It’s a sad paradox: while California’s abundant fields of fruit and vegetables fuel much of America, millions of tons of food rot in farm fields or grocery store and restaurant trash bins, much of which is edible and could go a long way toward eliminating hunger in California.
Farmers, restaurants and supermarkets throw away millions of tons of edible food each year at a time when a growing number of Californians struggle to put food on the table.
State studies have found that more than six million tons of food products are dumped annually, enough to fill the Staples Center in Los Angeles 35 times over. Food is the largest single source of waste in California, making up 15.5 percent of the Golden State’s waste stream, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
An examination by California Watch and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC found shortcomings along California’s food distribution chain that allow vast amounts of food to go to waste in landfills, despite laws and tax incentives that encourage food donations. The problems persist at every step.
Among the examination’s findings:
• Millions of tons of fruit and vegetables rot in fields and orchards or are plowed over each year. Some of these edible crops are left behind because they are misshapen or discolored. Gleaning programs rescue only a small portion of the field waste.
• Major retail grocery chains are more likely to throw away fruits, vegetables and even entire hams and roasts than donate to distribution centers. Although federal and state laws protect grocers from liability, many stores expressed concerns that donated food could sicken recipients, even if it has yet to reach its expiration date. While some major chains donate food, others do not.
• Restaurants dump tens of thousands of tons of edible food every year. The vast majority of the state’s 90,000 restaurants and eateries do not participate in food donation programs.
Waste is not just an issue for corporate chains and mom-and-pop eateries. Discarded food represents a quarter of all waste tossed away by California households.
A certain amount of waste is inevitable in all forms of business. It’s built into the economics of every production and manufacturing cycle – whether it is clothes-making, homebuilding or newspaper printing. But the commodity of food takes on added significance, experts say. Health officials, researchers, economists, farmers and corporate leaders interviewed for this project say that more efficient production and distribution of our food could help feed millions of families.
“Waste is built into the food chain, at all levels,” said Jonathan Bloom, author of an upcoming book on food waste and of the blog Wasted Food. “On the whole, the amount of food we waste is ridiculous, especially when you consider the number of Americans who experience hunger every day.”
Numerous volunteer organizations work to “re-harvest” California’s vast produce landscape and divert edible food that would be wasted from grocery stores and restaurants into California’s food banks and soup kitchens.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Arlene Mercer, founder of Food Finders, a Long Beach-based food recovery group that collects donations from supermarkets and restaurants for food pantries. “They can receive a tax writeoff, people will be fed, and it will stop food waste.”
Many of California’s farms, grocery store chains and restaurants donate millions of pounds of food each year to help the needy. They are spurred by good will, green initiatives and relentless demands to cut costs, including food waste disposal.
“When it comes to feeding people, there’s no competition,” said Lilia Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Albertsons, whose Fresh Rescue program makes hard-to-get dairy and meat products available to food banks. “We feel like if we don’t do it, who will?”
But, Mercer and others say too many opportunities are missed to divert food to the hungry before it is thrown away.
The problem starts in the fields.
Gleaning efforts capture small percentage of produce
California’s carpet of farmland spans 25 million acres and produces about half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Although no one can estimate exactly how much food is left in the fields, experts say it amounts to millions of tons of produce, much of it plowed under after every harvest.
Though farmers pride themselves on efficiency, they also run businesses that are subject to weather and market forces. If a farmer can’t sell a crop for a price that pays for the harvest or if some of it doesn’t meet the retailers’ cosmetic requirements, the crop goes to waste. It doesn’t matter if the produce is edible.
“Waste is inevitable,” said Mike O’Leary of Boskovich farms in Ventura County. “We try to minimize it, but sometimes fields have to be disked,” resulting in good foods being plowed under.
Some farms try to cut their waste by donating produce to food banks. This year, Del Monte Foods Co. donated more than two million pounds of bananas and cantaloupes to Ventura Food Share.
Millions more pounds are rescued from the plow blade by gleaning groups all over the state that deliver “second harvest” crops to food banks for distribution to local meal and pantry programs. The California Association of Food Banks, which represents 45 food banks, has distributed more than 60 million pounds of food through its Farm to Family gleaning program.
But those efforts are only so successful. During one recent gleaning operation, about 10 percent of an estimated 140,000 pounds of carrots left above ground were rescued, according to Christy Porter, founder of Coachella-based Hidden Harvest, which hires low-income farm workers to glean locally grown food.
