February 15, 2004 | General

Increasing Edible Food Recovery

Steven Sherman
BioCycle February 2004, Vol. 45, No. 2, p. 33
Throughout the United States, charitable food programs report that higher numbers of people are seeking assistance with obtaining food. Oregon ranks highest in the U.S. for the incidence of hunger (recurrent, involuntary lack of access to food), and third for food insecurity (limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally-adequate, safe food), according to statistics analyzed in 2002 by Brandeis University’s Center on Hunger and Poverty. The statistics gathered by the Oregon Food Bank reveal who “the hungry” are: 40 percent of those who receive emergency food are children; most adult recipients are working, retired, or disabled; and two-parent families are the largest group of recipients. The Oregon Food Bank estimates that 720,000 Oregonians (of whom nearly 300,000 were children) ate meals from emergency food boxes at least once in the past year.
While the need for donated food is great and growing, donations from foundations, businesses, and individuals (“private money”) are reported to have stalled. In the Portland, Oregon metropolitan region, Metro – the regional government responsible for solid waste planning and disposal in the tri-county area – has worked to address this situation by fitting its work with social service agencies that provide food (“food rescue agencies”) into the top rung of the standard waste management hierarchy – waste prevention and reuse. Metro’s Regional Organics Work Plan (adopted in December 1999 by the Metro Council) emphasizes that food waste prevention and food donation are considered to be least-cost approaches for managing the organic fraction of the discard stream. Donation (for consumption by people at risk of hunger or malnutrition) is the highest end use of surplus food. Metro estimates that over 90,000 tons of the nearly 180,000 tons of food disposed in 2002 were edible.
Metro recognized that while food rescue agencies may measure their work in terms of number of meals served rather than the standard recycler’s metric of tons diverted from disposal sites, the common purpose they share could be further developed programmatically. Jennifer Erickson, Senior Planner in Metro’s Waste Reduction & Outreach Division, stated: “We kind of stumbled upon each other back in 1995. The Oregon Food Bank was designing a new fresh produce collection program and approached me to sit on their steering committee. At the same time, Metro was working to develop a broad-based organics program that was more than just the typical ‘collect and compost’ approach. The partnerships Metro has developed with organizations outside of the traditional waste management sector have been some of the most important and rewarding relationships for our waste reduction programs as well as for me personally.”
Over the past five years, Metro has provided grants to food rescue agencies for storage and transportation equipment that helped to build the capacity to accommodate additional flows of donated surplus food. This has resulted in over 9,000 tons of additional perishable foods feeding people rather than landfills. (Some of these businesses also participate in composting programs.) The Metro website profiles a number of businesses and institutions involved in food rescue initiatives. These include: Reedville Catering, which donates surplus food items such as main entrees, breads, salads and desserts, after each event it caters. On average, 200 lbs/event are donated to a local rescue mission. Organically Grown, a wholesale produce business, donates unsold but still edible produce – one or two pallets of produce three times/week. Whole Food’s Portland store donates an average of 12,000 pounds/month of food items consisting of fresh produce, canned and packaged items, baked goods and prepared foods. Each department has staff responsible for pulling donation items and putting them in shopping carts for a food bank to pick up. The University of Portland donates prepared food from its cafeteria on a weekly basis to a local organization that repackages the items into meals. The university has a blast chiller that enables food to cool in about an hour, facilitating donation of prepared foods.
The Regional Organics Team, comprised of the cities of Portland and Gresham, Clackamas and Washington counties, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and Metro, have determined that focused outreach and education are necessary to increase the amount of food waste prevented or salvaged for donation. In order to target effective and efficient approaches that address the concerns of potential and existing food donors, the Regional Organics Team retained Applied Compost Consulting, Inc., which has experience conducting social science research and surplus food and food waste management, and fostering behavior change regarding materials management within the business community.
