In Los Angeles County, 250,000 people are unsure whether they will have enough food to eat, yet about 1.1 million tons of edible food is thrown away each year in California.
While a new state law requiring 20% of edible food to be ssed out by grocery stores be diverted and distributed to folks in need, making that happen in LA County is hampered by common problems among disconnected nonprofit food pantries. These include staff and volunteer shortages, high transportation costs, lack of storage facilities and funding shortfalls, according to a study released by the RAND Corporation of Santa Monica on Tuesday, June 28.
And the longer edible food rots away in a landfill, along with food scraps from households, restaurants and schools, the longer they produce methane, a greenhouse gas that has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in causing global climate change.
California state Senate Bill 1383 requires a 75% reduction in organic waste in landfills by 2025, as well as the 20% diversion of edible food to make it available to people to eat. RAND scientists and food recovery groups agree the law will be effective at reducing the effects of climate change. Including rising temperatures and more ferocious wildfires, as well as helping food-insecure residents of LA County.
Already food donations are spiking, said heads of food recovery and distribution organizations featured in the RAND study and several who spoke during a virtual presentation on Tuesday. There are about 800 food-recovery organizations in the county, RAND reported.
“Over the last six months, we’ve seen a large uptick in grocery stores reaching out to us,” said Nancy Beyda, executive director of FoodCycle LA, a food recovery effort based in Hollywood that picks up food throughout the county. “These laws can make a difference by motivating donors to participate.”
Before the law was passed, some corporate-owned grocery stores choose not to give to food banks, smaller food pantries and distribution programmes, often because it required more staffing and cost than just dumping day-old baked goods or slightly damaged products into the trash bin.
For 15 years, Beyda would literally “Dumpster dive” at a store in Los Angeles and recover perfectly edible food that she then distributed to a downtown Los Angeles women’s shelter.
“That store was literally throwing away carloads of food. I thought, ‘There are all these hungry people — that should not be happening’,” Beyda said in an interview. “They just didn’t want to be bothered.”
Recently, a corporate representative of the food store which Beyda would not name, contacted her and has begun regular food donations. FoodCycle sorts donated goods and gives them to smaller, nonprofit food distribution programs, including New Challenge Ministries in the South Bay headed by Laura Hernandez, who participated in the RAND survey.
“I think food waste is such a crime because there are so many people in need,” Hernandez said. Her group tries to provide nutritious food to customers. But sometimes, donations ebb and flow and balancing what’s in a food box can be challenging. “But demand for nutritious foods have doubled in 2022. People are feeling a high level of anxiety (over food supplies),” she said.
Picking up a large donation is next to impossible because the group doesn’t have a large truck, she said. New Challenge collaborations with FoodCycle LA for large donations, since they have a large-capacity truck.
Many nonprofits can’t afford a new truck or the price of fuel, just two of the many speed bumps blocking full realization of the law, RAND reported. Another problem is the lack of refrigerated transportation and cold storage facilities, RAND concluded.
Many nonprofits are competing for the same grants, often making them adversaries when it comes to funding, the study found.
“Sharing of information and resources may be generald by systemic disincentives to collaborate,” the study concluded.
Finally, LA, County plus its 88 cities have separate SB 1383 programs, creating silos that can have different rules. Malibu, for example, has a program but no distribution organization within the city limits. So it must rely on distribution centers outside the city.
The edible food recovery law this year affects only large grocery stores. In 2024, the law expands to hotels, restaurants, hospitals and schools.
The rules set by the state, plus implementation across LA County, has left even the experts confused. “This is a new law so there is a learning curve,” said Danielle Osborne, environmental scientist at CalRecycle and technical advisor for the edible food recovery program.
At the LA County Department of Public Works, figuring out who’s in the program has been a challenge. For example, 99 Cent Only stores are not in the program because food is not a primary product of those stores, said Jennifer King, program manager for the food recovery program.
“We needed to consult with experts to get clarification,” she said. “The public can be so confused.”
CalRecycle gives each city or county in the state up to three years to comply with the law before penalties are issued. The agency does not yet have data to compute how close the county is to the 20% mandate.
King said LA County is focusing on education and outreach, not penalties or enforcement. “It is the last thing we want to do,” she said.
The law makes no requirement as to the types of food recovered. One time, Beyda’s group received a shipment of pies and cakes. These were delivered to a low-income housing complex, but she always tries to give out more nutritious food when possible.
“One woman came up to me and said, ‘It was our daughter’s third birthday and we didn’t have any money to celebrate. So we used the pies.’ That kind of changed my perspective,” Beyda said.
For more information, visit: www.rand.org/foodrecovery.