“We couldn’t go fast enough to get the product before it spoiled,” she said.
A 2004 study by anthropologist Timothy Jones estimated that up to 10 percent of certain crops, such as cauliflower, never leave the field. He projected that the overall figure for crop waste in the United States is closer to 20 percent.
Farmers dispute such figures, claiming much higher efficiency.
“We’re not in the business of leaving commodities in the field,” said Scott Deardorff of Deardorff Family Farms in Ventura County. He estimated that food left in the fields is closer to 5 percent. Many farmers account for a 5 percent loss as part of their business operations to cover food that is left in the field, losses due to bad weather and other factors. But even 5 percent of the produce could help feed thousands of California families.
Programs like Hidden Harvest have recovered millions of pounds of food yearly. But obstacles prevent more gleaning efforts, including a need for more volunteers and liability concerns from farmers worried that gleaners might be injured in their fields.
Some grocers reluctant to donate food
Some of the nation’s major grocery chains are reluctant to donate much of the food leftover each night because of liability concerns.
John Wadginski, 24, saw this first hand.
While in college Wadginski worked at a Safeway store deli in Davis. The amount of food he tossed into the trash every night still bothers him.
“I had to throw out 10-pound hams that weren’t even touched,” he said. “It was easily 50 pounds of food a night.”
Wadginski asked his supervisors if he could volunteer to take the food to a local shelter.
State and federal laws have been in place for more than a decade to protect businesses and individuals from criminal and civil liability should recipients become ill from food donations. But grocery stories are still worried.
“They told me no because if anything happened, they would be liable,” Wadginski said.
The 1996 federal law protects all donations made in good faith. States have similar statutes. The only exceptions are gross negligence or intentional misconduct. A plaintiff would have to prove that a company or individual intentionally tried to harm another person by making a donation of food they knew to be unsafe.
“Many of them don’t understand,” said Mercer of Food Finders. “We try to educate them that they are protected by the Good Samaritan laws and our insurance and that neither have ever been challenged.”
Mercer said she faces many initial roadblocks with some chains. They think that it will take too much time or they fear their sales may somehow be impacted by donating, even though donated food is dispersed only through food banks and other nonprofit and community groups.
Most grocery chains participate in some sort of hunger relief program. Safeway and Vons, for example, make donations to Feeding America, formerly America’s Second Harvest. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank and San Diego Food Bank are major recipients of their donations. But chains often limit donations to bakery items – the kind of foods hunger organizations need the least. Other stores hesitate or refuse to donate perishable items, like produce and meat.
“Many grocery stores decline to give food because they’re either unaware of the liability protection in place or they feign ignorance of the law because they don’t want to bother,” said Bloom, author of the blog Wasted Food. “Almost as often, stores know they’d win such a lawsuit, but are afraid of the negative publicity they’d face if such a suit happened.”
Safeway and Vons spokesperson Teena Massingill acknowledged concerns about liability as a reason why meats and other perishable items aren’t donated.
“Safeway does not donate items that are not fit for consumption or could be unfit for consumption when they reach the final recipient,” Massingill said. “Once the items are out of our control, we cannot guarantee that they will be kept under the specified temperatures.
“While Good Samaritan laws may or may not protect a donor in this case, it is best to error on the side of caution when dealing with the health and safety of others. Many pantries do not have refrigeration units on site at all, making it impossible to completely avoid spoilage.”
Food recovery groups say they are trained in food-handling practices. They want the food to get safely into the hands of the hungry as much as the donors do. With needs so great, the food is unlikely to sit around for long.
Costco sends about 45 million pounds of food each year to compost, its own records show. The chain has no company-wide food recovery program. Mercer of Food Finders said that though she has approached the company, Costco has chosen not to participate, instead offering her discounts on the food she buys for the programs and occasional free turkeys.
“The food that is thrown into the trash bin isn’t food that’s suitable for human consumption,” said Karen Raines, director of corporate sustainability for Costco, echoing a common refrain of grocery chains.
But that might not always be the case.
Mercer said that some foods can often stay good for 10 days past a “sell-by” date. Raines isn’t so sure.
“Those sell-by dates are there for a reason,” she said.
“Costco is donating what it can legally donate,” Raines added. “You’ll find it’s the same at all the chains.”
