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In any given U.S. city, on any given night, chances are that dumpsters are sitting full of perfectly good food discarded by grocery stores, hotels and restaurants—while people just a few miles away struggle to get enough food on their plates. Even though there is plenty of food in the U.S., many Americans still continue to go hungry.
Between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Food deserts exist within the nation’s urban centers, and according to the USDA’s latest Household Food Security in the United States report published in September 2020, more than 35 million people in the United States experienced hunger in 2019. Households with children were significantly more likely to experience food insecurity, and even before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 10 million children lived in food-insecure households according to the report.
Hunger was already a serious issue in the U.S. prior to COVID-19, and the situation has gotten worse due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Many businesses have been forced to shut down since March 2020 as a result of these ongoing economic impacts, which has displaced millions of workers. The U.S. unemployment rates have skyrocketed in comparison to the figures before the pandemic.
While many of the numbers are still being tallied, the nonprofit Feeding America estimated that 45 million people “may have experienced food insecurity in 2020″ because of the coronavirus pandemic. Volunteers in cities around the country have been implementing emergency food drives, free grocery deliveries and mutual aid projects like community free-food fridges to feed their neighbors since early 2020. Notably, it is individual community members, not the government nor large institutions, who are at the forefront of the effort to help people who are facing food insecurity.
In Los Angeles, a series of projects powered primarily by volunteers have been working to connect hungry people with excess food that would otherwise be wasted—an effort that has doubled down since the beginning of the pandemic.
Genevieve Riutort, deputy director of LA’s Westside Food Bank, says the need for food assistance doubled in 2008 and had just begun to return to pre-recession levels when COVID-19 hit.
“The biggest change now is that in addition to low-income families already needing food assistance, so many local people who had never before needed help—parents and children, homebound seniors, people working in the entertainment industry, gig workers, housekeepers and custodians, restaurant workers, college students and veterans—now rely on the food assistance network to feed their families,” she says. “Some of our member agencies, those that were run mainly by older volunteers, had to close [due to the pandemic], and many of the new programs are staffed by new volunteers who are now starting to return to their jobs. Some are operating out of sites that may no longer be available as businesses reopen.”
In addition to working with member agencies, the food bank has also been supporting local community-led programs in an effort to mitigate the increased need for food assistance and provides food to more than 60 local food programs. Among them is a volunteer-based community food distribution program, Nourish LA, which was founded by Natalie Flores of West Los Angeles to meet the stark increase in food insecurity due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Nourish LA connects people in need of food with establishments that have excess food to offer. They collect donations from farms, community trees and gardens, and they intercept food from supermarkets that would have otherwise been thrown out. She says the need to connect hungry people with food, which LA has in excess, remains critical even after more than a year since the pandemic began in March 2020.
“It’s still an urgent need,” Flores says. “Just because one parent has gone back to work doesn’t mean it’s enough because our cost of living is so high. People are trying to cut costs however they can… We’re actually finding that we’re busier now [as] more people have access to us [Nourish LA].”
The organization gets the word out about what they’re offering through case managers and local schools, as well as area flyers and online outreach.
“We really try to put the word out to make sure that people who are really in need can come and get some food,” she says.
The idea to start Nourish LA was sparked by a moms group Flores was part of on Facebook.
“I’m a mom of a three-year-old… and I was just seeing so many mothers [in the Facebook group forum] asking for help, whether it was help buying their family a pizza or buying groceries, and I just thought it was absurd,” she says. “My background is in urban farming and waste management, so I had already come to find that there’s a ton of food waste going on in the city and it’s not being mitigated or shared properly with the people who need it. For example, every major grocery store generates an insane amount of food waste.”
According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, food waste equated to about “133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010.” That estimated 30-40 percent of the food in America that gets wasted, the USDA points out, negatively impacts society. The USDA website states:
“Wholesome food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. Land, water, labor, energy and other inputs are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of discarded food.”
The issue of hunger in America is not one of food scarcity, but of distribution and access. The challenge comes in connecting people who need food with the excess food that exists—and is likely to be wasted.
Because of her background, Flores says she knew that the systems required to redistribute the wasted food in her area to the people who could use it were not in place. So, she began partnering with various organizations in her area—from restaurants and farms to nonprofits, to the local Westside Food Bank.
Riutort of the Westside Food Bank says the need for food assistance reached a record high level when the pandemic began.
“[The pandemic] created food insecurity for tens of thousands of additional households in our service practically overnight,” she says. “To help meet this unprecedented surge in need, several grassroots food distribution [programs] like Nourish LA sprung up, and agencies that previously did not have food programs, like YMCAs, also began distributing food.”
