Case: Food Rescue

Leda Cooks

Systemic Analysis of a Food Rescue Network
Leda Cooks is a Professor in Department of Communication University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She teaches communication and food studies courses from a critical social justice orientation. Her research addresses the ways ideas about identity, ethics, power, relationships, community, culture and citizenship intersect in spaces and performances of both teaching and learning as well as producing, preparing, consuming, and communicating about and through food. Recent work includes articles on food rescue networks and food rescuers, the communicative pedagogy of land acknowledgment statements, and the rhetorical appeal of food waste apps.

Learning Outcomes

After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:

  • Identify ways in which food waste is often connected to hunger.
  • Describe how food rescue networks function.
  • Articulate ideas about systems theory as it relates to food systems and food rescue networks.
  • Situate food rescue and food rescue networks as sub-systems of food.


What if for every three bags of groceries you bought, you threw one in the trash? More than one third—or one trillion dollars—of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted. In the U.S., estimates of have varied between 33% and 50%, and these numbers have only grown because of the COVID pandemic.

Along the food supply chain (production, transformation, distribution, retail, and consumption), exactly where waste occurs the most is less clear, but internationally, food waste happens primarily at the production stage, with fruits and vegetables leading the losses. In countries with higher gross domestic product (GDP), such as the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, food waste occurs more often at the consumer end of the chain, where oversupply by food businesses is deemed necessary to sell their products.

Given its origins in everyday life as a material and relational byproduct of production, waste is profoundly important to the ecosystem. And yet, especially in nations with highly industrialized , and amongst the middle classes, waste also represents material and unnecessary excess. Waste is both unnecessary and necessary—it is both overly abundant and thus not wanted or chosen and that which is needed to survive. Food waste, especially, causes both guilt and ambivalence, because it indicates the casual disregard or devaluation of food, even as many people don’t know when or where they will get their next meal.

In highly industrialized nations, foodwaste reduction campaigns by governments, nonprofits, food-related businesses, and other groups have proliferated on mass and social media platforms. In conjunction with these campaigns, the excessive waste of food has become a frequent topic for news stories, documentaries, and even competitive cooking shows. The immorality of wasting food when so many go hungry is the primary theme of these shows, and it is a powerful one. In the U.S., there is an incredible overabundance of food, where piles of perfect produce are displayed in supermarkets, and seemingly endless choices over what and how much to eat are necessary to attract consumers. This phenomenon has led many scholars and activists to proclaim that we waste more than enough to feed the estimated 820 million hungry people globally. Indeed, the connection between waste and hunger has come to serve as the foundation for a very popular method of waste reduction: food rescue.

venn diagram showing food rescue at the intersection of food waste and food insecurity
Figure 1: Food rescue is in many ways at the intersection of food waste and food insecurity.

, or food waste recovery, describes the sanctioned activity of collecting food from markets, farms, educational institutions, restaurants and other food-related businesses, which would otherwise be wasted. The rescued food is then delivered or transported to food shelters or other recognized food aid providers. The terms “recognized” and “santioned” are important to food rescue transactions, as these designations are necessary for legal protection (under the Bill Emerson Act[1]) and to apply for tax breaks and government (or other) aid. Food donors, rescue agencies, and recipients of rescued food must work closely together to communicate about what, where, and how much food can be donated, as well as specific logistics of dates, times, and transport. Over time, these learn how to coordinate their actions to donate and rescue, in order to serve as many community members as possible. Food rescue agencies primarily serve as the hub of these networks and, as such, must match suppliers with recipients, ensure the safety and quality of the food, and calibrate amounts of food to match supply with need. In this manner, food rescue networks work as a system, communicating among themselves to ensure that food is donated, rescued, and received as optimally as possible.