But other chains have taken a different view.
Albertsons was the first food chain to start a formal perishable food recovery program. In the Fresh Rescue program, stores within the Albertsons chain can partner with an organization in their community to receive food from the supermarket. Each store has one or two employees trained and designated to work with partner agencies.
“Stores have been doing it on their own for a few years now, but we wanted to find a way to pull it all together,” said Lilia Rodriguez, the public affairs manager for Albertsons. “It’s eggs, cheese, milk, fruits – and it’s those products that are really hard for food banks to get a hold of. Non-perishables are usually what they get.”
Rodriguez said that in addition to helping the community, the program improves employee morale.
“The employee that helps knows they’re doing their part in the community,” she said. “They know the shelter or church around the corner it’s going to.”
Rodriguez said the chain feels protected by the federal and state Good Samaritan laws but also urges its partner agencies to take precautions transporting food.
“Most but not all [agencies] have refrigerated trucks. If they don’t, we ask them to cover the food with thermal blankets for the 15- or 20-minute drive to the agency. We want to make sure it gets there safely.”
Other food recovery programs that don’t have refrigerated trucks say that they can transport reasonable amounts of food short distances using thermal blankets. Albertsons has also provided refrigerated trucks to some of their partner organizations.
“When it comes to feeding people, there’s no competition,” Rodriguez said. “Number one, it’s the right thing to do. Number two, one of our top initiatives as a company is the fight against hunger. We feel like, if we don’t do it, who will? It isn’t about cost-impact. It’s about doing what’s right. And ultimately, it helps our customers.”
Other corporate chains are following suit.
After years of criticism for its food waste, Walmart started a partnership with Feeding America in November 2008. According to a statement from the company, the program is now in place in all Walmart stores and has led to the donation of more than 90 million pounds of food since 2008. This month, Walmart donated 35 refrigerated trucks to Feeding America. The company and its foundation have given hundreds of millions of dollars to food programs across the country.
“Walmart’s food donation program takes food that is still safe for consumption off Walmart shelves and delivers it to neighborhood food banks,” the company said in a statement. “The food – which consists of nutritious servings of produce, deli meat, beef, chicken, dairy and other groceries – is then given to needy families, often in less than 24 hours.”
At Ralphs, the chain launched a new program to distribute food that has reached its “sell-by” date but remains edible. The program is now in place in two-thirds of Ralphs stores. The company hopes to expand it all stores by this spring.
“It’s meat that’s at its sell-by date – if we freeze it on that date, the food bank is still very able to use it,” said Ralphs spokesperson Kendra Doyel. “It’s also produce – slightly bruised fruit for example.”
She said the company realized protein and produce were “very critical” for the needs of food banks.
“We like people who like food, and we’ve had a long-standing commitment to food waste,” said Doyel. “This way we can reduce food waste and get more food to them.”
Doyel said that in implementing the program, the company put safeguards in place to assure food got to food banks safely. The company now works with food banks and food recovery groups in a certification process “to know they can handle it,” said Doyel. As part of the process, the company makes sure its partner organizations have refrigerated trucks or thermal blankets.
“It was a matter of getting a program in place. We take it personally not only as company but as individuals,” Doyel said.
Restaurants say they have little waste
Restaurants have the same financial incentives to donate to food recovery programs. But they too often choose not to.
“They think it is going to take too much time, too much effort and companies aren’t willing to invest more time now to do things even though there is a financial upside to donating their surplus food,” said Steve Dietz, director of business for Food Donation Connection, which works nationally to recover surplus food from restaurants.
Deitz says he frequently deals with “pushback” from reluctant restaurants, which are skeptical that it is so easy to donate: “It’s almost too simple; too good to be true.”
More than 90,000 eating and drinking establishments operate in California, according to the California Restaurant Association. But fewer than 1,000 restaurants donated last year through Food Donation Connection, which is by far the largest program that links food service donors with hunger relief agencies. The 940 California restaurants that participated in 2009 included nearly 400 Pizza Huts, more than 100 KFC locations and more than 100 Chipotle Mexican Grill establishments.
A big part of the reason why so few restaurants participate is because most are mom-and-pop operations or single-owner franchises, which are not eligible for the additional tax deduction for food donations, said Steve Dietz of Food Donation Connection. Only major corporations and large franchise owners, called “C Corporations," are eligible for the deduction. A temporary allowance for small businesses expired at the end of 2009. Food Donation Connection and Feeding America are working with Congress to resurrect the tax deduction and make it permanent for all businesses.