The goals of the research and evaluation project were threefold: Identify the real and perceived barriers and benefits to food donation by commercial businesses and institutions; Gather, distill, organize, and reflect opinions, beliefs, and experiences of primary stakeholders, including “generators” (restaurants, grocery stores, colleges and universities, hospitals, hotels, and caterers), food rescue agencies, trade associations, and food-handling regulators, through surveys, observational studies, and interviews; and Develop recommendations for methods and approaches to overcome the identified barriers, and to capitalize on the identified benefits.
In identifying the obstacles to, and opportunities for, edible food donation, a combination of research methods was used, including a literature review, a telephone survey of generators, observational studies at food generators in the Metro region, and interviews with food rescue agencies, food service trade associations, and governmental entities that regulate food handlers. This article summarizes the findings of the survey, observations and interviews, as well as the recommendations provided to Metro.
From a telephone survey of 72 generators – restaurants, grocery stores, colleges and universities, hospitals, hotels, and caterers (60 of whom identified themselves as occasional to frequent participants in food donation efforts) – several main findings were obtained, which yielded the following key inferences:
Generators are not primarily motivated by monetary considerations when they choose to donate surplus food. Instead, they donate surplus food predominantly because of a desire to demonstrate local community involvement and commitment, and raise the level of employee satisfaction with their jobs. Approximately 80 percent of generators indicated that they dispose at least some edible food in the trash or in the garbage disposal. Prepared food is the least frequently mentioned type of food that generators believe food rescue agencies are seeking.
Generators frequently face obstacles that make it harder for them to donate surplus food, including (in order, by frequency): Uncertainty about liability for donated items; Inability to obtain collection service for surplus food within a narrow window of time; Lack of reliable surplus food collection service; Limited storage space; Uncertainty about where or how to donate surplus food; Limited labor time for sorting food; and Restrictions (actual or perceived) on types of food accepted by rescue agencies. The top three characteristics of good service for collection of surplus food are: Arrive on time; Pick up in a narrow time window; and Accept all food that donor wants to donate. Concerns about liability significantly influence the decisions of a majority of generators about whether to donate surplus food; meanwhile, a sizable minority of generators say that such potential concerns do not influence their decisions.
Prior to the survey, most generators contacted for the survey were unaware of the Good Samaritan law and what it states. (The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1996, encourages the donation of food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to needy people. The law states that businesses shall not be liable for donating food that is donated in good faith and apparently fit for human consumption, and sets a liability floor of “gross negligence” or intentional misconduct.) Metro staff indicated that Metro has not found any reported lawsuits related to food donation liability.
Factors that would increase generators’ level of comfort about donating surplus food (in priority sequence) include: Endorsement by county health inspector; Case studies of successful food donors; and Endorsement by trade associations. Most generators would prefer to receive written information about food donation opportunities and rules. Finally, most generators would like to be publicly recognized as businesses that practice food donation and waste prevention.
Face-to-face interviews were held at ten businesses and institutions that responded to the telephone survey. This also provided an opportunity for tours and observations. These visits found that many or most of the businesses and institutions are not aware of all available options for food donation and would like to receive frequent and reliable collection service from food rescue agencies, rather than delivering surplus food themselves. These generators would like food rescue agencies to provide their own collection containers and utensils for use in packaging and transporting food donations, demonstrate compliance with food handling “best practices,” and provide verification that donations are being used as intended. Many of these generators conduct scheduled, periodic clean-outs of large quantities of surplus food.
There were three primary differences observed between donors and nondonors: Some nondonors were very concerned about liability, while donors generally felt at ease with their limited liability; Some nondonors believed that they had an insufficient quantity of food to donate; and Most nondonors were unaware that collection service is available from some food rescue agencies.
