Who doesn’t love a good rescue story? But now imagine one that involves rescuing millions and millions of pounds of nutritious foods from being taken to landfills and sending them to hungry people instead. Welcome to Grocery Rescue, a program that redirects perishable foods that stores identify as unmarketable but still safe for people to eat to food banks and other feeding programs for the needy. Perishables include meat, poultry, fish, dairy, fruits and vegetables. Examples of unmarketable perishables are those that are close-dated, slightly ripe, or perhaps too plentiful due to over production. Grocery Rescue, a partner program with Food Lifeline in Seattle, is similar to other programs across the nation that are built upon partnerships between grocery stores and food banks and other feeding programs for the needy. It’s thanks to these partnerships — and the donations that result from them — that many low-income families and individuals can put safe, nutritious food on their tables. The key that opens the door to these donations is food safety. The retailers and the food banks enter into contracts that require consistent, nationally recognized food-safety practices to be followed. If success can be measured in numbers, then Grocery Rescue, along with similar programs across the nation, are achieving it, although the quest to get more nutritious food to hungry people continues. In a recent food-safety training workshop for the volunteers at Helping Hands Food Bank in Sedro-Woolley, WA, Amythst Shipman, manager of Grocery Rescue, had some good news to share: Last year, 17.3 million pounds of food went to about 100 food banks and feeding programs in western Washington state, thanks to donations from 230 retailers in the region. While that’s good news in itself, Shipman is upbeat about the future. “We know there’s more opportunity for growth,” she told the group. Eric Davis, director of Retail Product Sourcing for Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, also had some impressive numbers to share with Food Safety News. Last year, 1.2 billion pounds of perishables went to food banks and other feeding programs across the nation, thanks to donations from 16,000 or more stores. (In an upbeat mood, Davis had just returned from a conference that Feeding America had put on for food banks.) Feeding America helps feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks. Food Lifeline and Grocery Rescue are part of that national network. Like Shipman, he’s optimistic about the future. “It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “We keep finding new partners.” Almost by accident There was a time — and not that long ago — that food banks were limited in what they could give out. Typical fare included bread; baked goods such as cakes, pies and doughnuts; and canned goods. And while it was better than nothing, it certainly didn’t help provide families with very much nutritious food. Davis said that programs such as Grocery Rescue started almost by accident, and he referred back to 2001 and 2002 when corporate officials at Food Lion, a large grocery chain, realized that some of its store managers had been donating perishables to food banks without much, or any, control. Company officials called Feeding America and said they didn’t want the stores to stop making the donations but that a consistent set of food-safety guidelines was needed to ensure that the donated foods were safe to eat. In a stroke of good timing, in 2000, the Conference for Food Protection — in collaboration with industry food-safety experts and non-profits —had created a set of food-safety guidelines designed for the recovery of perishable foods from retail outlets such as grocery stores, commercial kitchens and restaurants. It was those guidelines, which had a successful track record, that opened the door to donations of perishable foods to food banks. Although the Conference has no formal regulatory authority, it has established Memoranda of Understanding with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Association of Food and Drug Officials. Feeding America took the guidelines to Food Lion, which saw their adoption as a great opportunity to donate protein, dairy, and fresh produce that would help meet people’s nutritional needs while ensuring that the food was safe to eat. From there, Feeding America took the program to the Kroger chain, which agreed to pilot it at some of its QFC stores. In 2006, industry giant Walmart and Sam’s Club joined in. “It’s been a blur ever since,” said Davis, “In the first few years, we were getting 100 million pounds of perishables per year. Over the next 12 years, it kept growing until it was headed toward the billion-pound mark.” But Davis emphasized that without the food-safety guidelines established by the Conference for Food Protection, none of this would have been possible. “Had we not had the Conference document, which was key to showing the early adopters (the retailers who came on board early in the game) that we had the food-safety piece together, 1.2 billion pounds of perishables might still be going to landfills every year,” Davis said. Once the guidelines were published, the next order of business was to help food banks obtain the proper equipment such as refrigerated trucks or thermal blankets to cover the perishables during transport. Retailers and foundations helped make that possible. For the stores, the program was an obvious benefit because it reduced their landfill costs. There’s also a tax benefit, although Davis said it’s “probably minimal.” Then, too, most retailers are trying to get to zero waste, and programs like Grocery Rescue help them do that. Also, the donations help the communities where the stores do business. “Feeding the hungry is our company’s top philanthropic cause as it continues to be a priority for our customers and employees,” said Amanda Ip, community affairs specialist with Fred Meyer and QFC. Referring to the “shift in the economy” during the recent recession, Ip said the need in the Northwest “has spread to our neighbors, friends and customers who are seeking help from local food banks, perhaps for the first time.” When it comes to food safety, Ip said it’s important for the company to have a third-party facilitator that can ensure the food banks are following the same food-safety standards as the companies’ stores. In other words, the health of the people going through the food bank lines is just as important to the stores as the health of the stores’ own customers. “We are lucky because Food Lifeline is the best at what they do,” Ip said about the organization’s role as a third-party facilitator. “We hear that from our colleagues all across the country.” In the case of Grocery Rescue in western Washington, Shipman said it was launched in 2002 based in large part on the desire of retailers to donate food that was still wholesome and yet be able to remove liability and food-safety risks. “They felt a need for the product to be redirected to the food banks,” she said. At the time, food banks, church feeding programs, shelters and gleaning groups, among others, were going to the stores to pick up donations. But the retailers wanted consistency and a way to trace where the food was going and how it was being handled. “They wanted to establish a program that was standardized across the board,” said Shipman. What about liability? Under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, adopted by all of the states, donors and recipients are protected against lawsuits as long as they’re acting in good faith. Even so, Feeding America’s Davis said that while that might protect them legally, it doesn’t protect them from the 6 o’clock news. In other words, news about food-poisoning outbreaks — whether from food bought in a store or given out in food banks — is not something any store wants to be involved in. