Promoting A “Green” Culture of Health: Instead of Wasting Food, Getting it to Those Who Need It

Jun 25, 2014, 3:54 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

Mercer Street Friends Food Bank Warehouse Trenton

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” goes an old slogan of the United Negro College Fund. Another terrible thing to waste is healthy food.

That’s especially true in a nation where 1 in 7 U.S. households are “food insecure”—that is, they lack consistent, dependable access, typically for financial reasons, to “enough food for active, healthy living,” as a U.S. Department of Agriculture report puts it. About 1 in 10 U.S. households have food-insecure children—an equally appalling reality in a country that wastes an estimated 30 to 40 percent of its food supply, or a whopping 133 billion pounds of food in 2010 alone.

In California’s Orange County, however, a solution is at hand—and there’s no reason it couldn’t take hold and spread nationwide. Since 2012, the Waste Not Orange County Coalition, a public-private partnership, has worked to boost donations to local food pantries of surplus healthy food from local restaurants, grocery stores and other facilities. The organization was formed out of the realization that enough food was tossed out every day to feed the nearly 380,000 local residents—almost half of them children—who are deemed food insecure.

The brainchild of Orange County public health officer Eric Handler, MD, and county food pantry director Mark Lowry, the organization is now making a double-barreled effort to battle local food insecurity even further.

First, it is trying to alert community clinics, other health care providers, and social service agencies, to routinely ask patients or clients two questions designed to offer clues about food insecurity: Whether individuals or families have worried within the past year that their food “would run out before we got money to buy more,” and whether “the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have the money to get more.”

If the answer to either or both questions is yes, individuals or families can be directed to a Google map that shows the location of all local food pantries. Clinics and other locations with the capacity to do so can also be encouraged to stock emergency supplies of nonperishable food, as at least two local clinics are now doing.

Second, to make sure that there’s ample stock at those food pantries, Waste Not Orange County has formed a new “food recovery task force” to boost food donations in two of the county’s largest cities, Anaheim and Orange. A prime objective is making it clear to 1,500 local restaurants and other food sources how easy it is to participate in the program.

For starters, federal law and some state laws and local ordinances provide liability protections for individuals or organizations that donate food to nonprofit organizations helping needy individuals. These protections mean that donors can’t be held liable in court for any reason—for example, if someone who ate donated food had a severe allergic reaction—unless the donor is guilty of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

And more practically, food donors in Orange County don’t even have to deal with transporting donated food to pantries, as that job is handled by a separate nonprofit, Food Finders, that is affiliated with Waste Not Orange County.

Handler and his colleagues are now thinking beyond the county’s borders. They’ve held conversations with White House personnel about taking the same approach nationally to encouraging stepped-up food donations. They plan to create a “tool kit” to help organizations that want to donate food. They’re also contemplating creation of a smart phone app that would show the location for all food pantries nationally, and make it easier to direct those who self-identify as food insecure with the food sources they need.

Meanwhile, back in Orange County, “we have passed the tipping point” in terms of making local businesses aware of the opportunities to donate food, says public health officer Handler. A sign of the times: The local Theo Lacy county jail has even joined the effort, electing to go “green” and donate to food pantries the 2,000 pounds of uneaten food it was previously throwing out every day.

A terrible thing to waste, indeed. And how much better to get that food into the mouths and stomachs of those who need it.