‘Food rescue’ program utilizes stores, bakeries to help others

On the kind of summer day that defines August in Southern Nevada, a group of about 25 people, most of them gripping water bottles, gathered in the unrelenting sun in the parking lot of Progressive Pilgrim Fellowship on Mojave Road. They were a multicultural group, middle age to retirees, some moving easily, some struggling, some using walkers.

At last, the moment they had awaited arrived: A 24-foot refrigerated truck from Three Square food bank pulled into the parking lot to begin a weekly food distribution.

The crowd was a little smaller than usual, possibly because of the heat or possibly because it was right after the first of the month, when many people receive their benefit checks, according to a Three Square representative.

The food had been picked up that morning at local Smith’s and Albertsons stores. It was part of Three Square’s food-rescue program, which represented 8 million pounds of the more than 22 million pounds the food bank distributed last year.

As driver Paul Birch, church deacon Bob Carter and a fleet of volunteers zipped around unloading, the bounty was gradually revealed: a tall stack of clear containers of pristine-looking raspberries, boxes of strawberries, broccoli, eggplant, jalapenos, tomatoes, oranges, limes, fresh herbs and apples. A wide variety of breads including baguettes, sandwich buns and flatbread. Cakes, pies, doughnuts, sweet rolls, cookies and pastries.

Carter and fellow organizers Lois Haywood and Mary Chaney kept things running smoothly. Each recipient was given a box and a number. Just like the airlines, disabled people went first, and the others followed in numerical order as Carter announced each group.

Other volunteers kept things moving as the people using walkers started past the full tables, which were protected by canopies. They were free to take all they wanted, but they had to keep moving.

"Please don’t set the boxes on the tables," one volunteer called out to a couple of newbies. "They knock over food."

After their trip through the tables, each recipient also was given a bag, pre-packed in a blessedly air-conditioned space indoors by still more church volunteers. Each bag contained a package of marshmallows, bacon, a peach, meat, soup, ramen noodles, canned vegetables and yogurt. Nearby sat cartons of milk and orange juice.

Theresa Steele said it was only her second visit to the site, but as a veteran on a limited income, she was looking forward to the distribution.

"This comes in very handy," Steele said. "I appreciate it a lot. It makes my day and my life easier. It’s God-sent."

Richard Aiello said he and some friends who live in the same area have been coming to the distribution site for two months.

"It’s extremely helpful for me," Aiello said. "Living strictly on Social Security, I appreciate the help."

The food-rescue program involves surplus from about 150 local supermarkets, bakeries, beverage distributors, restaurant suppliers and other vendors and manufacturers. John Livingston, Three Square’s chief operating officer, said the food bank has a solicitor who works with sources across the valley.

About 80 percent of the rescued food goes not to Three Square but, in the food bank’s trucks, directly to local distribution sites, right before their clients are due to pick it up.

"One of the things I pride myself on is our waste is about 1 percent," Livingston said. If the food were picked up and taken to the food bank, there would be a delay of about two days as the food is delivered, sorted and sent out again to users, he noted.

"If it goes from immediately, to two days out, we’d probably lose another 20 (percent) to 30 percent," he said.

Marsha Gilford, vice president of public affairs for Smith’s Food and Drug, is such an enthusiastic supporter of the program she’s on Three Square’s board.

"This is important to us for a number of reasons," she said. "First of all, in these times, it’s horrific that any food goes to waste."

Gilford said Smith’s parent company, Kroger, has similar partnerships with food banks across the country.

"As a company, we’re very passionate about the issue of hunger and helping to eliminate hunger for people who can’t afford to buy their groceries every day," she said.

Gilford said the company started working with Three Square in 2008, and last year donated $800,000 worth of produce, meat, lunchmeat, cheese, other dairy products and bakery items.

"Bakery has the most volume, generally," she said. And "the highly nutritious food products are what we strive to capture."

Gilford said the company is protected from liability by the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Livingston said the food-rescue collections include products that are at or close to their expiration codes.

"We know that dairy is good for seven to 10 days after the expiration date," he said. "We know we still have a little time with it.

"Produce is still good. It may look a little tired, but it’s still good."

When most people think of Three Square’s food supply, Livingston said, they tend to think of food drives. Community groups organize food collections, or celebrities or sports teams offer deals: Bring in a certain number of nonperishable food items and get a free or reduced ticket.

But those drives represent just a little more than 1 percent of the food that Three Square acquires each year.

"It’s a very small percentage, but it’s an important percentage," Livingston said. "It’s important because it’s tangible; people feel like they’re actually giving and helping. That tangibility is an important factor for people."

So where does the rest of the food come from?

Some of it is purchased with monetary donations, but 85 percent of the total is donated products. Much of it — some 3 million pounds — comes through Three Square’s partnership with Feeding America, a charity that distributes more than 3 billion pounds of food to 37 million people a year through a nationwide network of food banks.

Livingston explained how it works: Feeding America has a staff of national solicitors who seek donations from food producers across the country, many of them well-known, major manufacturers.

"It could be that it’s getting close to (expiration) code," he said of the donations. "It could be that they labeled it wrong or it has a blemish on the label."

Some are products that didn’t do so well in test marketing, he added.

Food banks acquire shares — based on area unemployment and the number of residents at the poverty level — to bid on the loads of food. If they have the winning bid, they get the load of food.

There is, however, one catch: Livingston said Three Square must arrange for pickup of about 98 percent of the product from Feeding America, and the average cost is $2,300 a truckload.

"Through our national network, there are some truck lines that give us great pricing," he said. "Occasionally we’ll get some donated."

Another 7 million pounds of food last year came through Three Square’s produce program, much of it from the California Food Bank Association, which brokers with growers, Livingston said.

But the food-rescue program is the lion’s share, and Gilford said for Smith’s, it makes good business sense.

"This is part of our message in terms of sustainable practices," she said. "We want to make sure we’re capturing as much out of the waste stream as possible. It reduced dumping fees from the backs of stores, too.

"And it makes our employees feel good that they’re able to do something."

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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