At least one-third of the food produced in the world each year – including in the U.S. – is wasted. At the same time, millions of people here and abroad struggle to find enough food to eat, or face actual starvation. Disposing of food also contributes to the environmental and climate crisis, as decomposing organic matter attracts vermin and produces methane, a global warming gas that is 100 times more destructive than carbon dioxide.
Enter food rescue organizations, which exist in the U.S. and elsewhere to prevent edible food from entering the waste stream and feed people in need. Haven’s Harvest in New Haven, Connecticut, is one such organization. Founded in 2015 by a mother and her children, it now boasts more than 400 volunteers who pick up prepared food, as well as bakery products from 150 sites such as supermarkets, universities, and social events – then delivering it to 250 locations, that includes senior centers, subsidized living sites, health clinics and libraries.
In each of the past three years, Haven’s Harvest has diverted 1.5 million pounds of food from the waste stream. The work is enabled by the phone app Food Rescue Hero, which is used by 15 partners in the U.S. Collectively, these groups have kept 68 million pounds of food out of the waste stream and mitigated the equivalent of 37 million pounds of carbon dioxide. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Lori Martin, Haven’s Harvest co-founder and executive director, who talks about her work and future plans.
[Web editor’s note: The audio version of this interview has been edited for broadcast time constraints.]
LORI MARTIN: I was trying to find places for the food. I thought the food was going to go to food pantries and soup kitchens, but I was so naïve.
It turns out that the food can’t necessarily go to those places, because either the type of food or the timing or the amount of food, and it doesn’t always fit those models. But in the meantime, we were picking up really wonderful, delicious, nutritious food and then we didn’t have places for it. So we reached out initially to the Elderly Services Department in New Haven and said, “Can we connect with some of your sites? Because we had this wonderful food to share.”
It just started like that. We had a meeting with the city, and then someone called to say, “I was at a bakery. It was closing time and they were tipping trays of sandwiches and pastries into the trash.”
And so the city employee called to say “Can you pick up that food?” And I told them there is a way. And it just kept growing like that, by word of mouth.
Eventually, we needed an organization that reflected our values around food sharing, certainly within an anti-racist framework and just noticing and saying aloud that racism is a part of the systems that keep people in certain places in our society. Not that we’re going to fix this with recovered food – but that also our intention is to get food into the hands of marginalized folks, so environmental justice communities in New Haven is largely Black and brown communities. They’re not the only mouths we feed, certainly, but they’re the first mouths we want to feed.
MELINDA TUHUS: How do make the matches? There’s gotta be – I don’t know how often or what percentage of the time – when you pick up, and you think you’re getting it out of the waste stream and you deliver it somewhere and it ends up getting thrown out anyway! Is there any way to track that?
LORI MARTIN: I’m not sure there’s a way to track that, but we know that’s a pain point. We’re working on a food recovery hub, so we want to create the first food recovery hub in Connecticut and we want to do it here in New Haven.
Because, you know, it’s hard to make that match when we’re doing it on the fly because we make these connections and an amazing volunteer will show up, but sometimes the donation doesn’t match the site’s size and we can’t control for all of those because we’re doing it on the fly and we have a tiny space in a rented warehouse. So we really do need a site with ample cold storage and other storage, and a commercial kitchen.
We need to do two things there. We need to aggregate the food – Olmo bagels would be one. We would bring the bagels in and repack them into smaller sizes. Then we can share them more easily and with greater ease – and probably better reception – in lots of places in the community. You know, if we package them in bags of four or six we can share them more readily.
That is one of the pain points. We’re doing the best we can. You know, sometimes we’re able to have volunteers have what I call an extra place in their pocket – having another place nearby who might take some of those. And sometimes we get calls that way and then we can quickly call another site and say, “Can you take them?”
MELINDA TUHUS: For me at least, as a volunteer, there’s a hierarchy of places that I would like to pick up from. I do not like to pick up from donut shops. I’ve done it; it’s not something I want to do on a regular basis. One time I picked up from one of the colleges at Yale and got eight trays of real food. That was pretty great.
LORI MARTIN: There are a couple of things about the donuts. For one thing, we get really great donuts from the place you pick up. They are definitely lower in sugar and higher quality than mass-made, because they are made by the shop.
But the other thing that I’m really mindful of, especially as a white person, is that in our society, in a place of privilege, that donuts still count. And even if they are the mass-made ones, people should get treats if they want them. And I don’t want to be the gatekeeper.
That’s not what I go after – what I really want is protein and produce. But this food is still being made and it’s going to waste. There’s a double piece of that: one is that, I think what our food does, even when it’s bread, which might have some nutrition but certainly not as much as protein and produce, what we know it does is it buffers a family’s budget or an individual’s budget, so if you get free bread then you have an extra couple of dollars to spend for the other pieces that you need for your full meal.
We’ve been talking about for months now of creating a pathway to food recovery. Across the nation we waste 40 percent of the food we produce. That’s how we see ourselves as part of this environmental movement: We can address that. And there is certainly a lot of edible food we should be doing something with and also the food scraps.
What’s important to me is that we do two things: One is reduce the food waste by recovering food and making it part of our culture that first what we do is donate food.
There’s a federal law that got passed in late 2022 and then signed by the president in early 2023 and that’s the Food Donation Improvement Act. It broadens the scope of liability protection for folks who donate food.
It also encourages, in particular, educational institutions to donate, which is interesting because that’s been an obstacle around schools thinking they should be throwing their food away, but in fact they are encouraged to donate it. And the other thing it does is allows food rescue and food banks to sell food at modest cost – food they’ve recovered – in order to help pay for operations. So that’s an interesting model and we would like a micro grocery or a social grocery as part of our hub, so people can come and get good food at a modest cost.
For more information about Haven’s Harvest, visit havensharvest.org, on Facebook @Havensharvest or make a donation on Haven’s Harvest donate page at