Waste management: Volunteering at the San Francisco Food Bank

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Saturday I joined about 25 Bay Area food bloggers to volunteer for an afternoon at the San Francisco Food Bank. It was organized by Sam and Amy, and it was a lot of fun. I got to meet writers whose dinnerware I can recognize but not their faces, while ever so slightly helping people who wonder about where their next meal is coming from in a less philosophical way than I do.

foodbank_016.jpgFor some reason I had imagined we'd be preparing and serving food. Then it was explained to us that the Food Bank is "the Costco of the food charities": it supplies the bulk materials that places like Glide Church, Delancey Street, and Project Open Hand distribute to the hungry. Our assigned tasks were to pack apples and oranges into boxes, then after a break we bagged frozen ears of corn. Despite the fact that we were all chatting up a storm — the No. 1 topic seemed to be how badly food writing pays — we were apparently efficient enough to finish our work way ahead of schedule.

foodbank_006.jpgThe apples and oranges we were packing had supposedly been donated because they were cosmetically challenged, or smaller or bigger than the standard sizes grocery stores want. Some retailers give their rejects to hunger charities, others trash them, and Berkeley Bowl composts its unsellable stuff, according to John Birdsall's excellent feature in the East Bay Express last year about food waste in the Bay Area and three groups that recycle it in various ways. In England, there's a movement afoot to educate consumers about "ugly fruit."

foodbank_007.jpgOn Saturday we discarded the fruits that were definitely past their prime, badly bruised or — in the oranges' case — moldy, by throwing them into a special bin for the purpose. (Turns out some food bloggers have really crappy aim, and I have the splattered jeans to prove it.) The rejected apples and oranges were destined for a nearby farm, presumably for compost or pig feed.

But mostly the apples and oranges looked pretty much like the fruit I buy at the farmers market. Actually, better. In the winter, by the time I get to the Berkeley Tuesday one, it's dark. Ever tried picking out produce by lamplight?

Grocery stores throw away literally tons of blemished produce because they think no one will buy it. And I suppose they're right — if you're standing in front of a giant bin of apples at Safeway, would you choose the bruised one? That's why farmers and the food industry have spent a lot of time breeding fruits and vegetables to be uniform in size and color and that will withstand the rigors of shipping.

My husband told me about a show he watched recently on the History Channel, about how processing technology changed the food landscape in this country. I knew some of this already — that some historians think a major factory in the North's victory over the South in the Civil War is that the Yankees had canning technology, which allowed them to have a much longer and robust food-supply chain for the troops. The Potato Non Grata also told me about the guy who first developed a machine that would cut pineapple to fit perfectly in the newfangled tin cans, then figured out he ought to develop a rounder pineapple that would mimic the can's shape as closely as possible and thus generate less waste.

What's good for industrialized suppliers is not necessarily good for the consumer. In our quest for bright shiny identical widgets instead of, say, apples, we've sacrificed a lot of taste. The frost-singed "crocodile spinach" we got in our last CSA box was way too ugly to ever have been bought in a store, but it tasted just as darkly nutritious when I turned it into a soufflé.

And yet…there was a lot of debate at first as we packed the apples, trying to figure out what might make a fruit undesirable even to the hungry. Would beggars be choosers when it came to big bruises, so to speak? What about worm holes? Ultimately, most of us seemed OK with the standard that cosmetic blemishes were OK; rot was not.

Another thing I was pondering as I dodged the rotten oranges flying toward the rubbish bin were the pallets of boxes of Pop Tarts, Doritos, and Spongebob SquarePants snack packs presumably donated by their manufacturers. We weren't dealing with those, but I couldn't help wondering whether the Food Bank felt at all conflicted about accepting those particular handouts. If you're hungry, do the source of the calories matter? Do community food charities have a responsibility to provide only foods with actual nutritional value?

I don't have the answers, but I did enjoy the chance to step outside my privileged-eating existence long enough to even think about such questions. Thanks, Sam and Amy.

