More than 3 million pounds of donated fruit and vegetables have reached area charities in the last 10 months as part of an innovative hunger-relief effort initiated by wholesale produce merchants.
The commodity windfall, valued at $1.9 million, was generated by local brokers who channel unsalable merchandise to outlets serving the needy.
Rather than discarding blemished--but still edible--items in trash bins, the wholesalers are dispensing the food to soup kitchens and homeless shelters through the Charitable Distribution Facility.
Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the operation was established last May after receiving a $25,000 grant from the Weiss Family Foundation.
Mickey Weiss, a produce industry veteran, funded the program in the hope of assisting the hungry and, at the same time, stemming the large-scale food waste at the downtown Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Terminal.
Both goals, in fact, have been realized.
More than 130 charitable organizations in Los Angeles County, for instance, have benefited from the program to date.
"It's amazing. And the figures are startling, don't you think?" Weiss said. "The program's success has gone far beyond our expectations. Our first year will end on May 14, and when that point is reached we will have distributed over 4 million pounds of produce."
In addition to supplying 1,700 tons of food in less than a year, the system has also greatly increased the flow of fruit and vegetables to groups fighting hunger and malnutrition. The infusion is welcomed because urban food banks, which distribute donated foodstuffs to charitable groups, are chronically short of fresh produce.
"(The wholesalers) are stepping into a void . . . and people are getting food that they wouldn't otherwise receive," said Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. "In such an urban setting, this is a very good way to get produce into the community."
Furthermore, the 28 participating firms are offering quality and variety. On average, two dozen different types of fruit and vegetables are funneled through the system weekly.
"These companies were just dumping a lot of stuff that was absolutely edible, but there was no other way to get rid of it," said Dick Mount, executive vice president of the Associated Produce Dealers & Brokers of L.A. "A few charities did come over and pick up some food in the past, but it was almost too cumbersome to organize. Now, we can move volumes to where it's needed."
The Charitable Distribution Facility is operated in conjunction with the county agricultural commissioner's office, which staffs the operation at the produce terminal. A county employee, whose salary is paid by the Weiss Foundation, is on hand to ensure that the food donations meet local health standards.
The well-intentioned system is also convenient. Firms with crates of damaged citrus or melons need only cart the donation to the corner of the wholesale market where the processing takes place. Participating companies, if they so elect, can list the gifts as tax donations.
In coming months a videotape of the facility's activities will be sent to produce terminals around the country in hope of prompting similar industry involvement, Weiss said.
The Los Angeles brokers' lead has already been followed in at least one other region. The wholesale market serving the New York metropolitan area has started donating unsalable merchandise to food banks and charities. However, that particular program is operating on a $265,000 government grant and also charges charities an 11-cents-per-pound processing fee for the donated fruit and vegetables.
Weiss said that no government money is spent at L.A.'s Charitable Distribution Facility and it will remain a privately funded program.
"I will continue to fund the facility because the return (to the community) on the investment is enormous. And it will continue to operate solely on the grants from our (family) foundation," he said.
Supermarkets Aiding Needy--Grocers are also increasing their involvement with anti-hunger efforts, according to a recent survey of 180 supermarket companies.
The Food Marketing Institute, a retailers trade association, found that 62.8% of those firms polled stated they were making some sort of donation to local food banks--in the form of groceries, transportation or employee labor.
The results, obtained through mailed questionnaires, are significantly higher than those found when the last such survey was conducted in 1985. At that time, only 47.4% of the companies queried reported any contributions to hunger-relief programs.
The 180 retailers that responded to the most recent survey operate 7,900 food stores, or about 26% of the nation's grocery outlets.
In addition to a variety of fresh and processed foods, the poll revealed that other household items such as paper goods, health products and beauty aids were also included among the donations from the supermarket companies.