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How Food Banks Can — and Can’t — Help China Cut Food Waste

According to the United Nations, roughly one-third of the world’s food, including almost half of fresh produce, is wasted before it reaches the table. In 2016, researchers with the Chinese Academy of Science and WWF estimated the country’s cities were wasting up to 18 million metric tons of food a year — enough to feed as many as 50 million people.

Much of this food is perfectly edible. Five years ago, when I was a student at McGill University’s Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, a classmate and I would go around the neighborhood collecting misshapen or near-expiration fruits and vegetables from local supermarkets and cook them for other students in a communal kitchen on campus. It was the same basic principle found in many food banks, and after returning to China in 2017, we decided to see if we could set up a food bank of our own.

Food banks are a relatively new concept in China. By 2017, there was just one food bank distributing near-expiration foods in the entire country, and other attempts to operate food banks across South China had failed. Part of the problem was a lack of resources: Traditional food banks require the kind of warehouses and logistics capacity that social organizations often lack. Also contributing to the challenge was the ingrained idea that near-expiration food products are of poor quality. Often, even when retailers do agree to give food away, they find no takers.

With these factors in mind, we set up Pomme de Terre (PDT) as a “virtual food bank.” In order to reduce costs and the carbon emissions involved in transportation, PDT does not operate warehouses or have its own logistics arm. Instead, we redistribute donated food directly to nearby public welfare organizations, including social groups, community service centers, volunteer organizations, and schools for students with special needs.

Much of the food we receive comes directly from factories or retailers. There are commercial reasons for donating old or leftover foods: Shopping malls and supermarkets have relatively high requirements for their products’ shelf lives and some goods are preemptively taken off the shelves even before they expire. But food near the end of its shelf life is not completely without economic value. For instance, merchants can sell it at a reduced price to animal feed manufacturers, or on online sales platforms like Taobao or Haoshiqi, a website specializing in the sale of near-expiration foods. In fact, we’ve found that retailers who choose to donate to us generally support the concept of food banks and hope that we will pass on their products to those in need.


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