Food Banks: Vectors of Fresh Food for Those in Need

By Jin Ju Wilder

Every day, I worry about the nutritional balance of the meals I give my family, and I work hard to ensure that they get plenty of fruits and vegetables. I don’t think about whether I am going to be able to get the food, just whether it will be the right food or if I have enough time to prepare it. Recently, however, I have learned that over 40 million people per month in the U.S. participate in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food and nutrition programs – and the estimate for how many people qualify for the food and nutrition programs in the U.S. is much higher. For the people participating in these programs, just getting food is a priority ahead of the nutritional balance of their meals.

Rainbow Chard

In April, my colleague and I were able to learn more about some of these programs when we were given a tour of the Orange County Food Bank, a program of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County, by the Director, Mark Lowry, and the Donated Food Program Manager, Kristin Kvesic. My company is a member of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council, an organization that donates product to the Orange County Food Bank regularly. In my previous position as president of a produce wholesaler/distributor, we had donated product to the food bank on numerous occasions as well. Despite having been in the produce industry for 17 years now, I had never taken the time to really understand how the product we donated to the food bank was distributed.

The OC Food Bank’s website says, “The Orange County Food Bank distributes 15 million pounds of food annually. In addition to the 23,000 people that the Food Bank serves directly each month, it provides food and personal care items to over 300 non-profit service organizations, such as social service agencies, churches, shelters, soup kitchens and senior centers. These organizations serve the homeless, disabled persons, seniors on fixed incomes, the unemployed and the working poor.”

Walking through the Orange County Food Bank facility, I was struck by how similar the operation appeared to be to a produce wholesale operation. On closer inspection, however, there were notable differences. Sections of the warehouse were reserved for food items allocated for specific programs like the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). CSFP provides nutritious food supplements for low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breast feeding women, their infants and children up to age six, and the elderly (60+). Mark Lowry told us that every month roughly 23,000 boxes are distributed to seniors who live on less than $1,174 a month. It costs taxpayers about $19 for every 25-pound box of food. Volunteers come to the facility to assemble and distribute the boxes, which are designed to meet the nutritional needs of seniors. The items found in the boxes include cereal, rice, pasta, meat, and canned fruits and vegetables. The federal government purchases these foods at discounted prices, including surplus crops, and then distributes them to state distributing agencies like the Community Action Partnership of Orange County.

There was another section containing product purchased through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). TEFAP is administered by USDA as both an agricultural price support program and assistance to food-insecure Americans. TEFAP purchases are made through annual Farm Bill spending and through bonus purchases the USDA makes when surplus commodities exist. The allocation of food to each state is based on the unemployment numbers and people with incomes below the federal poverty level. Some examples in this section were very large plastic jars of peanut butter and cans of peaches.

Other sections of the facility had product donated from individuals and from corporations. These products ranged from close to expiration date Perrier and coffee creamers to hand lotion and T-shirts. Unlike the product purchased by USDA, the food bank is free to distribute this product to any organization or individual that is a “member”, or as Mark refers to them, a customer. This product is set-up every day on pallets for customers to come and “shop” from and it is all weighed before leaving so the Food Bank can track how much product is being distributed.

We were very impressed with the variety of programs the food bank administers and the sheer number of agencies and organizations they supply with much needed supplies. Unfortunately, in the current economic environment, they have had to place organizations on a waiting list because they do not have enough inventory to take any more customers. This is actually the situation for most food banks in every state right now. While community support and donations remain high and the government funded products steadily stream in, the number of people needing assistance continues to grow and donations from the national food industry have declined.

In the past, the Food Bank received more products from supermarkets or foodservice distributors when items were not in sellable condition or close to their expiration dates. Now, more prepared foods are sold in grocery stores and technological improvements are helping companies refine their ordering and inventory systems, reducing the inefficiencies that used to lead to food bank donations.

Also, instead of donating to food banks, food companies are selling excess products to stores such as Dollar Store. We learned that if a national corporation’s local branch made a donation, tax refunds went to headquarters, but if they sold products to a secondary market, such as Big Lots or Dollar Store, the local branch could keep the profits.

Food banks do have some funds to pay for produce and transportation, but rising food costs limit how far those funds can be stretched to purchase food. The Orange County Food Bank has been innovative in applying those funds to maximize opportunities for children in their community to eat fruits and vegetables. Sue Sigler, executive director of the California Association of Food Banks, was quoted as saying that one out of four children comes from a home facing poverty, and it was one out of six a few years ago.

To reach more children, the Orange County Food Bank started Farm 2 Kids. California growers donate extra produce to the Food Bank, charging only transportation costs. The Food Bank bags the produce and delivers it to schools with about half the students on a free lunch program. Schools must teach the non-profit’s nutrition curriculum to benefit and grants help pay for the educational program.

Farm 2 Kids at the OC Food Bank

Through their Farm 2 Kids Program, they will deliver over 68,000 bags of fresh produce directly to various schools throughout Orange County for after school distributions throughout the next year. Children as they leave school are provided a 5 lb. bag of fresh produce that they can take home to their families. The Food Bank works closely with local growers, shippers, and wholesalers and often will get produce as donations, but will also purchase undersized product for a minimal price, or will provide labor to get product that would go unharvested because the return would be too low for the grower.

The Orange County Food Bank is a huge facility, measuring 35,000 square feet, and they can receive and store up to 20 truckloads of fresh foods at a time. Other food banks are not as well-equipped to take product donations, but the discussion on how to improve the nutritional value of the product being distributed and how to channel more fresh fruits and vegetables through the system is happening nationwide. I was really glad to learn that, while the participants in the food and nutrition programs may not have a healthy, balanced meal as a priority because, understandably, they are more concerned about getting enough calories for their family, the food banks are concerned with increasing the nutritional value and want to create healthy eating habits for children.

The Orange County Food Bank is located at 11870 Monarch St, Garden Grove, CA.