Interviews were conducted in mid-2003 with ten food rescue agencies (executive directors, vice presidents, program managers, and warehouse supervisors), two Oregon trade associations involved in food service, and four local and state regulators of food handlers. Some highlights from those interviews are: 1) Most food rescue agencies said that referrals from existing donors are the most effective way to obtain more food donors. Referrals usually come from developing a reputation for providing reliable, professional, and courteous service. 2) Many food rescue agencies believed that businesses are motivated to donate surplus food primarily for the potential cost savings, whereas the survey found that generators do not donate surplus food primarily to save money, but rather to demonstrate local community involvement and commitment, and to raise the level of employee satisfaction with their jobs. 3) Some business and trade association members do not participate in food donation programs because they “do not know that this opportunity exists,” “do not know how to participate,” or “do not understand how easy it is.” Forty percent of hotels in Portland report that they cannot donate food, often due to corporate policies, according to the association that was interviewed. 4) Regulators are aware of the benefits of food donation and generally are supportive of food rescue efforts.
The top five barriers to greater business participation in food waste reduction and surplus food donation programs are:
o Perception of greater risk of liability associated with donated food.
o Perception of inconvenience by donors, especially regarding availability of reliable, prompt collection service.
o Limited capacity of some (typically smaller) food rescue agencies to solicit donations, collect food promptly, and store it efficiently.
o Donor uncertainty about program details, especially who to contact for collection service, types and quantities of acceptable materials, hours of operation, and the ultimate end use of the product.
o Low public profile (weak social norm) of persistent hunger and food insecurity, especially as problems that are afflicting children and infirm and elderly people.
One recommendation to overcome the first barrier was for Metro (and other stakeholders) to promote surplus food donation as “a safe business practice.” The suggestions are: a) Emphasize the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and limits on donor liability to allay potential food donors’ concerns; b) Expand distribution of printed copies of the Act, with key sections highlighted, to use as a handout and quick reference piece by anyone who interacts directly with donors or potential donors, including food rescue agency solicitors and drivers, and regulators; c) In outreach materials, include testimonials by existing donors about what “limited liability” means to them in practice; d) In outreach materials, include up-to-date testimonials from food rescue agencies about how they follow safe food handling practices; and e) In outreach materials, include up-to-date testimonials from food handling regulators regarding “clean bill of health” statements about food rescue agencies’ practices.
Other recommendations are for Metro to: Provide effective outreach, promotion and recognition for food donation activities; Convene a roundtable of stakeholders; Further develop the food recovery infrastructure; and Provide training, technical assistance and policy review.
Based on the study’s findings, Metro decided to focus first on the recommendations related to outreach and safe business practices. In January, Metro released an RFP for development of a multimedia outreach program to promote food donation as a safe and easy business practice. Hoping for the largest impact, the campaign is scheduled for release in the spring, traditionally the slowest time for donations, according to several food rescue agencies. Tight budgets and competing programs may impact Metro’s ability to reestablish the grants for food recovery infrastructure, but the commitment to continuing the existing ones and building new partnerships to move surplus food to people first will continue. “Metro has invested a great deal of time and energy in understanding and becoming part of the region’s food rescue community,” said Erickson. “We have no intention of walking away from our involvement as we gear up for food waste collection and composting. Our goal is to have a diverse and balanced system for managing surplus food; there is no question that donation will remain permanently at the top of that system’s hierarchy. We will continue to work hard to link Metro’s environmental mission with the community’s broader values.”
It is anticipated that Metro will continue to show leadership in refocusing public sector recycling efforts somewhat away from the “landfill diversion” mantra of the past 15 years and more toward quality of life and resource conservation topics, through recognition that diversion for diversion’s sake diverts attention and resources from vital public concerns about other measures of environmental, social and economic well-being.
Steve Sherman is president of Applied Compost Consulting, Inc. in Oakland, California ( Sherman and Jennifer Erickson of Metro will discuss “Food Donation Opportunities and Barriers” in the session on “Managing Food Residuals: Edible Food Recovery” at the BioCycle West Coast Conference. For more information about Metro’s programs or for copies of the study, please contact Jennifer Erickson, Waste Reduction & Outreach, (503) 797-1647, or visit Metro’s website at

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