More people are eating at home due to COVID-19, and food waste, which already makes up over 12% of Pennsylvania’s residential waste, is on the rise. Here’s how you can help combat it.

Photo courtesy of Pikist

By Katia Faroun

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Americans face-to-face with a health crisis, economic recession, and the highest unemployment rates seen in years, but it’s also spurred a lesser known dilemma—and it comes straight from our kitchens.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, about 30 to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, making food waste the largest category of material placed in municipal landfills across the nation. The Pennsylvania Waste Industry Association reports that in the state alone, food waste makes up just over 12% of residential waste, suggesting an annual 1 million tons of food waste that are redirected to Pennsylvania landfills.

This waste represents tons of food that could have nourished hungry families, and also wasted labor hours and water and energy put into the making, packaging, and distributing of the food. Households are responsible for the largest portion of all food waste, and with more people eating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of food going wasted has increased. 

One of the biggest challenges with this shift in eating habits during the pandemic is the effect it’s put on the supply chain, according to Stacy Albin, an environmental program coordinator with the Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC). With the unavailability of typical food sources, individuals are opting to purchase food from grocery stores, leaving distributors with an overabundance of food.

“That’s why you see people changing their habits—whether it’s out of fear or the simple need for it. People are shopping more at grocery stores because restaurants, work, and other outlets are unavailable,” Albin says.

Crops spoil and aren’t even harvested by farmers whose customers, such as schools and corporate cafeterias, have remained shut down during the pandemic. Restaurants offering take-out or delivery are likely to produce more food waste as they adjust to an overall lower demand. Grocery stores are seeing an increase in demand, while wholesale food distributors have seen a sharp drop.

“It’s a link between demand going up on the residential-individual grocery store side of things versus wholesale farms shipping further down the supply chain to commercial businesses that distribute the food from there,” Albin says. 

On a consumer level, many shoppers panicking over the outbreak have resorted to buying items in bulk: not just toilet paper, but also food that spoils before it can be consumed. Additionally, leftovers from home-cooked meals and take-out are adding to the amount of food picked up at the curb.

States and organizations have taken action to help prevent further food waste during this time. At the end of April, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) made a grant available to nonprofit organizations that provides assistance in managing food to redirect it from the waste stream. More recently, Pennsylvania has adopted an FDA policy that allows bulk items purchased by commercial kitchens to be sold in local grocery stores, according to KDKA. Organizations across the country, including Pittsburgh’s 412 Food Rescue, have reorganized their strategies to accommodate food insecure individuals by delivering rescued food to their homes.

412 Food Rescue partners with retailers and nonprofits to redistribute safe, yet unsellable food to those in need. The majority of foods picked up by volunteers are fresh, such as meat, dairy, and bread, and are delivered to nonprofits that provide those who are hungry with nourishment, preventing the food from going to waste. 412 Food Rescue uses an app called Food Rescue Hero that alerts volunteers of available food to rescue.

In the Northside, the sports stadiums’ close proximity to residential areas makes for a diverse presence of donors, such as popular chain restaurants and local eateries. 412 Food Rescue partners with more than 25 Northside donors and distributors, including companies such as PNC Park and Giant Eagle and nonprofits such as Light of Life and Bethany House Academy.

In order to respond to donor shutdowns and a rise in food insecurity since the start of the pandemic, 412 Food Rescue has started delivering bags and boxes of produce door to door and hosting food distributions across the Pittsburgh area, according to Jennifer England, the organization’s senior program director.

“We’ve really had to shuffle our model a little bit and a lot of what we’re doing is responding to the needs that are rising,” England said. 

Despite the benefits of states and organizations making commitments to curb food waste, changes are most needed in the kitchens of homes, where the majority of food in the U.S. is wasted.

Households have access to multiple ways of decreasing their food waste, including changes to how they acquire food and efforts that can be made in their own backyards. Community gardening allows multiple households to grow and harvest their own produce in a collective area, granting communities the opportunity to create their own sources of fresh produce.

Northside residents have a handful of community gardens available to them. Places like Ballfield Farm in Perry Hilltop, the East Commons Community Garden at Allegheny Commons, and Food City in East Deutschtown offer Northside residents the opportunity to grow fresh produce in a community setting during the summer months, with a membership fee as the only cost. Grow Pittsburgh offers a map of community gardens throughout the area on their website for individuals interested in their options.

Residents can also take action within their own homes. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture encourages households to be more mindful of how they purchase, use, and preserve foods in their kitchens. Some practical tips for shopping include: add the quantities you want next to each item on grocery lists and stick to that number and only buy bulk items of food that doesn’t spoil. The Department of Agriculture also recommends freezing foods like fruits, meats, and bread to prevent them from spoiling, or using produce past its prime to make smoothies, baked goods, or soups.

To prevent food scraps from going to waste, residents can turn unusable produce into compost. By combining vegetable and fruit scraps with raw material such as paper, grass clippings, and shredded cardboard, individuals can create their own compost material that can nourish garden soil. At-home composters are encouraged to combine one part green matter—including food scraps—with three parts brown matter, or raw material, in a designated area that receives sunshine and rain.

For more information on how to limit food waste, visit to register for PRC webinars on composting and waste reduction.

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