12 Responsesto “Waste management: Volunteering at the San Francisco Food Bank”

  1. Emily says:

    I just bought a bunch of food for a local charity, and it struck me that I usually buy sustenance food: beans, rice, tomatoes. Then I thought, "Would I want to live on this diet?" No, definitely not. I could *survive* on that, but food is about much more than survival. So I went back and bought a bagful of spices, sauces, olives, and suchlike. Seasonings for the soul to go with the nutrients for the body.

    I would be very curious to know what the average breakdown of "ingredients" to pre-packaged (junk) food is at most charities. *Do* patrons of food pantries eat a lot of beans and rice, or a lot of Kraft Dinner?

  2. Diana Foss says:

    This seems like a good place to plug Village Harvest, which is a Santa Clara County organization that picks backyard fruit and donates it to local food pantries, mainly Second Harvest and the Salvation Army. Not only do supermarkets waste food, in our county alone, literally millions of pounds of backyard fruit rots uneaten.

    This morning, we're picking citrus at four houses that are within two miles of my own house. The soil here in San Jose is still incredibly fertile, and the Willow Glen neighborhood where I live is home to some very productive trees. One grapefruit tree we pick every year alone provides nearly a full ton of fruit.

    Village Harvest is an easily copied model, and we'd love to see it expand to other places. This isn't "cosmetically challenged" fruit; it's beautiful and seasonal and very, very local. Citrus in the winter, stone fruit in the summer, apples and persimmons in the fall. It is a necessary addition to the "sustenance food" that Emily refers to above, and it's very well received by the food pantry clients.

  3. DairyQueen says:

    Diana: Please e-mail me -- dairyqueen AT [this site] -- as I am eager to know more about this. In a 1-mile radius, my neighborhood has backyard lemons, oranges, tangerines, kiwis, loquats, apples, plums, persimmons, pomegranates, Buddha's hand, figs, and a few things I don't recognize. Most of them seem to go to waste. I was trying to think of ways to avoid this, maybe partner with People's Grocery to distribute them around Oakland, but I'd love to hear your model.

  4. Emily says:

    Diana-

    That is a *brilliant* program you have going there! A ton of grapefruit from one tree? That's amazing!

    Emily

  5. Marc says:

    Last August, Riverside Press Enterprise reporter Leah Messinger wrote a story about the debate within the food bank community of good calories vs. any calories. It has perspectives from several food bank operators. Two paragraphs from near the beginning of the article:
    "Such processed convenience foods are the source of growing national debate among food banks, including those in the Inland region, over whether they should distribute all food received, regardless of nutritional value, or only the more healthful items.
    "As more attention is paid to obesity rates among low-income populations, many of the nation's more than 200 food banks are re-evaluating their mission statements to determine how best to serve the more than 38 million Americans who the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates are in need of food aid."

    Link: http://www.pe.com/localnews/inland/stories/PE_News_Local_B_food20.67aa28.html

  6. DQ: it was lovely to meet you on Saturday! I also noticed the boxes of prepackaged items at the Bank, and had the same thought. It raises an interesting issue, and makes me squirm a bit when I think about the ramifications of giving out Pop Tarts to people down on their luck. It is sad? Or good? Or both?

    In any case, it makes Diana's info about Village Harvest doubly wonderful.

  7. Amy says:

    I'm sorry we didn't get the full tour. The food bank told me they really emphasize fresh produce and distribute more of it than any other food bank in the nation. But, they do get some less healthy more processed food like cereals and soft drinks.

    If you get a chance to see one of the distribution sites you'll see it operates much like a farmer's market with very little processed food compared to fresh. Hope to see you at the next event!

  8. Diana Foss says:

    Thanks for all the positive thoughts. I put our website in the "website" area of the comments form, but I don't see it attached to my comment, so check out

    http://www.villageharvest.org

    A bit more on how we work. We have five teams right now, two in Mountain View/Palo Alto, one in Cupertino, one in San Jose, and a team of developmentally disabled adults that goes out twice a week, but only to one house at a time.