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, although the American food supply is among the safest in the world, the federal government estimates there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually — the equivalent of 1 in 6 Americans being sickened each year. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. “The big concern on everyone’s part is that people don’t get sick,” said Davis. “That’s the last thing anyone wants to happen.” Click here for more information about what consumers need to know about foodborne illnesses. The nitty gritty So what are these food-safety guidelines that programs like Grocery Rescue must follow? It begins with a contract that spells out the responsibilities of the stores and the food banks or other feeding programs. Temperature control is critical. For example, meats, poultry and fish nearing their expiration date are frozen before that date so they can be stored longer. Cut produce, such as leafy greens and fruit, must be stored at 41 degrees F or lower. In the end run, following temperature requirements keeps foods from going bad or becoming contaminated with bacteria or viruses that can make people sick. Time is also important. Getting the food from the store to the food bank and from there into the cooler or freezer as soon as possible is critical. When using what are referred to as “passive” cooling devices such as thermal blankets, which cover perishables to keep them cold for several hours, some programs require that the food being transported that way must be taken to the food bank in 30 minutes or less. If that doesn’t happen, the food must be thrown away. (However, that’s not typically the case for food being picked up and delivered in refrigerated trucks.) Sanitation, of course, is also critical. In the case of meat pickups, the bins must be cleaned with a bleach-and-water solution. Poultry must be kept from the meat and can never be stacked on top of the meat. Record-keeping is also an essential part of the program. Training of food bank volunteers in food-safety practices is another one of the important building blocks. Once at the food bank, the volunteers inspect the food before getting it ready to be given out. When inspecting the food, the general rule is, “When in doubt, throw it out.” “I tell them (the grocery stores) to handle the food for the food banks the same way they’d handle it for their customers,” Shipman said, adding that another basic rule to follow is that, “If you wouldn’t feed it to your grandmother or your child, don’t send it to the food bank.” Michael Frazier, executive director of the Sedro-Woolley Helping Hands Food Bank, who has a degree in nutrition, supplied some statistics to back that up. “Food safety is a real issue for many of our clients,” he said, pointing out that more than 60 percent of the food bank’s clients are children or elderly people. “Both populations — due to either a developing or deteriorating gastrointestinal tract and immune system — have a greater likelihood of contracting a foodborne illness and suffering from more severe complications,” Frazier said. Pregnant women are also at risk when it comes to foodborne illnesses, with miscarriages sometimes resulting from the illnesses. What about health? Frazier said that the fresh produce, meat and dairy items that the food bank receives through Grocery Rescue and other direct relationships with retail partners are “essential in ensuring we provide a balanced nutrient profile for our clients.” He also pointed out that these extremely perishable items tend to be the most challenging to source for food banks and low-income people in general. In contrast, food with high carbohydrate, fat, and sodium levels tends to be easier for low-income people to obtain, in large part because such foods are less expensive. As an example of the success generated by Grocery Rescue and other produce-sourcing programs, Frazier said that in the past eight weeks, the food bank has been able to provide enough fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 600 families each week without having to distribute any canned produce. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that Food Lifeline and Grocery Rescue enable us to provide more nutritious, safe food by providing guidelines and training that can assist us in establishing best practices and relationships, resulting in a higher degree of health for our clients.” Families who turn to the food bank for help appreciate that. “I can remember when food banks just gave out canned goods, and you were lucky to get a block of commodity cheese,” said Theresa Oppe, who volunteers at Helping Hands. “It’s good to know that the food is safe from contamination, and it’s good to get more of a variety of healthy foods.” Her son Sean, 14, and his friend Alan Dent, 15, said they also appreciate the variety. “You can use the food to make good meals,” Sean said. “It’s better than just popping something in the microwave,” said Alan. Hunger in America According to Feeding America’s research, hunger in America is a fact of life for more than 50 million people. That’s 1 in 6 of the U.S. population — including more than 1 in 5 children. Feeding America points out that one of the most common misconceptions is the assumption that if someone is hungry, that means they don’t have a job and are living on the streets. What most people don’t understand is that anyone can experience hunger.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, 21 million people lived in poor working families. In fact, 36 percent of client households served by the Feeding America network have one or more adults working.
Map the Meal Gap, released by Feeding America each year, shows that hunger exists in every county in the nation and that children are disproportionately affected. Although the recession is officially ended, unemployment rates are down, and other economic factors have improved, the findings show that food insecurity continues at high levels throughout the nation.
Hunger Action Month
September is Hunger Action Month, which asks the public to take action on hunger issues in the U.S. It is a nationwide campaign organized by Feeding America’s nationwide network of food banks. Individuals, charities, businesses and government agencies all have a role to play in getting food to those who need it.
How can you help? By pledging your voice in support of kids who face hunger in America, volunteering at your local food bank, urging your members of Congress to visit a child nutrition program operated by a local food bank, and showing your concern about hunger issues during September and throughout the rest of the year.