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DonateNYC connects restaurants, grocery stores with community organizations

"There are a lot of supermarkets out there constantly throwing away food that could have gone into the hands of hungry New Yorkers."

Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx signed

Kingsbridge Heights Community Center in the Bronx signed up for the donateNYC food portal. Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

Throwing out good food may be a sin, but sometimes finding a place to donate it requires the patience of a saint.

A new city-run web portal is designed to connect restaurants, grocery stores and other commercial food establishments with nonprofits and other groups that help feed New Yorkers in need.

Officials hope the new effort will make it easier for food-related businesses to donate while building long-term partnerships with community organizations.

“There are a lot of supermarkets out there constantly throwing away food that could have gone into the hands of hungry New Yorkers,” said City Councilman Rafael Espinal Jr., who sponsored the bill that created the portal. “There’s no real clear connection to do that. This might incentivize people. The ease of it is what’s attractive.”

Restaurants, caterers and other businesses with leftover or surplus food can register with the portal on the donateNYC website, which is run by the city’s Department of Sanitation. Groups interested in receiving the donations also register, detailing their specific needs and the kinds of goods they can use.

An algorithm matches them up, based on criteria and then location.

“We do not want recipients getting donations that don’t work for them,” said Eszter Csicsai, senior manager for Reuse & Donations at the city Department of Sanitation. “There are some that serve groups with certain dietary needs.”

The donations range from prepared food to fresh fruits and veggies as well as packaged and canned goods.

Csicsai noted some of the larger food rescue organizations have minimum weight donation requirements and ask for a fee. Neighborhood supermarkets, bakeries and other shops may have smaller amounts of food but can’t find a place to take them or don’t know how to reach out.

“Maybe there is a donation that is a handful of bagels,” she said. “There might be someone right around the corner who needs that.”

Once a match is made, the recipient has 30 minutes to accept or decline the donation.

Donors must meet safety standards with handling and packaging the food. Any food that includes controlled or illegal substances, comes from residential sources and is held or transported outside of safe food temperatures will not be accepted, officials said.

The donateNYC site features information on how to give away and acquire items New Yorkers are trying to dispose of in an environmentally friendly way. It also includes events and guides such as “Zero Waste Dorm Move-out.” The food portal was quietly added in early March as part of a so-called “soft launch.” It is only for commercial businesses, but the site has other options for individuals looking to donate food.

So far about 75 organizations and businesses have registered on the portal. Csicsai said she believes that number will continue to grow and the agency is in the process of sending out thousands of informational postcards about the portal to groups around the city.

The Kingsbridge Heights Community Center was eager to sign up as a recipient. The Bronx nonprofit provides an array of youth and family services including hot meals and a food pantry to local residents.

“This is a great opportunity to make partnerships in the neighborhood,” said William Littleton, KHCC’s director of development. “We serve 400 meals a day and 76% of our participants live below the poverty line.”

Officials said the recipients can be schools, government agencies and other organizations as well as nonprofits.

“It’s been nice to see people thinking outside the box,” said Csicsai. “We want to foster these hyperlocal donation connections.”

Joel Berg of Hunger Free America said the program will be positive if it’s properly implemented but might have more of an impact helping the environment than reducing hunger. His group released a report last year showing hunger and food insecurity impact over 1 million New York City residents.

“The only way to seriously reduce hunger in New York City is to create jobs, increase wages, expand the availability of government safety programs (such as SNAP, WIC, school breakfasts, and summer meals, etc.) and reduce costs for housing, child care, transportation,” he said in an email.

While the portal is designed to find good homes for good food, it will also help produce less trash. The city has set an ambitious goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030.

According to the Department of Sanitation, food-related organizations send more than 650,000 tons of usable food to landfills every year.

“I think they hit a home run with this one,” Espinal said. “We are getting food to hungry New Yorkers and reducing waste.”

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