Photograph courtesy of the Waste Not OC Coalition
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Members of the Waste Not OC Coalition, from left to right, Cynthia Coad, Bernadet Garcia-Silva, Habib Abdulalim, Charles Lantz, Tom Coad, Mike Learakos, and Dr. Eric Handler
Photograph courtesy of the Waste Not OC Coalition
The Plate

Driving Out Hunger, One Cab at a Time

We waste 2.8 trillion pounds of food every year, worldwide. Meanwhile, 805 million people don’t have enough to eat, so it’s no surprise that here at The Plate, we talk a lot about food waste.

There is no one simple solution, but Dr. Eric Handler, Orange County Public Health Officer, is trying something new–connecting the dots between gathering extra food, identifying those in need, getting it to them, and making it easy for food service folks to participate. He’s the co-chair of the Waste Not OC Coalition (WNOC), which he hopes can serve as a model elsewhere.

I talked with Handler, a pediatrician for over 30 years, who spearheads the unique coalition focused on ending hunger in Orange County, California. Handler and his colleagues have managed to bring together food producers (restaurants, grocery stores, even a county jail) together to collect unused food and distribute to a host of local pantries in Orange County. Until recently, the program operated with virtually no funding and no full time staff.  Despite those obstacles, and through any means necessary, down to using the local cab company for pickups, WNOC has managed to make a big dent in hunger in the county. And they’re just getting started.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why was hunger a problem you felt you had to address in Orange County? I think many people think of it as a fairly wealthy area.

PBS did a special on Orange County last January (In Wealthy Orange County, a Campaign to Waste Less and Help Feed Hungry Kids).   Orange County has some of the richest and poorest people.  I was at a meeting in Sacramento in November 2012, and I had breakfast with Mark Lowry, the Executive Director for the Orange County Food Bank. I asked him if he had enough food in his food bank and he said, “no.” And I asked him, “if we captured all the food that was thrown out, could we end hunger in Orange County?” And he said, “yes.” And I looked at him and said, “then why aren’t we doing it?” And that’s how it started.

Why focus on food waste over financial contributions or some other form of support?

Once we decided to do something, I brought together a group that represented everyone that touched the food industry and asked them why they weren’t donating food.

What was their response?

Liability was a big concern. They also said “the public health department won’t allow us.”

That’s a pretty common misconception, right?

Yes. We needed to educate them. They’re not held liable, and the public health department actually encourages food donations. So now when they [Orange County health inspectors] do their inspections, they ask if they [the restaurants] are donating food.  The environmental health service developed a one pager explaining that under the Good Samaritan law, they’re not held liable unless they act with negligence or intentional misconduct. It’s gone viral. It’s being used in San Diego, Los Angeles County, San Bernardino and other counties.

Tell me a little more about the logistics behind the process.  How do you get the food where it needs to be? I saw that your group has enlisted Yellow Cab of Orange County?

Once an establishment decides to donate food, our environmental health specialists and Food Finders will help them get ready to do donations. Food Finders is the nonprofit arm of WNOC. They show up, pick up the food, and take it to the nearest food pantry. They’ve been absolutely critical. As the nonprofit, any donations go to Food Finders, and we use them to make this work. WNOC has been focused on the cities of Anaheim and Orange, and we’ve covered 68 tons of food, or almost 114,000 meals. If Food Finders can’t do a pickup during the day, or if we have a late night pickup, Yellow Cab will collect the food and deliver it.

When you distribute, are you going just to food pantries, or are you going to other places?

We’re taking perishable and nonperishable foods to pantries. We’re also doing food recovery from a county jail–they were throwing away almost 2,000 pounds of food a day. We’re also working to expand to other jails, schools, and hospitals to start generating donations from their food waste. In addition, CVS is going to start having their stores from San Diego to Santa Barbara start donating food–the stores will adopt a pantry.

Why did you focus on Anaheim and Orange?

We started to focus county wide, and realized we needed to work on the logistics and scale down to a smaller area. One of the leaders of WNOC is a restaurant owner named Mike Learakos. He has a restaurant in Orange and is spearheading our Food Recovery Task Force. Since he was already familiar with the industry and owners in the area, it made sense to focus on those areas, demonstrate success, and then expand.

Where will you expand next?

We’re looking to go into Irvine and Tustin, then further south, with a goal to be county-wide.  I want to point out though, that we’ve done the majority of this with no funding, just generous in-kind donations. We just got a grant from the United Way last year and the health care agency is now funding a part-time project manager- that’s all we have now.  That’s what makes it so remarkable. We’re using resources that currently exist to get this done.

It sounds like you’ve made it very easy for the restaurants and food distributors to participate.

We have. And if a grocery store or restaurant donates, we’ve made a seal that they can put in their window showing that they support WNOC. And those places are more interested in that seal than anything else. You want that in your window to show that you are a supporter.

You’ve also started using a food insecurity screening tool. Talk to me about that.

Let me step back a second.  We’ve been very successful in food recovery. But we have a three pronged attack. We’re increasing food contributions, identifying people facing food insecurity, and getting those people to the nearest pantry. We’re working with hospitals, family resource centers, social services agencies, and public health nurses to use the screener. I’ve been a pediatrician for over 30 years, and I never asked my patients if they were facing food insecurity. What was I going to do if they were? Write a prescription for groceries?

We were able, through Children’s Hospital of Orange County, to screen 12,000 families and identify 350 facing food insecurity. The hospital is looking to expand the screener to their outpatient clinics. We also have a map on the website that shows all the food pantries in Orange County. We’ve incorporated it with the website [a social service website for Orange County]. You can type your zip code into the map and it will show the nearest pantry, the kinds of food provided, and the hours of operation.

When I talk to people about hunger, it’s such a a big problem that they don’t know where to start. We’ve created a toolkit that can be replicated anywhere.

Nicole Washington works in the maps, art, and graphics department at National Geographic. She has strong feelings about barbecue (Lexington style) and cupcakes (cake is better). You can find her on Twitter.