State officials are optimistic that a recently revised policy allowing military commissaries to donate unsalable food directly to food banks will help feed the needy in Orange County.
That optimism is shared by officials of the nonprofit Orange County Community Development Council, which welcomes any food donations and distributes them to 65 food service agencies in the county.
"Any amount of food, no matter what the size . . . will benefit someone out there," said Linda Gomez, manager of the food services center program at the Community Development Council. "The supply is always low."
Based on the guidelines of the program, military commissaries, such as at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, would donate directly to the food bank.
Joseph Jones, manager of the El Toro commissary, the only military commissary in Orange County, said that his store has never thrown any food away and that the store marks down the price on damaged items and sells them. However, he said, "if we were throwing anything away, it would definitely go to the food bank."
Jones said he did not know whether the store's policy would change since specific guidelines of the new food donation program are not due until later this month.
The program, part of a Defense Department policy that was revised last November, was designed to allow commissaries to donate unmarketable food directly to food banks, said Beau Carter, regional coordinator of the program and a Department of Health and Human Resources official.
Carter said the food otherwise might be destroyed because the expiration date had passed or the package had been damaged, even though the food was still edible.
Under the original program, which started in 1983, food banks contracted with commissary suppliers for unsalable food. Carter said the program was ineffective because most vendors shied away from such donations, fearing potential legal liability.
"They (suppliers) are afraid that somewhere along the line somebody might get sick and they would be held liable," Carter said. But under the state's Good Samaritan law, which became effective in January, 1980, legal action cannot be brought against a donor for food donations believed to be harmless, Carter said. That law exempts the donor, except in the case of gross negligence or willful acts.
To supplement the law, Gomez said, "When we pick up the food, we have a statement saying that we act on the Good Samaritan law. The statement says we will not hold liable the donating parties for any bad food received."
Even so, the Community Development Council has failed to receive any donations from commissary suppliers since the program began, Carter said. He added, "That part has been disappointing."
Carter said he could not estimate how much food will be added to the Orange County food bank after the Department of Defense releases the new guidelines for the program next month.
"It might not make that big of a difference. It may be that there is not a lot of stuff that comes out of it . . . but we do know that it will create some things that aren't there now and prevent any opportunities from being missed," Carter said. "It is not, in any case, going to be some huge windfall, and it is not going to create monstrous amounts of food."
Gomez expressed delight in the new rule, particularly because it would eliminate the suppliers as the middleman.
"It's going to open up the doors for us. There was so much government red tape trying to get food from suppliers. We want to deal directly with the people who have the food. (The commissary) will be able to call us up immediately" when food is available, she said.
When the new regulations go into effect, "we expect . . . to see some food coming from the commissaries into the food bank," Gomez added.
In Orange County alone, Gomez said, reports show that 320,000 people are "at risk," meaning that they are either without housing, food, jobs or have some kind of need.
She estimated that the food bank serves more than 8,000 residents per month through various food service programs, not including government commodity distributions.
The largest distribution from the Community Development Council last year came in December when more than 328,000 pounds of food was handed out. The total distribution for 1985 was about 3 million pounds, Gomez said, adding that the distribution usually ranges around 200,000 to 250,000 pounds per month.
Each year, agencies increase the number of people they serve, Gomez said. "The trend is that we do need more food. As soon as we get the food in, it's gone."