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Produce Windfall to Aid Hunger Relief

April 30, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

An ambitious program to aid local hunger-relief agencies through substantial donations of fresh fruit and vegetables will be launched next month by the Los Angeles wholesale produce industry.

Under the proposal, hard-pressed Southern California soup kitchens, missions and other groups that assist the poor stand to gain a virtual commodity windfall.

The effort, titled the Charitable Distribution Facility, will be formally announced May 14 at the L.A. Wholesale Produce Market at 8th Street and Central Avenue. At that time, local officials and industry representatives hope to enlist the cooperation of all 28 firms that operate in the 30-acre terminal, the country's volume leader.

The goal is salvaging a significant amount of the market's damaged or bruised items--those which would normally be destroyed because they have little or no commercial value. About 5.5 million pounds of such unsaleable, but still edible, produce is dumped into market trash bins each year. Conservative estimates put the food's original wholesale price tag at $1 million.

The concept, if it proves viable, could have national implications, particularly for urban anti-hunger efforts, which are chronically short of fresh produce. In fact, organizers here are hoping similar operations will be started at other major terminals such as those in New York, Chicago and New Orleans.

Inspiration and funding for the plan comes from Mickey Weiss, a recently retired produce industry executive, whose family foundation will provide a $25,000 grant to cover the first year's anticipated operating expenses. If the program succeeds, the Weiss Foundation will underwrite subsequent annual budgets.

"When I walked the new market, it was pathetic to see all the (food) waste. . . . It's a pity to dump all of this stuff," said Weiss, who tells of recently seeing 20 cases of mildly blemished jicama, a Mexican root vegetable, discarded. "So, I decided to fund a program that would somehow utilize all of the produce that is now going to the trash."

The Weiss plan comes at a time when Southern California agencies servicing the needy and the homeless are taxed to capacity, according to a recent United Way study. Many of the outlets providing free meals or groceries are experiencing as much as a 70% annual increase in demand for food assistance, the report found.

The United Way study recommended that one way of lessening hunger would be to recover food waste--an approach that the Weiss proposal directly addresses.

"The most fascinating thing about this program is the amount of good it will do," he said.

Industry response is expected to be positive because participating firms receive tax credits for providing merchandise that would otherwise be junked as a total loss. Each carton or crate diverted to the new program, for instance, will be considered a non-cash donation to an area charity.

"This $25,000 grant by Weiss will return millions of dollars to the people. It's the best investment anyone could make," said Dick Mount of the Associated Produce Dealers & Brokers of L.A. "Everybody in the food business hates to see food wasted, and this program will prevent some of that."

Further encouraging the flow of contributions is the location of the facility's loading dock at an unused, but convenient, area of the market. The site, operated by an employee from the Los Angeles County agriculture commissioner's office, will only accept food that is still edible and wholesome.

The message that Weiss says will go out to the market is, "Don't send us any (inedible) garbage or it goes in the dumpster."

The cost of Los Angeles County's official participation will be covered by the Weiss Foundation, making the program one with 100% private funding. However, the agricultural department wants an oversight role in order to prevent donated produce from entering what is known as the secondary market, namely unsanctioned sales such as those at freeway off-ramps or the grocery trucks that ply between city neighborhoods.

Control will be exercised by requiring county certification of any group that receives market produce.

"All recipients will be screened before the fact for suitability," said Paul B. Engler, county agricultural commissioner. "We will keep the program fair and equitable, and there will be no favoritism of one charitable group over the other."

In this spirit of fairness, donors will not be able to specify a particular charity as a recipient, Engler said, so that the entire county is served as effectively as possible.

A list of more than 100 organizations involved in free food distribution has already been approved, and Engler anticipates that the total will be expanded to 120 by the time the facility is under way.

Once opened, groups serving the needy will then be offered food throughout the work day at the distribution facility's loading dock.

An indirect result of the plan is that it will preclude the disruptive solicitation at the market by groups that run feeding programs. The amount of food generated by this centralized effort will also dwarf the level now being given under what amounts to a hit-or-miss system.

The Charitable Distribution Facility is the second Weiss Foundation project at the wholesale produce market. The first was a pair of three-story-high murals that decorate the facility's Central Avenue side. Weiss explained that the motivation behind his recent project is one way of returning some of the success he experienced during a 40-year career.

"I wanted to do something for the industry that did so much for me," he said. "I always wanted to give back and this is a good opportunity to donate to the city of Los Angeles. . . . I can't see anything but good coming from this project."

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