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The Los Angeles City Council has proposed a program to donate surplus food from city events and facilities to local food banks and shelters.
City Councilmember Paul Koretz, 5th District, cited the economic crisis and its impact on food insecurity in Los Angeles when explaining why it was important for the city to donate surplus food.
“The good news is that this motion has already had a useful effect, because it’s gotten city departments to examine what they do and don’t do regarding their surplus food,” Koretz said. “In these especially trying economic times, when food insecurity is on the rise, we can all examine whether we’re wasting perfectly good food that might otherwise help the hungry.”
The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank (LARFB) estimates that one in seven residents of Los Angeles County is currently at risk of going hungry. In addition, demand at food banks has gone up considerably over the past two years. Whereas in 2008, LARFB, which distributes food to other food banks as well as operating its own, distributed only 36 million pounds of food, in 2009 it distributed 54 million pounds.
Frank Tamborello, director of Hunger Action LA, the group that urged the city to set up a program to donate food surpluses, said it is often difficult for municipal governments to get involved in the fight against hunger.
“When it comes to food policy, there’s really not a lot for the city to do,” Tamborello said. “Food stamps are a federal program, administered by the state and county. But we were looking for a way to involve the city in the hunger issue, and everyone had a strong reaction to seeing a lot of food go to waste.”
Although the office of the Chief Legislative Analyst conducted a study of city departments to determine the feasibility of a surplus food donation program, it remains unclear how much food might be saved. The Department of Recreation and Parks, for instance, manages to save most unused food for future events, while many other departments don’t serve food at any events. There is no data on how much food from city facilities is wasted.
The only city department that already has a large-scale program to donate surplus food is the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC), which hosts more than 400 events each year. Phillip Hill, assistant general manager of the LACC, said that the convention center donated 14,480 pounds of food to food banks and shelters last year, while an additional 150,000 pounds that was no longer fit to eat was composted.
The convention center donates to four local organizations, plus the LARFB. Depending on how much food is left over after a given event, LACC staff will call one of the four clients to come pick up the surplus. Hill said the organizations were selected mainly for their proximity.
Union Rescue Mission is the largest organizations receiving donations from the LACC. Christopher Strode, business relations manager for Union Rescue Mission, said that in the last year demand for food donations has gone up 45 percent, while donations have decreased by 21 percent. The mission now serves more than 3,700 meals every day.
“We’re on call when they have an event,” Strode said. “It helps quite a bit. For an organization as big as ours, it’s just a boost. But it all comes together. Ultimately, we want sustainability, but when there are forty-eight thousand homeless people in L.A. County, everything helps.”
All the organizations seemed to agree that with demand so high, any extra food donations they received were helpful. Still, Mai Lee, community relations manager at Midnight Mission, which also receives donations from LACC, questioned if food from the convention center was distributed as effectively as it could be.
“We think that this is a really good program, and we’re very happy that the city has decided to take steps and contribute back to the community,” Lee said. “We think the citywide program is a worthwhile idea. We definitely support it. However, there are ways to do it more effectively. We want to take time to look at some of the details and see what we can do to make it an effective program.”
Over the next several months, the city is expected to draft a surplus food distribution plan. Still, Hill said that any effort to make sure excess food did not go to waste was worthwhile, regardless of the number of people it fed.
“I think it’s important that it will provide a process for anyone in city facilities that has surplus food to make sure it reaches the population that needs it,” Hill said. “The convention center may be the leaders in volume, but this is the right thing to do, and it’s just as much about that.
In addition, Tamborello said other city departments had already expressed an interest in getting involved in the fight against hunger in other ways.
“Some of the departments don’t really deal with much food at their facilities,” Tamborello said. “But, for instance, the CRA [Community Redevelopment Agency] is looking into doing business outreach, trying to get local businesses to donate excess food. This program just gets people thinking about ways they can conserve and help.”
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