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State law to reduce food waste has Bay Area food banks starving for better distribution

By Mengyuan Dong, | Bay City News Foundation

Second Harvest of Silicon Valley has experienced one of the busiest years in its 48-year history this year, because of the state’s first food waste law and the ongoing hunger crisis since the pandemic began.

On a recent day, 52 volunteers worked the morning shift in Second Harvest’s warehouse at 4001 N. First St. in San Jose, sorting through potatoes, carrots, lettuce and other fresh foods donated daily from grocery stores, farmers markets and restaurants. Carefully, the volunteers inspected the cargo, removing items no longer edible, such as apples with mold.

This food sorting process occurs in food banks, smaller food pantries and other food rescue organizations in the Bay Area every day. Organizations like Second Harvest serve as a vital link between businesses with surplus food and hungry people in need.

However, food bank officials say the new state law, Senate Bill 1383, has created unintended challenges that weigh down their ability to distribute food to needy folks.

Signed into law in 2016, SB 1383 went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year with the aim to achieve a 75 percent reduction in organic waste in landfills by 2025, as well as a 20 percent diversion of edible food. It requires grocery stores, restaurants and other food suppliers to donate surplus food to a food rescue organization.

52 volunteers work the morning shift sorting and packaging donated food at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley on July 11, 2022 in San Jose, Calif.. (Mengyuan Dong/Bay City News) 

While food banks recognize the intent to address food waste, some raise concerns about the challenges the law brings. The organizations are grappling with inadequate storage for the larger amounts and a need to procure more trucks and volunteers, the timely redistribution of donations and problems with receiving expired food.

“We are excited about the opportunity to get even more variety into the hands of our community,” said Tracy Weatherby, Second Harvest’s vice president of strategy and advocacy. “But it does require a lot of coordination and logistics and funding.”

Implementing SB 1383 is an opportunity to both reduce hunger and prevent food from turning into methane and other greenhouse gases in landfills, said Andrew Cheyne of the California Association of Food Banks.

However, recovering food includes complex logistics and expenses that require rapid pickups and distribution to keep the food fresh. It can be challenging for food banks lacking storage and staffing.

The law divides food suppliers into two tiers. Tier One includes grocery stores and supermarkets, and Tier Two businesses are hotels and restaurants with more prepared food. Tier One businesses must comply this year; Tier Two has two years.

Second Harvest now has 36 tractor trailers that run all day to pick up large donations from grocery stories daily. The organization plans to expand its storage, volunteer work and add a new coordinator as the delivery pressure grows.

About 50 percent of the donated food is fresh produce, Weatherby said, which needs to be given out within the same day or two.

Second Harvest in Silicon Valley recovered 17 million pounds of food from January to June this year, enough for about 14 million meals for people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Rotting vegetables are sorted out of the donated food at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley on July 11, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. (Mengyuan Dong/Bay City News)
Rotting vegetables are sorted out of the donated food at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley on July 11, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. (Mengyuan Dong/Bay City News) 

Like other large food banks, Second Harvest operates as a central hub. The organization not only distributes food, it also enables its 79 partner agencies to pick up food from suppliers independently.

More direct partnerships between donors and partner agencies could help ease some distribution challenges.

White Pony Express, a food recovery organization in Pleasant Hill serving Contra Costa County, has created an app-based food distribution system to connect businesses directly with local communities.

In February, White Pony Express established a food donation model in partnership with RecycleSmart, which provides solid waste services for central Contra Costa County. The application targets smaller potential donors, including hotels, restaurants and health facilities.

Once signed up, a business can signal when it has excess food, and a volunteer will pick up and deliver it directly to a matching organization.

Another pressing challenge is food banks are having to devise ways to maintain quality as more donated food comes in. If the food comes in fresh, it may be able to stay at food banks longer, and if the food is properly labeled and packaged, it will save food banks lots of work in determining if it is still useful.

“We don’t want to be hauling people’s trash,” said Pete Olsen, the food sourcing manager at White Pony Express.

He communicates a lot with donors about standards and occasionally has to terminate partnerships if their food is not edible and healthy.

Karen Collins, food resource manager of Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, said her organization was concerned about the uncertainty of future food volume and more food quality challenges.

“It’s our job to look for more food, but we have to … ensure we don’t become a dumping ground,” Collins said.

Her organization had clear requirements of what can be donated even before the new law went into effect. It requires an expiration date and a list of ingredients on each food package.

Olsen with White Pony Express said that local jurisdictions, such as the city of Antioch, have been actively reaching out to food suppliers and helping promote the organization’s food rescue app.

StopWaste, a public agency tackling waste in Alameda County, created an online guide to safe food handling procedures for different types of food donors.

Volunteers at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley pack lettuce into boxes on July 11, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. (Mengyuan Dong/Bay City News)
Volunteers at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley pack lettuce into boxes on July 11, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. (Mengyuan Dong/Bay City News) 

“That might look very different for a restaurant compared to a grocery store,” said Cassie Bartholomew, StopWaste’s program manager.

No matter what, keeping a high standard of food quality is always essential, said Collins from the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano.

“The folks in our community that need help with food, they generally don’t work at places that offer sick time,” Collins said. “If they get sick from food, they could lose their job, or they don’t have health insurance to get additional help.”

Financial support from the government is also significant in helping food banks thrive.

To encourage food rescue programs, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) conducted a competitive grant program. The department awarded a total of $4.75 million to 22 California food recovery programs this year.

The funding is used to purchase equipment such as transport vehicles, increase recovery capacity, conduct education campaigns and construct larger storage or refrigeration spaces.

However, food banks are still calling for more state financial support.

Despite the challenge, food bank and county officials say the significance of food rescue work can’t be overstated.

“There is such high food insecurity,” Weatherby said. “The more food that we can get into our community, there is no concern about being able to find homes for this food.”

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