Food recovery requires all-hands on deck in San Diego County
Nearly half of the food grown in the United States is never consumed. Reducing our collective food waste has several benefits, including combating climate change, creating renewable energy sources, and feeding people in need.
Landfills are filling up faster than ever. California Senate Bill 1383 aims to reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in landfills. The benefits are two-fold: reduce methane emissions* and increase food security. It requires that 20% of edible food be recovered for human consumption, instead of becoming waste or compost (CalRecycle).
*Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere (EPA).
“Numerous landfill studies have shown that the majority of items currently disposed of in landfills is organic, which includes green waste, food waste, and food-soiled paper products,” Bob Hill, director of recycling of EDCO Disposal Corporation says in a County of San Diego pamphlet. The new law requires residents to separate food waste from other waste. “By removing these items from the waste stream, we extend the life of our landfills and, more importantly, we improve air quality by capturing methane gas.”
CalRecylce director Rachel Machi Wagoner says in a statement that the new food waste recycling mandate could reach the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road for one year. EDCO can process up to 93,000 tons a year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 33,480 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. In addition, its anaerobic digesters can turn organic materials into fertilizer, or a renewable natural gas for vehicles or convert that fuel into electricity to power homes.
“If you don’t get organics out of the landfill, you’re going to anticipate landfills closing a lot sooner. And once they close, the next landfill might not be available for 100 miles,” Hill explains. “You’re going to have to take it from your city and transport that. You’ll also contribute to polluting the environment, depending on what type of trucks you’re operating. All in all, that’s going to increase costs (for cities and businesses) dramatically.”
In addition to diverting waste away from landfills, it’s important to capture excess at the source—whether that’s in a field, in a truck, or on a shelf.
Gleaning is the process of taking food that would otherwise go to waste and redistributing it. It’s one of the original social welfare programs and has been practiced by humans for thousands of years. The USDA defines gleaning as “the act of collecting excess fresh foods from farms, gardens, farmers markets, grocers, restaurants, state/county fairs, or any other sources in order to provide it to those in need.”
Many people don’t realize that most gleaning in San Diego County actually comes from individual residences, not farms. Older residents or those who cannot harvest their fruit trees call one of several gleaning organizations. Volunteers come out and glean all edible produce—and may come back if the tree fruits more than once in a year. Residents receive an annual tax receipt for the number of pounds donated and ensure their produce is not wasted. One of these organizations is Senior Gleaners.
“We have so many private residents with produce in the front or backyards. We have a chance to meet up with them and thank them personally,” says Trixxie Land, the administrative assistant for Senior Gleaners of San Diego County. “People will call us and say, ‘I’ve got an orange tree in my backyard—it’s huge and I can’t reach the top.’ ‘My husband had surgery—we don’t want this food to go to waste.’”
To date this year, they’ve had 100 volunteers put in close to 6,000 hours of gleaning. The main crops picked are citrus, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and limes. So far in 2022, they’ve harvested over 56,000 pounds of oranges alone, followed by over 37,000 pounds of lemons.
Once the food is collected, it’s driven to food banks, food pantries, churches and little food libraries throughout the county.
“We don’t keep or store any of it. We are simply the gatherers. We pick the food and transport it to the distribution centers,” explains Trixxie.
When Thanksgiving, Christmas and Labor Day presented challenges with some food pantries and distribution sites, Trixxie worked to find a way to keep the community food donations going. She partnered with The Community Food Connection in Poway to distribute food to people over the holidays when other places were closed.
The program volunteers, who are all 55 years of age and older, equally benefit—they build friendships with other gleaners and stay active. Fill out an online form to donate a crop or to volunteer at SeniorGleanersSDCO.org.
Did you know? The Good Samaritan Act was intended to help people donate excess food instead of throwing it away. It protects donors from liability on any good faith food donation.
The San Diego Food Bank’s Fresh Rescue program literally rescues perishable food that is still edible but can’t be sold. Farmers may have an order that is cancelled last-minute or a store may need to rotate products. Produce is picked up daily, biweekly, monthly, or on an as-needed basis.
Kayla Thomson, Senior Food Procurement Supervisor at San Diego Food Bank, works with 1,500 catering companies, restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers to coordinate the pickup of 400,000 pounds each month. Two of their major donors are Von’s grocery stores and the San Diego Convention Center. From there, food is sorted (perishables, bread, etc.), weighed, and checked for quality before being distributed for free at one of San Diego Food Bank’s many partners. Volunteer opportunities include bagging produce or repackaging prepared foods for distribution. “It’s a great way to be involved actively in the food recovery process,” according to Thomson.
Thomson noted the pandemic really highlighted the need for and work of area hunger relief organizations.
“San Diego benefits from an existing network of food recovery organizations that have been engaged in this effort for decades,” Thomson explains. “It’s been an unsung battle for a long time—they’ve been in it for feeding people and benefiting the environment.”
San Diego Food Bank also has a robust compost and recycling center. Anything that cannot be eaten by humans is given to a local pig farm for their animals.
Thomson urges everyone to support their neighborhood food recovery organization. “Find the food distribution sites in your area, volunteer or work at a site, or if you don’t have time, donate your dollars locally.”
The legacy of food recovery continues to be about collaboration.
“Everybody always works together,” says Trixxie. “I didn’t realize at first that it wasn’t a competition. It doesn’t matter who picks up your produce and distributes it. As long as the food gets saved, everybody’s happy.”
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