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INDUSTRY VIEWPOINT: Don't throw it away, throw it our way

I have spent the last 25 years of my career in grocery retail, and now I find myself on the opposite spectrum of the food chain with responsibility for sourcing food for an important agency in my community: the Roadrunner Food Bank of New Mexico. My job is finding good, quality food donations for the food bank to distribute to the growing number of hungry people in New Mexico.

I travel around the state letting growers know that they have a choice to make when they have products that won't sell at retail. That choice is simple: donate it. Gifts of food provide sustenance, optimism and a hope for a better tomorrow for nearly 40,000 hungry people who receive food assistance every week in the state. But in addition to helping one food bank, my work allows me to collaborate and help five additional sister food banks in New Mexico.

I know that many people have heard stories in the media about the increase of hunger in the United States, such as accounts of hungry people having to make difficult decisions about whether to buy food or pay the rent or mortgage; about children who have no food over the weekends or holidays; and about elderly people who struggle to live on a fixed budget and run out of money to buy food at the end of the month.

Jaye Hawkins, administrator of the New Mexico Chili Association, said, "I am delighted that the food banks in New Mexico are working to educate us about the different options that exist to make a connection between our chili producers and processors and the food banks. We are looking forward to being involved and finding ways we can help."

One may ask, "What does this have to do with me?" Those of you reading this are involved in the business of produce. You either produce it, package it, distribute it or sell it. One step that has been left out is donating it.

What can you donate? You can donate any misshaped product, whether in the field or after grading; imperfect-looking product; or overproduced product. Food banks can help defray the packaging costs by providing bins or boxes, or by working with a grower on bulk packaging 50- or 100-pound sacks. Every food bank has volunteers who help repack items into smaller quantities. Volunteers provide valuable support to repack produce for easier distribution.

Here's an example of how growers are helping in New Mexico. The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry in Farmington, NM, donated 224,000 pounds of potatoes this season. Jason Yazzie, who handles potato sales at NAPI, felt this donation was important in giving back to the community.

"It is important to us that the products NAPI gave to food banks in New Mexico benefitted hungry people in every part of the state," said Mr. Yazzie. "Potatoes are an important food item and regular staple, and what better way to help than giving it to someone in need. Plus, I'd rather give it to an organization that helps the less fortunate than toss it or turn it under."

Just as food safety and proper food handling are very important in the food business, they are also just as important to food banks. Through the national food bank network, known as Feeding America, all affiliated Feeding America food banks and partner agencies must comply with strict rules on safe handling of food, cold chain integrity and operations.

What does this mean with regard to donating produce? It means that all donated product is safely and properly handled until it reaches the client.

As a food donor, a company is protected in another way, too. A law passed in October of 1996 called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act further protects from any civil and criminal liability a food donor that gives to a 501c3 charitable organization and donates wholesome food in good faith.

Why should a company consider donating to a local food bank? Larry Barker of Barker Produce in Mesilla Park, NM, said, "I didn't realize I had a choice not to dump my food. Now I have an option to keep food out of the landfill and do some good in my community at the same time."

For Mr. Barker, it is a win-win-win situation, as he was paying $500 a load to dump still-edible onions. Now that he is giving the food to his local food bank, he saves about $3,000 a week in dumping charges. Plus, thanks to the extended tax credit, he can take advantage of the tax-deduction benefits.

"I realized that with the state of the economy, some of my own employees, friends, neighbors and family might not have enough to eat," said Mr. Barker. "By donating food, I know I'm helping someone who needs temporary help. Plus, giving makes me feel great."

To find a local food bank in your area, go to www.feedingamerica.org. Then, meet with the food-sourcing contact and find out how you can develop a partnership with the food bank to help the hungry in your community.

Be sure to verify that the food bank has all the rules and regulations in place for the protection of the donation. Also, contact the local department of agriculture and start a rapport with them, too. Many state agriculture departments have a great relationship with the food banks in their communities.

Remember: You do have choices of what to do with product. Make donating your first choice.

(Julie Anderson is the food sourcing liaison for the Roadrunner Food Bank. She can be reached at 505/349-8933 or julie@rrfb.org.)