Systems Theory and Analysis

The following case looks at the systemic operations of a food rescue network in Western Massachusetts, U.S. posits that everything living and non-living, from organisms to organizations to official policies, draws from and contributes to its broader environment. Systems are made up of various elements, and those parts, through coordinating processes, make up the whole. Systems analysis shows the interconnections among the various parts (e.g., roles, functions) and their relationships to the whole systems effectiveness. For instance, within food systems, there are various sub-systems of production, transformation, distribution, retail, and consumption. Those sub-systems interact with larger food systems, and all are interconnected to other systems that have an impact on each other (for instance, the health system, transportation systems, energy systems, etc.). A structural change in any of those ‘other’ systems (e.g., health systems during a global pandemic, or the shutdown of a natural gas pipeline) will have an impact on food systems and their various sub-systems.

Several systems principles are useful in analyzing the communication of food rescue networks. Interconnectedness refers to the relatedness of all things to each other, and to the interdependence among the various parts for the system to function. Food rescue agencies are central to food recovery, but food donations and food shelters supplying food to hungry people are necessary for food rescue to be successful. Food security means that people don’t have to worry about gaining access to nutritious food. For food rescuers and shelters, achieving food security requires a constant excess of otherwise wasted food, and so the cycle begins again. focuses on how parts of the system become a network and make meaning in relation to each other. It offers a birdseye view of both the whole and its parts, as they work together. Food rescue is made meaningful through the actions and reactions of food donors, rescue agencies, and receiving shelters and centers. As a system, food rescue also shapes attempts to reduce food waste and food insecurity. A system adjusts and readjusts itself based on feedback about the functioning of various elements. When a system is maintaining its normal levels of performance, sustain the patterns established by working together toward the goal. Food rescue networks have as their goal the diversion of otherwise wasted food to feed hungry people, and that goal is constantly reinforced by rising levels of food waste and food insecurity. , however, use feedback to change reinforcing loops, in order to alter or correct systemic relations at a larger level, such as addressing environmental issues caused by food waste at the point of production. Finally, describes the ways parts of the system influence each other and how systemic processes (relationships, feedback loops) lead to various consequences.

Food rescue in Western Massachusetts

In what follows, I apply these concepts to better understand how the network functions as a system. A research assistant and I conducted 30 interviews with food donors and staff at rescue agencies, food pantries, and shelters in the network. We conducted five of the interviews twice, before and after the start of the COVID pandemic, to evaluate how the network managed such a massive event. Members of the network expressed interconnectedness through being able to understand and respond to the logistics of everyday food rescue. This appeared in the ways they communicated about what was expendable and needed for donation, and how to get the product from one place to another safely. For instance, one staff member at the local food bank told me that she was in frequent contact, twice a week, with the most regular donating organizations and shelters, to determine needs and supplies. She regularly received data from shelters about what kinds of food was most needed (fresh vegetables, meat), and went about trying to secure consistent sources for supply.

Synthesis was expressed by members of the network in comments about how food rescue acquires meaning, not through individual actions, but through members’ relationships with one another and the community. Speaking shortly after the 2020 pandemic shutdowns led to difficulty maintaining the network, one shelter director stated, “The number of checks that we’ve gotten, the amount of calls, people that have dropped off masks or supplies we couldn’t get. You ask for it, they [community members] give it to you.” Food rescue is therefore meaningful not only in terms of the various parts of the network, but also as representative of the community.

Reinforcing feedback in the network is heightened by increases in the amounts of food donated (either through outreach or government incentives) and the need for food donations as food insecurity continues to increase in the U.S. These feedback loops strengthen the motivation to continue to rescue food. As a food shelter director noted, “I think something else to take away from [COVID] is the flexibility aspectJust having the ability to go with the flow, to make those adjustments accordingly.” Where flexibility allows for greater latitudes of adjustment and reinforcement to the system, balancing feedback loops do not occur. As food insecurity has risen during the pandemic, food waste has grown in tandem. On the consumer end of the food chain, studies in the U.S. and U.K. showed that in the first months of the pandemic, when there was chaos and uncertainty over food supply, household food waste decreased, but then increased again as the food supply became more normalized. Further up the food chain, when farms and other food purveyors shut down or lost employees due to illness, food was not sold and waste increased. In a crisis, the donation of otherwise wasted food provides the easiest and quickest route to feed hungry people, and food banks and shelters now rely more than ever on food rescue to help with the increasing numbers of people who need food.

