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Food Bank Scrounges for Each Bite : With Supermarket Strike, It’s Looking at a Bleak Season

Doris Bloch strides toward the loading docks, eyes a pallet of lumpy gunnysacks and smiles. “Potatoes,” she said. “That’s like finding gold in the streets.”

But Community Food Resources, where Bloch is executive director, does not find the millions of pounds of food that passes through its loading docks--it scrounges for it. CFR, which distributed 1.9 million pounds of food last month, will find a use for any edible food anyone wants to give away, Bloch said.

Surrounding her is the nonprofit organization’s bustling Vernon warehouse. As a food bank serving more than 275 local organizations that feed about 425,000 people, CFR is a place where one finds pumpkins in November and turkey after New Year’s.

“Don’t come here expecting to see us handing out frozen turkeys in time for Thanksgiving,” Bloch said, explaining that CFR receives food when there is no longer a market for it.

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CFR is a market of last resort for food products nearing their expiration dates, that failed in the marketplace, were damaged in transport or storage or prepared incorrectly.

Line of Defense

It is also a teetering line of defense against human hunger.

“We’re looking at the holidays with a lump in our throats,” Bloch said. “The supermarket strike is having a negative effect on us. The strike is jamming up the surplus food from supermarket warehouses.” In addition, she said distribution of U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus food has been less this year than expected.

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Seated with Bloch in her office are John McGee, warehouse manager, and Lora Blanchard, the group’s product donations manager. It is a functional-looking room with a Thomas Guide map of Los Angeles County tacked to the back wall. The map has dots stuck on it to show the locations of soup kitchens, missions, emergency shelters, senior citizens centers, pantries and other nonprofit charitable organizations that distribute food to the needy. Although the dots cluster in a few areas, they are distributed all over the map.

McGee said that CFR is unlikely to receive turkeys even after Thanksgiving, since the food industry generally tries to sell excess turkeys during the Christmas season. He expressed hope that CFR will be able to accumulate enough other traditional Thanksgiving foods that needy families will have to buy only the main course. For example, Bloch said CFR located 44,000 pounds of surplus apple juice in Virginia and is paying for its transport here.

But CFR may be unable to provide its client agencies with Thanksgiving trimmings, let alone the turkeys. “We don’t have enough to stockpile,” McGee said. “If you’re hungry this week, it doesn’t matter if I have food for you next week.”

The client agencies that buy food from CFR pay bargain-basement prices--yogurt for 5 cents a pound and potatoes for 2 cents a pound--that in turn are applied toward the food bank’s overhead costs. Clients call a special telephone number to find out what is available and then call another number to order what they want.

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More Giving Mood

Blanchard said that the growers, packers, manufacturers, restaurateurs, wholesalers, brokers and retailers she canvasses for contributions are in a more giving mood during the holidays than during the rest of the year. But if the humanitarian approach doesn’t work, Blanchard makes her case on pragmatic grounds.

“We try to convince them that we are offering them a service,” she said. “It costs money to destroy food. We take surplus food off their hands.”

One reason CFR is often called to pick up unwanted food is that it does so quickly and efficiently, Blanchard said. “When we say we are going to be there, we will be. That means a lot to a poor warehouse manager.”

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CFR is often contacted when manufacturers make a mistake that leaves food unsalable, but edible. A case in point: One food maker added powdered parsley instead of parsley flakes to chicken soup, turning it green. “They didn’t want to market green chicken soup,” Bloch said. CFR got about 150 pounds of it.

“We have to rely on mistakes in planning and production,” she said.

Bloch walks to one corner of the warehouse and parts the long, thin pieces of clear plastic sheets that guard the entrance to a cavernous walk-in refrigerator. “Cold storage is always a hassle,” she said. “We had to build our own.”

Inside the cooler is a mountain of yogurt, about 100,000 pounds of it according to McGee. Some of it was prepared with too much stabilizer and some of it with too little. Still more of the yogurt was too near its expiration date to ship to supermarkets. It is all edible--and therefore usable--to CFR. “We can turn that over quick,” McGee said.

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Blanchard said CFR occasionally receives fresh produce. “If we get it locally, then it is product with a very short shelf life,” she said. “Some growers will donate their overproduction rather than plow it under.”

CFR also gets produce that just doesn’t measure up. “They don’t market carrots under three inches long unless they are baby carrots,” Blanchard said. “Then they can’t be over a certain length.”

Other Products

Another common source of food is products that are test-marketed. For example, Bloch said CFR received a windfall of a liquid nutrition product that was marketed for people who couldn’t eat solid food. “It was fantastic,” she said. “It was designed to provide excellent nutrition.” High-calcium milk, another test-marketed product, was also snapped up eagerly.

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Blanchard said a large shipment of baby food came after one producer changed its label and decided to rid itself of the stock with old labels. She looks for tips that a manufacturer may have food to dump. “It takes me several hours to go through the supermarket now,” she said. “I look at those end caps with new products very carefully.”

Once in a while, CFR receives luxury foods, such as cans of bing cherries. “We even get canned snails and pate occasionally,” Blanchard said.

Near the walk-in refrigerator, gleaning supervisor Joe Lemus presides over a considerably less elegant collection of food. Six women, all volunteers, sort through piles of food, throwing away what is unusable, patching up damaged boxes and putting like items together.

“It comes in mixed,” Lemus said. “We check it.” Volunteers are taught to throw out cans that leak, are badly dented or have raised lids. A crushed box is likely to be taped and readied for distribution. “If the inside bag is not badly torn, we just patch up the box,” he said, holding up a box of cereal taped on one end.

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The assembly-line operation is quick and silent. The volunteers, some of them needy, receive “thank you” bags of food, Bloch said.

On a busy day, there may be as many as 15 gleaning volunteers, Bloch said, especially during the holiday season when demand for food increases.

Bloch said her organization doesn’t waste anything, even if there is no apparent use for an item. CFR once received rock salt and spread it behind the warehouse to control pests. The organization also accepts non-food items, which have ranged from butter dishes to wallpaper to toilet seats.

Food, Money, Time Sought

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Pinto beans, rice, baby food and virtually any source of protein, including meat, fish and poultry, are in constant demand, she said. CFR is interested in contributions of food, money and time.

No matter how great the outpouring of contributions, Bloch said the demand always seems to be greater. “Today we have X in the warehouse,” she said. “Tomorrow if we are lucky X will be gone, but we will have Y.”


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