South Bay supermarkets throw away enough food every day to feed hundreds, maybe thousands, of hungry people.
Gleaming red tomatoes, shiny purple eggplants--all with a soft spot, to be sure--lay in a bin behind the Vons supermarket at Peninsula Center recently. Orange juice, perhaps 30 gallons, too old to sell, was found in the trash at another store. Dozens of loaves of day-old bread were discarded at a third.
The prospect of so much food going to waste is enough to "make you sick," declared Sister Michele Morris, director of the House of Yahweh soup kitchen in Lawndale. "I just can't tell you what it does to me. We could use that food. We need more food."
Much Food Thrown Away
Others agree that the need is there, both for soup kitchens and at food banks that distribute groceries to the poor.
But South Bay stores apparently throw away much edible food, although some donate regularly to hunger programs.
Agencies involved in feeding the hungry cite several reasons for the waste: No systematic pickup system has been developed for most stores. Some stores fear they would be sued if someone got sick from eating donated food. Some worry that recipients might undercut the store by selling the merchandise, anti-hunger activists say.
And because of the South Bay's relative affluence, compared to other areas of Los Angeles County, the need for donated food is not as apparent.
"We receive a lot of produce and we distribute a lot of produce. It may not be reaching the South Bay," said Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which distributed 22.5 million pounds of food in the county last year. The food bank gets damaged cans and other food from distributors and other sources and hands it out to more than 400 charitable agencies.
Area's Affluence Cited
Bloch said the South Bay's relative affluence and lesser need for food distribution is most likely the reason that food collection efforts are not as organized here as in Long Beach and Southeast and Central Los Angeles.
LIFE, or Love Is Feeding Everyone, an organization similar to the food bank, also operates in much of the county but not in the South Bay.
No exact figures for the number of hungry people in the South Bay are available, but officials believe that they number many thousands. (A 1986 United Way study estimated the number of hungry throughout Los Angeles County at 400,000 families.) Leaders of the area's three soup kitchens say they could use more food.
Sister Michele, whose operation regularly feeds upwards of 600 people, including 130 families that receive groceries once a week, said the House of Yahweh is unable to feed all the needy who seek assistance.
Gene McCann, director of the Beacon Light Mission in Wilmington, said, "The Lord has been good to us, but if we get more, we give more." His operation serves meals daily to between 50 and 80 people.
Celin Fonseca, director of St. Joseph's Table in Wilmington, which feeds 150 people hot meals six days a week and donates groceries to 12 families, said that he, too, could handle more if he had more food.
The untapped potential at supermarkets, meanwhile, is enormous.
In 1977, a Department of Agriculture report estimated that about 2% of all the nation's food was discarded at the supermarkets--enough to feed 5 million people. "A substantial portion of food loss is safe, nutritious food that could be consumed if it could be recovered and routed to the recipients," said the report.
To be sure, the three South Bay food distribution agencies already make use of donated supermarket goods.
The House of Yahweh sends out a truck every day that stops at two Lucky supermarkets, filling up with produce that cannot be sold. The food is examined in the House of Yahweh kitchen, bad parts are cut out and rotten food is thrown away. "If in doubt, throw it out," she said.
The Beacon Light Mission gets deliveries from a Carson supermarket once or twice a week--"eggs, hot dogs by the case, milk, yogurt, cheese, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, it might be anything," director McCann said. St. Joseph's Table receives dented canned goods donated by supermarkets and wholesale suppliers through the Los Angeles Food Bank.
In addition, some South Bay supermarkets donate food to church pantries and other small-scale programs, and the food bank distributes food to small agencies in Lawndale, Carson and Torrance.
But only a fraction of the edible food thrown out by the South Bay's several dozen supermarkets reaches the needy, officials believe.
Fonseca, who says he has his hands full running St. Joseph's Table, has not approached supermarkets for help. Morris is trying to obtain a larger truck or van to make more supermarket runs, and she is negotiating with another nearby supermarket for additional donations.
The mechanics of pickup and delivery appear to be the key obstacle to more efficient use of discarded food. Such food is on the verge of being totally unusable.