Why is this Important?


In San Mateo County and across the country, rising levels of diabetes and an increase in obesity result in negative health outcomes. Research shows that excessive amounts of refined sugar and carbohydrates fuel these conditions and are major components of the processed food in our food system. Many residents in San Mateo County face barriers to a steady supply of healthy food due to financial or time constraints and face the addictive properties of highly processed food each day.

Federally funded food assistance programs are under utilized by qualified residents in San Mateo County. Furthermore, these programs do not take into account the higher cost of living in the Bay Area.

Food waste is a lost opportunity to feed hungry people, a loss of the energy and water used in production and transportation, and a large source of GHG emissions in landfills.


What is a Sustainable State?


Healthy food is highly accessible to all residents regardless of financial status, while unhealthy food is undesirable. Health problems related to diet are decreased as healthy food choices become commonplace. Changes in institutional practices and consumer habits lead to a decrease in food waste.


Key Findings

  • Rates of diabetes and obesity have increased between 1999 and 2013, and disproportionately affect low-income residents and those whose education ended in high school. These residents are likely to experience low access to healthy food and high access to calorie-dense, processed food with a long shelf life.
  • In 2013, 10% of the population of San Mateo reported living with diabetes, similar to the rates at the state and national level.
  • The number of obese adults in the county increased by 150% between 2013 and 1999.
  • 30% of 9th graders in San Mateo County are obese, whereas 36% of 9th graders were obese in 2015.
  • As of 2014, when the median household income was among the highest in the nine-county Bay Area, 13% of the county population was food insecure.
  • In 2015, there were 31,752 families enrolled in the CalFresh program in San Mateo County.
  • There were 11,680 participants in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food assistance program in San Mateo County in 2014.
  • In San Mateo County in 2014, 74,910 adults and 25,960 children were food insecure.
  • Nationally, 16% of food waste is generated on farms, 2% is created during food manufacturing, 40% is produced by customer facing businesses (grocery stores, restaurants, and institutions), and the remaining 43% is discarded in homes.
  • Food storage, meal planning, and misinterpretation of food date labels are the main contributors to food waste at home.
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Food and Health


According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, eating healthy food reduces rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain types of cancers (colorectal and postmenopausal breast cancers), and weight gain. Most Americans eat more than double the recommended amount of sodium (American Heart Association), placing them at risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, kidney disease, kidney stones, headaches, and heart failure.

  • In San Mateo County in 2013, the overall rate of diabetes was 10%, an increase of 150% from 1999. The greatest increase in diabetes was seen in whites, females, and people over the age of 65.
  • In 2014, 10.3% of Californians had diabetes (Trust for America’s Health) and in 2012, 9.3% of Americans had diabetes (American Diabetes Foundation).
  • The risk of death by heart attack is 50% higher for people with diabetes (Center for Disease Control).
  • Rates of diabetes in San Mateo County were lowest for youth and those with income over 400% of the FPL ($92,200 for a family of four).

  • Though both the rates of overweight and obese have increased in San Mateo County between 1999 and 2013, the biggest change is the rate of obesity.
  • Obesity has increased by 150% between 1999 and 2013, whereas, the population that is overweight but not obese has decreased by 13% over the same time period. 55% of the population was overweight (or obese) in 2013, an increase of 8% since 1999.
  • In San Mateo County, the Asian/Pacific Islander population had the lowest rate of overweight and obese in 2013, with 46% and 12% respectively. The White population reported rates of 56% overweight and 21% obese. Blacks and Latinos reported rates of approximately 60% overweight and 30% obese.
  • Nationally, more than two-thirds of adults are characterized as overweight (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion).

Overweight Children

  • Kidsdata.org, a program of Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, reports that the number of children drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverage per day was 48% in 2013-2014. This is a increase of 65% compared to 2011-2012.

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The Food Environment

The food environment is an important determinant of food choices available to residents, especially for those with limited transportation and time to shop for food. Residents that are particularly affected by the food environment are children at school, low-income populations, and the elderly or disabled.

Overall, San Mateo County’s food environment is characterized as a “Food Swamp” that offers a high number of opportunities to purchase low quality and highly processed food. However, within San Mateo County there are areas characterized as “Food Deserts”, where residents have low access to healthy food. Healthy food retailers are defined as supermarkets, in contrast to nutritionally deficient food retailers, such as corners stores and liquor stores. Healthy food is defined as fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy items, meat products, and whole grain foods. The map below shows the food deserts in San Mateo County, as identified by the USDA Economic Research Service.

