Boston could be first municipality to require stores, restaurants, and hotels to donate leftover food

“Hunger is more prevalent than folks can even imagine. Our neighbors right now are going hungry.”

A Lovin' Spoonfuls truck delivery at the Everett Grace Food Pantry in 2021. Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe

Boston could be the first municipality to institute a food recovery program, said Councilors Gabriela Coletta and Ricardo Arroyo, who filed an ordinance Monday proposing the plan.

If approved, the program would require certain food vendors — grocery stores, restaurants, and food-producing hotels — to give any safe-to-eat leftovers to local non-profits for human consumption. The ordinance would also formally establish the city’s first ever Office of Food Justice.

A hearing for the ordinance will take place during the regularly scheduled City Council meeting Wednesday.

Coletta said this is an important step for the city because so many people lack access to food, and this program would “put foods in the hands of our most vulnerable at the end of the day.”


“Hunger is more prevalent than folks can even imagine,” she said. “Our neighbors right now are going hungry.”

Compiling edible leftovers

Food insecurity in Massachusetts doubled during the pandemic, shooting up from 8.2% to 19.6%, according to Project Bread, a food service program and hotline. 

As part of the City of Boston Food Recovery Program, food generators would need to start compiling their edible leftovers. Then, the goal is to have already established non-profits in the mix to help distribute to those who need it.

In 2014, Massachusetts started a similar program — the Commercial Food Material Disposal Ban — that diverted leftover food to recycling. Last year, it lowered the threshold for participating sites to those that produced more than one-half ton of food waste per week.

Arroyo said the recovery initiative will provide even more justice.

“Recycling doesn’t mean giving it to somebody for its highest purpose, which is to be consumed,” Arroyo said. “So what this would do is it would say before you recycle it, before you send it to a landfill — if it’s still within the bounds of human consumption — you should be providing it to food providers.”


Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, Arroyo added, was instrumental in bringing the ordinance forward. It highlighted the other states, including California, New York, and Washington, that have attempted similar programs at a statewide level, and gave feedback on a drafted ordinance.

When the clinic gave its feedback in 2022, it wrote that “the City of Boston can further strengthen its food recovery network and build on the foundation of the State’s organic waste ban by instituting a food donation requirement.”

Arroyo said “this has proven to work in Europe,” and pointed to France as an example of the policy in action. He added that he has high hopes for success in the United States, and that Boston could become a model for it.

Possible pushback

At the same time, he said pushback is inevitable. Organizations and businesses that don’t already have pre-existing relationships with secondary food vendors, Arroyo said, may initially struggle.

However, the Office of Food Justice will help, so that there will always be people dedicated to oversight of this program, he said. This way the city can facilitate conversation between the food waste generators and the non-profit food providers.


“Like an operator on a switchboard, they do a lot of connecting people to their destination,” he said.

In making the ordinance, Arroyo and Coletta said they were also strategic in the timeline for this reason. Rather than immediately starting the program and enforcing it, there will be a gradual implementation. 

“We have to make sure we get this right,” Coletta said. “The health and wellness of our residents is paramount.”

One stage of the proposal is breaking food generators into tiers, so that larger generators are asked to start the food recovery process before others. The larger of the two tiers would be expected to comply with the City of Boston Food Recovery Program starting in 2025. 

Another layer is that enforcement will not begin until 2026, so no one will be punished for a lack of participation before that time. Ultimately, Arroyo said these steps are meant to give people the chance to adapt. 

“I think that initial pushback will likely be outweighed by the good that this will do, he said. “And I think many of those businesses will likely find that the benefit of this program for the neediest amongst us is worth it to them.”

‘Food is a right, not a privilege’

Lovin’ Spoonfuls President and CEO Ashley Stanley said Boston’s national footprint can only widen at this point, as the state has already been a leader in food justice. Spoonfuls is the largest food provider for leftovers in Massachusetts.


“I am thrilled that councilors Arroyo and Coletta are recommitting themselves and have taken an interest in this work,” she said. “The city has always been supportive of food rescue.”

She added that she has collaborated with many councilors in the past decade who felt the same about food justice. 

Stanley’s organization saw a 30% increase in the amount of food rescued between 2015 and 2020, she said, so she knows this is an issue. Getting the food where it’s most needed “has always been our bread and butter” at the non-profit, she said.

“Food is a right, not a privilege,” Stanley said.

There are currently no partnerships between the city and non-profits for the food recovery program, but Coletta said that is because they are only in the beginning stages. With the amount of resources available in the city, Coletta said it only makes sense to introduce a program like this one.

“We are a resource rich city,” she said. “There is enough food in this city to feed everybody.”


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