate food to a nonprofit. A recent report reveals there has never been an attempted or successful lawsuit regarding attempts to get around the Good Samaritan Act. Food Shift recommended that the county incorporate donation guidelines, donation tax incentives, and information about the Good Samaritan Act into the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health’s food safety certification training program.


Food Shift presented its findings and suggested action steps to the county in mid August 2015, and our full final report to the country with research, quotes, and recommendations can be downloaded here.


The paradox of hunger existing in the presence of such wealth and abundance is unjust and is a call to action for us all. Food rescue offers a practical solution to keep food out of the waste stream and redirected toward people. Yet, we know that the current food rescue infrastructure is limited in its ability to meet demand, leaving food and people falling through the cracks.

In order to make food recovery as effective and efficient as possible, this activity needs to be brought out of the shadows, legitimized through public education, and elevated through public policy initiatives. These could include infrastructure investments, grants and loans, contracts, databases, ordinances, and education and outreach programs. With government support, a food recovery service sector could be developed as an extension of our current waste management system and as a way to create jobs in the green economy.


Ultimately, this challenge is a great opportunity.  By trimming waste and diverting food loss we can alleviate hunger, create jobs, cut costs for businesses and municipalities, combat climate change, conserve natural resources, and cultivate more sustainable communities. We hope the report provokes discussion, catalyzes collaboration, and inspires action.  Food Shift is truly inspired by the  commitment shown by both Santa Clara and Alameda County around these issues and we’re delighted to continue exploring solutions.

Originally Published: FoodShift.net | September 2015