The Westside Food Bank supports these new distribution programs by providing them with free, nutritious food from their warehouse each week. Riutort says beginning in March 2020, the Westside Food Bank doubled its wholesale food purchases and increased the amount of food it distributed to member agencies as well as new community partners.
“Programs like Nourish LA are reaching people who need food assistance for the first time because of the pandemic, and truly focus on a neighbor helping neighbor model that reduces stigma, encourages participation among immigrant communities, and focuses on providing nutritious and culturally appropriate foods,” she says.
Riutort notes that for many, the impacts of the pandemic will be long-term when it comes to food insecurity. While a small number of people who lost their jobs and sought food assistance for the first time will be back on their feet soon, she says many thousands of local households will face up to a decade of food insecurity after having depleted their savings, accumulated debt and cashed out retirement plans. With the rent relief and eviction moratoriums put into place in response to the pandemic likely to expire soon, “many face the imminent threat of becoming homeless,” Riutort says.
“The pandemic has changed the face of food assistance for years to come,” she says. “We are concerned that as the health crisis eases, we may see a reduction in community support for food programs. We are working to keep people informed about the ongoing need to support local food assistance programs. We also intend to maintain our higher level of food purchasing and distribution for the next several years to better meet the local needs. We tailor our food purchasing based on the best available wholesale prices and the specific nutritional and cultural needs of our community.”
Starting a Local Food Assistance Program
Many people who live in urban centers may not realize that there are urban food deserts in their area, or that the need for community donations and food distribution is widespread in most U.S. cities. Riutort says Westside Food Bank’s service area, for example, which encompasses about one-tenth of Los Angeles County and houses “well over a million residents, has a reputation of being a wealthy area. However, [many households can barely afford] the cost of living in the area, which is particularly high.”
“The rate of food insecurity in our area matches the national average with one in six households with children lacking enough food on a regular basis,” Riutort says. “That figure is even higher among Black and Latino households… Prior to COVID-19, our food was reaching about 110,000 people annually; now we are nourishing more than 200,000 local people, nearly half of whom are children.”
Flores says if someone wants to start something similar to Nourish LA in their own area, partnering with local churches is the easiest route.
“This is because you need refrigeration, and a parking lot—and you need space,” she says. The other reason, she says, is that churches already have their own nonprofit number, and having nonprofit status is key to collecting food donations and giving food away. The “Good Samaritan Act provides liability protection for food donations,” according to a blog on the USDA website, and requires a third-party nonprofit in order to establish this protection. This protection incentivizes businesses like restaurants and grocery stores to donate their excess food.
“Often businesses will be concerned with, ‘What if somebody gets sick [after consuming the food]?’ and the nonprofit status [entity] acts as a third party so that stores aren’t liable for the food anymore,” she explains. “Once food is given off to a third party, stores [or individuals or other businesses] don’t have liability relating to this food.”
“I began by casting a big net,” Flores says, noting that she had recently learned about FoodCycle LA, which works to prevent food from major grocery stores from going to the landfill.
Nourish LA now partners with FoodCycle LA in addition to a number of other local programs. Additionally, Flores had already worked with the Westside Food Bank and Food Forward, which focuses on gleaning surplus fruit and veggies.
“I called on my network and I told people, ‘I want to create a food drive to help people in need gain access to healthy food,’” she says. The groups she contacted were immediately on board.
Flores made a flyer for an event and got friends and neighbors together for the effort. They recycled the plastic and paper bags that had been sitting in their pantries and used them to pack up healthy food products, fruits and veggies that were donated, to distribute to neighbors. In their first event, they helped 60 families and ran out of food in an hour. Next, she called up a friend who owns the local restaurant the Wood Cafe and asked to host an event there. Being a restaurant, the Wood Cafe was able to get a hold of a significant amount of food donations. Even so, the event ran out of food in 20 minutes.
“I knew that we had to expand, and we had to reach more people,” she says, because “I knew there was more food” being needlessly wasted.
Nourish LA and its partners put the call out to people to glean the fruits from their trees—all the grapefruits, lemons, avocados and oranges (which are ample in LA most of the year)—and donate them.
“Sometimes there are elders who own parcels of land that have fruit trees, and they don’t have the energy or the capacity to harvest them, but we’ll harvest them. We’ll go there and talk to them, and they almost always say yes. I always tell people, please do not sit on that fruit. It’s not good for your trees, and you can feed people [with the fruit].”