Food Accessibility in San Mateo County

The San Mateo County Community Health Needs Assessment, provides an overview of the data collected through a telephone survey, where residents self-report health conditions, eating and activity habits, as well as demographic information on income, education, and race/ethnicity. The 2013 survey provided insights into the county’s food environment.

  • Access to fresh fruits and vegetables is an important factor for a healthy food environment. Though residents may report eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, fried vegetables and fruit with added sugar contribute to negative health outcomes in the long run. In 2013, the highest rates of “fair” or “poor” access to fresh fruits and vegetables were reported by those with less than a high school education, those living below 200% of the poverty level, Black and Latino residents, and those living in the south county area. Overall, 50% of residents reported an excellent level of “ease of access” to fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • The USDA recommends reading nutrition labels to manage daily intake of vitamins, protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Approximately 78.5% of residents in San Mateo County report reading food labels when making grocery decisions, an 8% increase compared to 2008. More women reported reading food labels compared to men, a difference of about 10%. The lowest rates of reading food labels were reported among those with a high school education or below and those with income below 200% of the poverty level.

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Food Insecurity


According to the Center for American Progress, the cost of hunger in California in 2010 was $165 billion. The calculation considers lost economic productivity, education costs associated with educational outcomes hampered by hunger, hunger related healthcare costs, and charity to alleviate hunger. This does not include the cost of federal food assistance programs.

The USDA defines food security as access to food at all times. In contrast, food insecurity is characterized as the need to skip meals because of financial constraints. The San Mateo County Department of Health compiled information on food insecurity using data from Feeding America, the California Department of Social Service, and the CalFresh Data Files (September, 2015) and found that:

  • Between 2013-2014, San Mateo County saw a decrease in food insecure adults and children by approximately 9%, however the problem remains significant.
  • As of 2014, 13% of the county population was food insecure, when the median household income was among the highest in the nine-county bay area.

Residents in San Mateo County are served by state, federal, and nonprofit programs designed to fill the meal gap. Although program participants benefit from free or reduce priced food, aid organizations have become more selective about donated food, as disparities in diet-related health outcomes become apparent. Second Harvest Food Bank of San Mateo and Santa Clara County found that two-thirds of their clients have high blood pressure and one-third live with diabetes. These numbers are disproportionate to national and local populations with higher incomes.

CalFreshCalFresh is California’s version of the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as Food Stamps. The primary requirement to participate in the program is income below 200% of the FPL. In 2015, the FPL was $24,250 (200% of the FPL was $48,500) for a family of four, and there were 31,752 individuals enrolled in the program. Aid programs based on the FPL do not take into account the high cost of living in the county.


The Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) assists pregnant women and those with children under the age of 5. There were 11,680 participants WIC in San Mateo County in 2014 (CA Food Policy Advocates). 60% of babies in California are in the WIC program. The average program benefit is $71 per month, per participant.

The San Mateo County Office of Education participates in the federally funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP). To qualify for free school lunch, breakfast, and milk, a family of four must earn below $31,525 annually. As shown in the chart below, not all qualified families participate in the NSLP program.

School Meals


San Mateo County has joined the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, a program founded at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics and funded by the USDA. One component of this innovative program is fresh produce tastings, where students are introduced to fruits and vegetables and then vote on whether the item will be served as part of the regular lunch program.


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Food Waste

40% of food produced in the US goes to waste, while a significant number of people are food insecure. The opportunity to feed the hungry with excess food is lost, as well as the water and energy used to produce and transport the food.

According the ReFED Report:

  • 16% of food waste is generated on farms
  • 2% is created during food manufacturing
  • 40% is produced by customer facing businesses (grocery stores, restaurants, and institutions)
  • 43% is discarded in homes

Considering just the retail food landscape, 31% or 133 billion pounds of food available to retailers and consumers is wasted, which represents a financial loss of $161 billion (EPA, 2015).

In the US, food is the single largest waste stream in landfills. When food decomposes in a landfill, it generates methane gas that is released into the atmosphere. This methane accounts for approximately 18% of landfill emissions across the US, and landfills are the third largest source of emissions (EPA, 2015).

