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Local grocery stores will soon have to donate excess food to feed people and combat climate change

Beth Thornton
Volunteers at work in the SLO Food Bank warehouse

With the combined goal of feeding hungry people and combating climate change, grocery stores and large food distributors must start donating excess edible food instead of wasting it, per legislation that takes effect in January.

According to CalRecycle, one in four Californians have not had enough to eat since the start of the pandemic. Yet, every year more than one million tons of still-edible food is wasted. Organic waste, which includes unused food, also accounts for 20% of the state’s methane pollution from landfills.

Senate Bill 1383, signed in 2016, aims to recover 20% of excess edible food statewide by mandating food recovery programs at grocery stores, wholesalers, and large food providers beginning January 2022. Other businesses must comply by 2024.

The Food Bank in San Luis Obispo County is preparing for the possible influx of food come January.

“Combating food waste on any level is really important and, obviously, food that is coming from grocery stores or restaurants is food that is still safe to consume, so that is what 1383 is trying to focus on, and what we’ve been focusing on for the last few years,” said Emily Hansen, Operations Director at SLO Food Bank.

Hansen said the pandemic is contributing to greater food insecurity in San Luis Obispo County.

“More of our neighbors are in need than have been before. Prior to the pandemic we were serving about 23,000 individuals every month, and then at the height of the pandemic, we were sending out 154% more food than we had the previous year,” Hansen said.

She said the legislation will hopefully get people to think about how much food goes to waste.

“With enforcement of this bill, it will get food producers to also look at how much waste they’re generating to begin with,” Hansen said.

Willy Wilson is the Food Rescue Programs Manager for the SLO Food Bank. She coordinates with local organizations to make sure food is picked up and distributed where needed. She said some rescue programs are already in place.

“Most of the grocery rescue performed in SLO County is actually done by our agency partners, so these smaller organizations — churches, pantries, shelters, they’re actually doing direct pick-ups from grocery stores and utilizing that food to distribute to folks in need,” Wilson said.

Both Hansen and Wilson said SB1383 relies heavily on small nonprofits to distribute rescued food in a timely manner. Wilson anticipates some challenges.

“There are so many different types of food to make use of – shelf stable items are super easy to hold on to but when it comes time to make use of things that are already prepared, and with a really short shelf life once we receive them, that’s where it might get a little trickier,” Wilson said.

Overall, she said she’s pleased that legislation exists.

“When I first stepped into this position, it was really daunting because it felt very reliant on pulling on the heartstrings of people, and it’s really nice to feel like I don’t have to do that since there’s legislation now that encourages them to work with us,” Wilson said.

Wilson said one of the large grocery chains already working with the SLO Food Bank is Whole Foods Market. A Whole Foods Market spokesperson shared that the company donated over 27 million meals to food rescue and redistribution programs nationwide last year.

Health facilities, hotels, restaurants, state agency cafeterias, and schools have until 2024 to get food rescue programs in place.

Kelsey McCourt, Sustainability Coordinator for on-campus dining at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said reducing waste is a top priority.

“We don’t have a ton of edible food waste. We don’t have any buffets or all-you-care-to-eat stations anymore, most of our meals are made to order,” McCourt said.

She said they use locally sourced food, and menus are often revised based upon what’s available.

“We do a lot of training for our chefs and our cooks on reducing food waste back of house. We’re very good about adjusting our menus to utilize our inventory so that we aren’t wasting a lot of food,” McCourt said.

Excess food is currently sent to the campus food pantry for students, and McCourt said she is still working through other details for SB1383.

“I think a lot of planning will go into this,” she said. “But I do think it’s a good thing – not only is it helping to reduce food waste but helping to support our community and those who might need it.”

CalRecycle has resources for businesses and non-profits to help prepare for SB1383. You can also contact your local Food Bank.

This report is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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