In addition to the fruit, donations from restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, Nourish LA also began to receive canned foods, dry goods and other donations from local households. They expanded the call for volunteers and eventually gained traction.
“First we were reaching 70 people, then 100, then 1,000,” says Flores.
Now, they reach about 3,000 people every weekend. They serve West Los Angeles but also deliver to people in Inglewood, Culver City, Mar Vista, Venice and Santa Monica.
“What’s great is that it’s not garbage food, it’s really healthy food. It’s fresh baked bread, vegetables, eggs and organic milk,” she says.
Nourish LA has 50 regular volunteers that help throughout the week with everything from picking up and transporting food to setting up and breaking down their events.
Nancy Beyda, executive director of FoodCycle LA, says there are “major issues in the food distribution system in the U.S., and these barriers are mirrored in the system for recovering excess food.” FoodCycle LA approaches food waste as a systemic issue that contributes to hunger as well as the climate crisis. She says organizations collaborating and partnering when possible is key to creating large-scale change.
“We’re focused on creating systemic change, and in order to do that we want to create a network that is large enough to have a big impact,” Beyda says. “Our current food system is deeply broken—moving away from ideas of scarcity and competition for resources toward values like sharing and collaboration is a necessary part of the shift in consciousness that we need in order to truly fix the system, and save the planet.”
Beyda says their organization’s food distributions grew more than 1,000 percent during 2020, made possible by community collaborations.
“Creating these partnerships with local organizations allowed us to expand dramatically in response to the pandemic,” she says. “We currently work with almost 330 different community-based organizations that are serving food-insecure populations.”
Since 2019, FoodCycle LA has been implementing Hack for LA‘s online database Food Oasis, which collects up-to-date information about all the organizations in Los Angeles helping to feed people and maps them out. They also use the ChowMatch app to help people connect with food resources.
Unlike many community food distribution programs, FoodCycle LA accepts perishable foods, because they have the systems in place to get them to people before they go bad.
“We understood that in order to best direct resources and make sure that donated food is used, rather than wasted, it was important to know exactly where to send it,” Beyda says. “The food that we receive is perishable and is often near the end of its shelf life, so it needs to be used immediately. We have to know where they can distribute it as soon as possible, so that it doesn’t end up spoiling and getting thrown away later. We also believe that it is important to help community-based organizations where neighbors are helping neighbors.”
Beyda says one challenge in the food recovery space is that many of the food recovery processes in place were not set up to pay attention to the environmental impacts of recovering and transporting food, or whether that food was being used once an agency received it.
“I discovered this personally when I spent weekends getting farmers market donations for a homeless organization that ended up tossing much of it later in the week as it went unused,” she says. “These donations were being tracked as diverted from the landfill but were actually being ultimately thrown away. Part of this problem can be solved by technology and better matching donations where they are truly needed. At the onset of the pandemic, we worked to move food around from some of the large food pantries that were going to throw away excess donations and distributing it to smaller organizations that actually had a need for more food. We also have incorporated electric vehicles in order to offset the environmental impact of transporting recovered food. Looking at the systemic issues that exist and incorporating technology to address them has helped us to do a better job of recovering food and making sure it gets to the people who really need it.”
Beyda says 2020 demonstrated the new system of community-based food distribution “really works.”
“We can have an amazing impact and help many, many people by taking a step back and looking at ways to do things more consciously and also by collaborating and working with other like-minded folks,” she says. “One of the unexpected blessings last year was being introduced to so many amazing individuals like Natalie [Flores] and seeing how much we could do when we joined hands and supported each other.”
There is increasing pressure on grocery stores and restaurants not to waste their perishable foods. Flores notes that grocery stores and other establishments in California in particular face this pressure as the state has adopted the first mandatory organic recycling bill, AB 1826, which went into effect in 2019 and 2020, making it mandatory for businesses that create more than 2 cubic yards of solid waste to compost.
“[Businesses] are looking to get rid of their excess food as easily as possible, so now there’s even more of an incentive for stores to give out their food to people like us,” she says.
In addition to distributing food to people in need, Nourish LA offers accessible gardening education, through a partnership with Shemesh Farms in which they collect the farm’s leftover seeds and seedlings to give away to people who want to plant vegetable gardens. They gather with master gardeners to answer people’s questions and provide education around planting and care.
Flores says a project like Nourish LA is replicable almost anywhere, and all that it requires is people who are willing to organize and take action to get it off the ground.
“I want to encourage people to get up and do something,” she says. “If you’re tired of the way things look and you’re tired of the way things are, then what are you really doing about it? We actually have a lot of power.”
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.