In 2013 the USDA and EPA launched the Food Waste Challenge and announced the goal to collaborate with businesses and community organizations to reduce food waste 50% by 2030. To prioritize this effort, the EPA produced a Food Recovery Hierarchy that clarifies which waste reduction practices are most effective and sustainable.


Source Reduction and Feeding Hungry People

The USDA has initiated programs to fund source reduction by food producers such as on-farm storage to prevent spoilage of produce that is waiting to go to market, donation procedures for misbranded meat and poultry products, and education programs.


The Ugly Food Movement

Produce that is sold at retailers must appear to look perfect in size, shape, and color. This focus on the appearance and uniformity of food is often at odds with nature. Beginning at the farm, produce that is not fit for consumers is often discarded and tilled back into the soil. This practice is a missed opportunity for composting. Less than perfect produce that makes it off the farm is often sold at a discounted rate to food banks or produce delivery services that specialize in this budding market.


Consumers have an opportunity to prevent food waste by planning meals in advance of shopping, changing food storage habits, and donating unwanted food.


  • Find food storage tips on Make Dirt Not Waste.
  • Learn how to regrow certain types of produce from scraps on Food Revolution.
  • Store winter veggies in a root cellar, with help from the Farmers Almanac.
  • Village Harvest is a nonprofit organization that connects volunteers with those that have an over abundance of fruit trees in their yard or small orchard. Volunteers harvest the fruit and deliver it to local agencies that feed the hungry. The organization also provides education on fruit tree care and harvesting.

Food in Local Landfills

RethinkWaste conducted a food waste study in 2015 to learn how much food waste was mixed in with regular garbage. The results give a snapshot of food waste rates in San Mateo County and are comparable to national rates. The study found that 24% of the waste contributed by residential customers was compostable food waste and the rate was 6% higher for commercial waste. The compostable category includes soiled paper and fiber. The study found unopened soda, food, and beer cans in the trash, which is not unusual.

Dates on food packaging can be misleading and result in the loss of edible food, accounting for 20% of food waste at home (ReFED, 2016). Among many sources, WebMD provides an extensive list of date label explanations.

  • “Sell by” is an instruction for the retailer, but does not indicate spoilage.
  • “Best before” is a calculation of product quality but not a statement of expiration.
  • “Use by” is an indicator of freshness not spoilage.
  • “Pack” dates on canned or processed food are used to track food but are unrelated to quality or spoilage. Highly acidic foods, such as tomato sauce will keep from up to 18 months, whereas, low acid foods are safe for at least 5 years.
  • “Born on” has been adopted by the beer industry, since beer often surpasses peak flavor after 3 months.
  • “Perishable” foods need to be kept cool to maintain freshness regardless of the date. This includes dairy, meat, and eggs.

Commercial operations such as restaurants and work cafeterias, and large institutions like hospitals, contribute to food waste as well. In the San Mateo area there are several options for businesses and community organizations to receive assistance in donating prepared food to those in need through food rescue nonprofits.

  • Peninsula Food Runners: mobilizes volunteers to pick-up excess food from corporate campuses, grocery stores, and caterers, and then deliver directly to organizations that feed the hungry.
  • Waste No Food: provides a platform for food businesses with large amount of excess to pass the food along to those in need. Vetted aid organizations select donations from the platform and then arrange for transportation.

Industrial Uses and Feeding Animals

Many of the following industrial uses for food waste are already being implemented in San Mateo County.

  • Breweries send spent grains to farms.
  • Food scraps may be donated to pig farms (though there are no large scale pig farms in San Mateo County).
  • Fats, oil, and grease can be converted to fuel or biodiesel.
  • Food scraps can be converted to fuel through anaerobic digestion.


Composting is ideal for food scraps, but the goal is to keep good food out of the compost pile. Recology offers composting service to many San Mateo County residents, which combines yard trimmings and food scraps into one receptacle. A broad range of food products are suitable for industrial composting: bread, dairy, meat, fruits, vegetables, soiled paper, and small wood utensils (Recology, 2016). All commercial customers in the county have access to composting service, though additional fees may be required.

Residents without access to a composting service can make their own compost pile or purchase a worm bin. However, these methods limit the types of material that may be composted. San Mateo County hosts a master composter course through its RecycleWorks Volunteer Academy.