The increased need for food rescue has resulted in continuous changes to the food networks we studied. These changes, such as increasing government incentives for large-scale food producers and suppliers to donate/divert their food waste, recruiting more volunteers, and adding a third shift at food banks (to allow them to be open longer), have helped to strengthen the network and increase rescue activities. For donations to match the needs of a food shelter, more waste (non-retail food) needs to be constantly donated. Causality, then, ensures that food rescue is a functional short-term solution that will resolve neither food insecurity nor food waste reduction in the long run. Using the logic of causality and the reinforcing loop, we will (perversely) need to waste more to feed more hungry people.

However, causality within systems theory is dynamic and multiscalar, and there are systemic consequences to food rescue and its networks on the relational and community level that are more beneficial, and which raise community awareness of food insecurity, if not food waste. Before and after the pandemic began, as one food rescue agency director stated, “We were seeing some creative partnerships happening. The one that comes to mind is a restaurant that wants to keep their staff engaged, so they were making meals using the product they couldn’t normally serve to customers and making them for the local food bank.” Similar, informal initiatives to help combat food insecurity, such as mutual aid, indicated the presence of grassroots motivation to help others, perhaps for the first time.


Systems theory and systems tools are helpful in describing relationships, patterns and functions in organisms, networks, and organizations. For our food systems, and food rescue in particular, systems thinking allows us to see whats working, diagnose problems, and see consequences. Systems thinking about food rescue foregrounds cyclical processes where food rescue often focuses on linearity (e.g., the diversion of food waste from point A to point B), structural problems (unemployment), and other ways to focus on feeding (literally and figuratively) the immediate issues. Systems theory also allows us to see how systems (and not just parts of the whole) are interdependent on each other, as the food system depends on other environmental, economic, and political systems. Finally, systems analysis points to consequences of reinforcing feedback loops, or of systemic interdependencies of which we may otherwise be unaware. Food rescue networks then, communicate systems theory in action, as a sub-system working within the broader food systems and the constellation of systems that contribute to their functioning and consequences.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is waste unavoidable?
  • How do principles of food rescue systems function within our overall food systems?
  • How does food rescue reduce food waste?
  • How is food rescue related to other options for reducing waste?
  • How or does food rescue address food insecurity?
  • What (if any) food rescue organizations operate locally?

Additional Resources

Acaroglu, L. 2017. Tools for systems thinkers: The six fundamental concepts of systems thinking.Medium. September 7.

Cooks, L. 2019. “Food Savers or Food Saviors? Food Waste, Food Recovery Networks, and Food Justice.” Gastronomica 19 (3): 8–19.

Frequently Asked Questions,” Food Rescue U.S. 

Food Loss and Food Waste.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 

Last Week Tonight, [television]. Director: Jim Hopkinson, July 19, 2015.

Sewald, C.A., Kuo, E.S. & H. Dansky. 2018. “Boulder Food Rescue: An Innovative Approach to Reducing Food Waste and Increasing Food Security.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 54 (5): S130–S132.

Wasted! The story of food waste [documentary]. Directors: Anna Chai, Nari Kye, 2017. 

  1. The Bill Emerson Food Donation Act offers Federal (U.S.) protection from civil and criminal liability for persons involved in the donation and distribution of food products to food insecure people under certain conditions. Namely, a person must donate in good faith apparently safe and good quality food to a nonprofit organization for distribution to individuals in need to receive protection under the Act. The Act also provides protection against civil and criminal liability to the nonprofit organizations that receive such donated items in good faith.


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