It's harvest time, and our country is bountiful—so bountiful, in fact, that we throw away 96 billion pounds of food each year. Yet, for some 33 million Americans living in poverty, the specter of hunger lurks in nearly empty cupboards and manifests in soup lines weaving their way across the nation.
Indeed, demand for emergency food rose 19 percent in 2002, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. One in five people receiving food assistance was a child.
Natural foods growers, retailers and distributors, however, can play a key role in providing nutritious foods to hunger-relief programs.
Though it seems counterintuitive, hunger is not caused by scarcity of food. Long-term unemployment, sinking real wages and a host of other reasons keep low-income people from access to enough food. In their time of need, people turn to food pantries and charity kitchens, which in turn often depend on a national system of food banks to fill their shelves.
The food banks rely on producers, manufacturers, retailers and the general public for donations of cash and cans. America's Second Harvest reports that six major supermarket chains donated 98 million pounds of food to hunger-relief efforts last year.
America's Second Harvest is a network of about 200 food banks serving communities all across the country. One of the largest charities in the United States, it solicits donations from companies such as ConAgra Foods, Quaker Oats and General Mills and offers to link them with food banks, which pay to pick up and handle the food products and distribute them in their service areas. In 2002, the charity distributed 1.8 billion pounds of food to nonprofit organizations.
Neither America's Second Harvest nor natural foods retailers track the amount of food the naturals stores donate, because most give at the local level. "Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Horizon Dairy, White Wave and all of the local naturals grocers have been extremely supportive of us," says Jim Baldwin, president of Community Food Share, which serves the Boulder, Colo., area.
Baldwin estimates that natural foods retailers and distributors donate at a greater level proportionally than chain supermarkets. There's more independent control in the natural foods industry, and the customer relations go deeper, he says. Natural foods distributors and retailers are on Community Food Share's top-20 list of donors. "They look at donating good food as one of their products, rather than as an added duty or hassle. They actually help sell hunger relief in the community," says Baldwin.
That attitude is reflected in both large naturals retailers and local organic grocers. "It's a part of our mission to give back," says Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Wild Oats. "Our stores are required to set up a relationship with a food pantry, food bank or some sort of hunger-relief organization. Hunger relief is a natural fit for our charitable giving. It makes our customers feel better to shop at a place that shows such strong support for the community."
Wild Oats' 100 stores, located in 25 states and British Columbia, did $920 billion in sales in 2002, and their corporate giving amounted to $1.5 million, including tens of thousands of pounds of food. The company was recently ranked in the top 20 for corporate responsibility by Business Ethics magazine.
Through Check-Out-Hunger coupons at registers, community food drives and in-store food drives—which enable people to buy products and leave them in a donation barrel— retailers have plenty of opportunity to participate in ending hunger in their communities.
Banking On The Bottom Line
Donating to hunger relief is not all warm fuzziness, however. At least in part, it's enlightened self-interest. Donations help the bottom line.
"This is a good business decision for retailers," says Baldwin. "We provide a service, relieve them of unsaleable products, free up dock space and move inventory. We make them more profitable."
Still, natural foods retailers say the most important benefits are not the financial ones. "Our stores are more encouraged to keep product fresh, and donating does allow us to do that. But money is not the motivating factor," Tuitele says.
"The No. 1 benefit of helping the food bank is that we're not throwing away perfectly good food," says Bruce Green, associate store team leader at the Boulder store of Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods. "Yes, it does make it easier for us in operations in that we save space on our docks, but that's not the main reason we give. It's a great morale boost for our team that we're not hauling food to the Dumpster when people are going hungry."
That kind of charitable attitude is common among natural foods retailers. Edward Brown, produce director for The Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis-St. Paul, says it's a matter of waste not, want not. "Our goal is to get good food into people's mouths. Of course, retailing is our priority, but the food pantries help when we don't sell everything." The Wedge, with its retail and wholesale services, has about 10,000 co-op members and does about $24 million in sales annually. It donates between 500 and 1,500 pounds of food per week to the Second Harvest Heartland Food Bank and several other agencies.
Eric Davis, unsaleables manager for America's Second Harvest, spent 18 years in the retail grocery business before going to work for the nonprofit. Now he spends his time soliciting food donations from grocers across the country. Millions of pounds of food are donated, but some barriers still discourage retailers from saving food from the trash bin and getting it to the plates of hungry people.
A Lesson In Liability
While donating unused food sends a good marketing message, is an ethical means of dealing with overstock and provides some tax benefits, some retailers are concerned about liability issues, especially when it comes to meat and other perishable items.
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, expanded previous laws to more fully cover hunger-relief donations. Specifically, the act:
- Protects donors from civil and criminal liability should the product donated in good faith later cause harm to the needy recipient;
- Sets a liability floor requiring litigants to prove "gross negligence" or intentional misconduct for persons who donate grocery products; and
- Standardizes liability exposure so donors and their counsel no longer have 50 different liability laws in different states.
But because the act has not yet been litigated, some retailers are reluctant to trust the act's protection for perishable items.
"Some stores get a sense of security when they learn about the Good Samaritan Act ... that they aren't liable for donated food," says Davis. But beyond that liability, he continues, is concern about food safety in its own right. "Grocers are sometimes concerned that someone will get sick, whether they are held liable or not. They want to know that food they donate is handled safely."
Wild Oats has addressed this issue by having every organization that receives food donations sign a waiver. "When we were developing formal guidelines for the donation process, I worked with the legal department," says Tuitele. "They felt it necessary—on top of the laws already out there—to do a waiver. But we've never had an issue."
Part of Davis' job at America's Second Harvest is to educate grocers on the measures food banks take to ensure food safety. It is OK, he says, for a store's meat department to look at the sell-by date on a package of meat, inspect it for smell and color and, if there's no evidence of spoilage, to safely repack it to freeze for a donation pick-up.
"Generally speaking, that meat is good for another 60 days as long as it stays frozen," Davis says. "They inspect it again at the food bank and, of course, if there are any concerns, the motto is, 'if in doubt, throw it out.' At the food banks, meat and deli items are turned around in a day or two."
Davis added that while proteins are the foodstuffs most in demand, they also are the toughest for food banks and other hunger-relief agencies to acquire. This is another area where natural foods grocers can work with their local food banks to improve the nutritional quality of the food available to the hungry.
Yet despite all the precautions by both donors and recipients, retailers remain tentative. For example, when Brown at The Wedge was asked if the store had any concerns about liability for its donations, he said bluntly that he simply doesn't donate meats or seafood.
Davis answers that food banks technically are food-distribution centers. "We are required to go through the same storage and handling processes as retailers. We encourage retailers to tour with our food-rescue drivers to see exactly how this works. They find out very quickly that it's safe, and that it's just as easy to throw close-dated food into a freezer for our pick-ups as it is to throw it away."
Tuitele encourages all natural foods retailers and distributors to reach out in their communities. "Knowing the quality of food that we and other natural foods retailers carry, it's a shame to see it go to waste."
Shawna Rae Kemppainen is a writer and fund-raiser in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 60, 62, 66