    Our San Jose team has a truck, about 6 orchard ladders (varying between 8 & 14 feet tall) lots of pole pickers and two big 5' cube plastic bins. Today we made it to all four houses, and picked about 800 lbs of oranges, 80 lbs of lemons, 80 lbs of tangelos, 140 lbs of tangerines and 500 lbs of grapefruit. (And we left a lot of grapefruit on the trees; it's the least popular of all the fruit, and often rots in the bins when we bring too much of it. Grapefruit interferes with several medications.)

    We split the fruit up, with about 1/4 of it going to the Mountain View Community Services Agency, and the rest split between the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Salvation Army. Today was an unusually productive day; we had two houses with multiple trees, and also the welcome addition of 6 high school students doing community service, so we got a lot done (but still not all of the grapefruit! We'll have to go back later, but they hang on the tree for a loooong time, so there's no hurry.)

    We prefer to bring fruit to the Salvation Army, because it gets distributed the very same day. In fact, when we're bringing something very popular (loquats, kumquats and persimmons, surprisingly enough) then we have to push our way through the frantic crowds to get the fruit out of the truck. (I'm not joking!) In fact, since the lunar New Year is coming up, today's tangerines and tangelos were probably snapped up immediately. We're happy to bring fruit anywhere it's needed, but Second Harvest has a longer cycle, and fruit doesn't get out the same day we bring it in. (The big food banks are all like that.)

    One more thing. In the summer, when we pick a lot of stone fruits, then, in addition to distributing the fruit, we make jam, which we sell to raise funds for things like equipment and gas for the truck. We also make the own-label jam that Andy Mariani sells at Andy's Orchard, if you're ever down in Morgan Hill.

    Joni Diserens is our fearless leader, and Pat Turner is also involved in running the organization. They're really the people to talk to about starting an East Bay group. The email address is info at village harvest dot org.

    Thanks again for the interest!

  9. sam says:

    great write up DQ, you always have a fresh perspective.
    An Diana = thanks for this information which is a joy to my ears.

  10. shelly says:

    Walking past the big crate of pop tarts and other assorted junk gave me pause. Everyone deserves a sweet treat now and again, but you don't want to live on that stuff. And it's probably healthier and more efficient to prepare your own occasional desserts at home. But then again, when you're very hungry, it's possible that the dangers of malnutrition and starvation could outweigh the dangers of a nutritionally poor diet. It's an interesting question and certainly a moral dilemma.

  11. shelly says:

    Great meeting you, btw! And thanks for the carpool and er, finding my wallet :). Next time we meet, I shall be sober :).

  12. Tara says:

    Emily said: "I just bought a bunch of food for a local charity, and it struck me that I usually buy sustenance food: beans, rice, tomatoes. Then I thought, “Would I want to live on this diet?” No, definitely not. I could *survive* on that, but food is about much more than survival. So I went back and bought a bagful of spices, sauces, olives, and suchlike."

    There's some truth to that... but, keep in mind, an *awful* lot of what food pantries get as donations are the weird things that people clean out of their cabinets. Old jars of sauces and seasoning mixes, cans of specialty items like olives and anchovies. By and large, those things aren't going to provide any sustenance. I frequently hear people complaining about going to the food pantry and getting a big bag full of things they have little use for, and never getting something truly useful like a basic bag of flour; and when they do get things like flour, frequently it's buggy. So, when I pick up a few extra things to drop in the food pantry bin at our local health food store, I think in terms of either basic building blocks for people to make their own food (flour, beans, etc.), or products that are themselves a decent meal like a can of lentil soup. What good is a jar of sauce to someone who can't afford a box of pasta?

    This might be different in bigger cities, where huge food banks are supplied by grocery stores and wholesalers. My experience is with small town food banks that are primarily supported by things like Boy Scout food drives.