Every week during the school year, Harvard’s food service workers pack up as much as 2,500 pounds of leftovers from the undergraduate dining halls, freezing chicken and bagging steamed vegetables.
Their destination? The plates of Boston’s needy families.
Until a year ago, the extra servings would have gone to the university’s compost heap. But now the food is picked up by a Cambridge nonprofit that freezes it and turns it into several thousand meals for those without.
The program was enacted ahead of state regulations adopted last fall that prohibit commercial organizations from disposing of more than a ton of organic waste per week, requiring about 1,700 businesses and institutions, including Harvard, to find alternatives to the dumpster for kitchen scraps and leftover deli platters.
The effort stems from a growing global awareness about donating or otherwise repurposing unused food. In the United States, 40 percent of food goes to waste, nearly all of which goes into landfills, according to the National Resources Defense Council, yet 1 in 6 people struggle to get enough healthy food to eat.
New England is leading the way in reducing food waste, with disposal restrictions also enacted last year in Connecticut and Vermont. Rhode Island’s ban goes into effect next year.
In Massachusetts, where food is the biggest source of garbage, the regulation is the latest in a series of state waste bans. Companies are free to turn leftovers into livestock feed or to convert them into energy, but for the state, feeding the needy is the top priority.
“We always prefer to see food used as food,” said John Fischer, who handles commercial waste reduction for the Department of Environmental Protection.
Many major companies have been giving away food for years, including the grocery chains Stop & Shop and Trader Joe’s, food service providers Sodexo and Aramark, and the Starbucks and Pizza Hut chains. But regulations and growing consumer awareness are prompting more companies to get on board.
Last year, Whole Foods ramped up its donation program in New England, coordinating with local groups to come to each of its 38 New England stores every day to pick up day-old sandwiches or boxes of berries that couldn’t be sold because of one or two moldy pieces of fruit.
It also started freezing leftover macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes from its hot bar to give to Food for Free, a Cambridge nonprofit that last year started collecting unused prepared food to give to charities. The efforts increased Whole Foods’ local food donations by as much as 50 percent, resulting in 3 million pounds of food given away last year.
Cambridge-based Genzyme is looking into contributing some of the edible food from the biotech company’s cafeterias, which last year generated 25 tons of compost.
Increased contributions are starting to make a difference. A food pantry in Burlington has expanded its offerings and its hours. An elementary school in East Cambridge is about to launch a program for students to take home prepared meals. A grocery store furnished in part by donated food that is nearing its expiration dates opened in Dorchester last week.
The ultimate goal is to get food recycling (including composting and converting food to energy) to be as common as recycling paper and plastic.
“The tide is starting to turn,” said Lauren Palumbo, chief operating officer of Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which collects unused food in refrigerated trucks and donates it to 60 agencies in the Boston area. “That apple with a bruise on it, it’s not usable by company standards, but it’s still completely usable. . . . You can cut the bruise off, you can put it in a smoothie, you can bake with it.”
Because food rescue nonprofits pick up donations for free, and businesses get a tax break for them, the cost of off-loading extra food is negligible, according to RecyclingWorks Massachusetts , a state-funded waste-reduction program that has been holding workshops on how to put surplus organics to use. Donating food can also save companies money on disposal fees.
But bringing on new businesses can be a challenge. Workers have to bag, label, and store donations for pickup. Some organizations, such as franchise owners and nonprofit universities, aren’t eligible for the tax breaks that other corporations get.
Prepared food from cafeterias and other venues presents an additional headache because of concerns over temperature variations and ingredient labeling. And while federal law protects businesses from liability as long as they donate to nonprofits that feed the poor, Boston health inspectors won’t yet allow donations of prepared food in the city, making it difficult for Fenway Park and other venues to donate excess hot dogs and hamburger patties.
And with only a few small nonprofits dedicated to food rescue in Boston, an influx of food donations could be difficult to handle, said Sasha Purpura of Food for Free. About 100,000 tons of food is recycled or composted yearly, and state officials hope the ban will quadruple that amount.
Keeping food out of the trash will also ease pressure on landfills, advocates note, as well as reduce the greenhouse gases released by rotting food.
“The social conscience of our society has arrived at the point that consumers are creating pressure for companies to do the right thing,” said Steve Dietz, of Food Donation Connection, a Knoxville, Tenn., company that last year coordinated 40 million pounds of rescued food around the world.
A vast amount of food pulled off of supermarket shelves is good for a while, Dietz said at a forum in Cambridge last week, noting that milk is good for 10 days after the sell-by date, and stores generally pull it off two or three days beforehand — adding up to nearly two weeks of usability.
Awareness is also increasing around the country and the world. As of next year, supermarkets in France will no longer be allowed to throw away food. The major food service company Compass Group USA recently launched a program to use bruised and misshapen produce in its kitchens.
Closer to home, a pair of MBA students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an app, Spoiler Alert, that connects stores that have surplus produce with food-rescue groups.
Kathleen McKenna, a volunteer and board member at Bread of Life in Malden, which last year served more than 1 million meals to hungry families, is grateful for the donations — including from Harvard’s dining halls.
But there is a still a “huge disconnect” between excess food and people in need, she said. When she sees stores throwing out garbage bags full of food at closing time, “It’s devastating.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.