GFN and its partners—including food banks, community service organizations, businesses, governments, and research institutions—are at the forefront of fostering healthier communities and a healthier planet by redistributing food and thereby helping reduce food loss and waste.
The redistribution of safe, wholesome, surplus food to those experiencing food insecurity is unique to the food bank model. When food is produced or harvested and moves through the value chain to a final market, it sometimes becomes unmarketable based on excess supply, product conditions outside marketing specification, or other factors. When this occurs at any stage in the value chain, and if the product is deemed safe, wholesome, and usable, food banks can choose to step in and recover the product before it is wasted. By recovering and redistributing surplus, safe food, food banks strengthen food systems and help ensure that food is used as it was intended: feeding people facing hunger.
What is food loss & waste?
The combination of food loss—when food is lost after harvest but before packaging or retail—and food waste—when food goes unused at the retail and consumer levels—is a serious problem.
Of all the food produced in the world, every year nearly one-third is lost or wasted according to estimates from two United Nations agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP). Approximately 14 percent of the world’s food is lost between harvest and retail sale, and substantially more is wasted at the retail, food service and the consumer or household levels. As wasted food decomposes in landfills, it contributes 8 to 10 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases—ultimately intensifying climate change and causing further fractures in our food system.
The paradox of millions of tons of food decomposing while millions of people experience food insecurity causes significant damage to our communities, our economies, and our planet. And if not adequately addressed may limit our ability to produce enough food for all people in the future.
Definitions of Food Loss & Waste from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):
Food loss is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retailers, food service providers, and consumers. Food loss occurs from post-harvest up to, but not including the retail level.
Food waste refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.
How food banks impact food loss and waste reduction
The problem of food loss and waste (FLW) is enormous. Food banks are an important part of a sustainable solution as they partner with farmers, packers, shippers, distributors, processors, grocers, food service, and transportation and supply chain companies to redirect wholesome food to people experiencing hunger. Not all surplus food is fit or appropriate for redistribution, but when unmarketable food is safe and wholesome, redistribution is the responsible course.
The impact of this food redistribution work is staggering. In 2019, for example, members of the world’s three largest food bank networks (European Food Banks Federation, or FEBA, Feeding America, and GFN) recovered 3.75 million metric tons of food, enough to fill nearly 1,292 Olympic swimming pools. And because that food was recovered, over 12 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases were prevented from entering the atmosphere via food decomposition.
By prioritizing food redistribution in tandem with hunger alleviation, food banks help advance progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG Target 12.3, which aims to halve per capita global food waste and reduce food losses by 2030. The work of food banks bolsters circular economies—defined by the UN Environment Program as sustainable economic models where products – such as food – can be reused, recycled, or recovered and thus maintained in the economy for as long as possible.
GFN’s role in food loss and waste reduction
As the largest international network of food banks, active in more than 40 countries on all 6 continents, GFN plays a critical role in reducing food loss and waste in service of people experiencing food insecurity across geographies, cultures, and socioeconomic contexts. Network member food banks are locally led and rooted in the communities where they are established, and they are responsive to local needs which is reflected in their FLW prevention work.
When considering the problem of FLW, GFN first and foremost advocates for the responsible use of natural resources. Reduction of food surplus provides the largest environmental benefits; however, surpluses and unmarketability will inevitably occur. When they do, GFN supports the redistribution of safe, wholesome surpluses for people facing hunger. We believe that food banks will always be needed to redistribute food within food systems due to the dynamics and variabilities of the natural world, markets and the forces of commercial supply and demand.
Food redistribution and the food banking model must be recognized as an integral part of sustainable food systems and circular economies. There is a growing international acknowledgment of the need to address FLW, and the role of food banks is too often overlooked in the conversation.
GFN is changing that by:
- Using our experience, resources, and relationships to support community leaders and local action, through the food banking model, to address food security, mitigate the effects of climate change, and aid community resilience.
- Increasing recognition and awareness of the role food banks play in FLW reduction and how their work strengthens food system equity and sustainability.
- Tracking and quantifying the positive environmental impact of the food redistribution efforts of food banks using proven methodologies.
- Utilizing and refining evidence-based means to scale up food redistribution for continuous improvement and community impact.
- Partnering across the food system—from farm to fork—with food producers and suppliers to increase donations of wholesome products and ensure food doesn’t unnecessarily go to waste.
- Providing food banks, companies, governments, and policymakers with the resources to better understand and change policies that restrict food donation and food redistribution while recommending effective policies that support food donation to mitigate FLW and improve food security.
In 2021, GFN member food banks recovered over 514,000 metric tons of wholesome food to feed 39 million people, collectively mitigating 1.695 billion kilograms of CO2 equivalents.
To learn more about our work related to food loss and waste:
Read our recent research:
- Food Banks for People and the Planet: A study on food banking’s prevention of greenhouse gas emissions
- Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals: Road Map to 2030
- The Global Food Donation Policy Atlas, a partnership between the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic and GFN, which analyzes and compares food donation laws across twenty countries and counting
Visit our blog:
Check out our recent articles:
- ¿Quiere combatir el cambio climático? Comience por no desperdiciar alimentos, El Pais
- Three ways companies can partner with food banks to reduce food loss and waste, The Consumer Goods Forum
- Improving Food Donation Policies is Key to Fighting Food Waste, International Food Policy Research Institute