And while some restaurants are donating their surplus food through other programs – possibly without additional tax deductions – some restaurants said they are not donating regularly or at all for other reasons.
Representatives for Brinker International, which includes Chili’s Grill & Bar, On the Border Grill & Mexican Cantina, and Maggiano’s Little Italy, said the company doesn’t have a policy in place for the donation of prepared food. According to Food Donation Connection, Brinker’s distribution center now donates unused items and discontinued ingredients.
Representatives for Sizzler and Carl’s Jr. said the companies don’t donate surplus food because strict production guidelines prevent either company from generating waste.
Yet, a 2006 study by the California Integrated Waste Management Board showed that food makes up 51.4 percent of waste disposed of by fast food restaurants and 66.1 percent of waste disposed of by full-service restaurants.
While not all of that food is recoverable and edible, agencies that feed the hungry said these numbers are devastating.
“The amount of food that is wasted is heart-breaking to me because it can be harvested,” said Louise Morris, the food coordinator at Shining Light Ministries in Garden Grove. “People are hungry and it’s just thrown away.”
Although food waste continues to be a major issue, some restaurants are getting on board to help combat the state’s hunger problem. California restaurants partnering with Food Donation Connection donated nearly 2.5 million pounds of food in 2009, said Dietz.
The Cheesecake Factory and Chipotle Mexican Grill each contribute to the Shining Light Ministries’ feeding program, which serves 125 to 150 meals a week, on average. On one recent evening, 198 pounds of food from the Cheesecake Factory and Chipotle helped feed 117 people.
“For us to get the food from the restaurants is very crucial,” Morris said. “With the economy the way it is, we’re seeing our numbers increase.”
Every Thursday night, 200 people, including Dale William Wallace, receive a hearty meal at the North Orange Christian Church, courtesy of the Irvine Yard House restaurant.
“I rely on places like this, certain days of the week, to eat,” said Wallace, who lost his job doing masonry in the tile industry more than a year ago. “It’s the only meal I’ll have that day.”
The weekly dinner is part of a program that started more than a year ago in Yard House’s Irvine kitchen.
“We’re a restaurant, we feed people, and we have quite a bit of resources that would otherwise go into the trash, or go elsewhere,” said corporate executive chef Carlito Jocson, who initiated the program. “I felt it would be an easy thing to do to just throw into production. However, it was easy with 50, now it’s kind of becoming a pretty big production, making enough food for 200 people.”
Dietz of Food Donation Connection said tax incentives should also provide reason to participate in food programs.
Congress passed a law in 1976 that encourages donations by allowing companies to earn an enhanced tax deduction for donating selected surplus property, including food, according to Food Donation Connection. Neither the California Franchise Tax Board nor IRS said they track how often companies take advantage of the tax breaks.
“In a nutshell, it reduces the cost of your loss by 59 percent as an average, which is a huge, huge savings to a company that throws away a lot of product,” said Dietz.
But Dietz said some food establishments don’t want to acknowledge that waste is an issue.
“Most restaurants who do not admit their waste, I feel, are concerned that shareholders will think they are not good operators if they have surplus food,” Dietz said.
Others may not participate because it requires extra work. In some cases, it’s easier to throw food away, food bank officials said.
“Is it easier to take all of your food at the end of the night and put it into the refrigerator and store it until someone can come and pick it up, or is it easier to just throw it away and send it to the landfill?” said Kelly King of the Orange County Second Harvest Food Bank.
“We have 442 agencies, or partner agencies with us, and just imagine if every restaurant in Orange County donated to us, what we could do with all those agencies,” King said.
Despite being optimistic that more restaurants are catching on, urgency is needed, Dietz said.
“Agencies will go out of business and people will go hungry if we can’t supply the amount of food needed to feed the hungry people of the United States. And the food is out there. We know it’s out there. We have talked to restaurants that have it.”
This story is part of a collaboration between KPCC.org and Hunger in the Golden State, a multimedia project from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and California Watch, an initiative of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The audio for this series was produced in conjunction with The California Report. This story was written by USC Annenberg students Tina Mather, Kim Daniels and Shannon Pence. The audio part of this story was reported by KQED's Rob Schmitz.