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Web expose raises a stink; O.C. food bank cleans it up

Second Harvest disposes of tons of spoiled food that it had given to a high-desert pig farmer, who closed down and left it to rot.

March 28, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

HELENDALE, CALIF. — Photographer Troy Paiva journeyed to a remote corner of the Mojave Desert in search of the Exotic World of Burlesque Museum but quickly caught a whiff of something even more jolting.

Instead of the stripper museum, which had recently abandoned dusty Helendale for Las Vegas, Paiva found mounds of rotting perishables, including a festering stew of whipped cream, eggnog and toothpaste. About an acre's worth of discarded mess lay strewn across an isolated desert ranch just off historic Route 66 that had housed a pig farm.

"Oh, as soon as you opened the car door, you smelled it -- this awful stink just wafting in the air," said Paiva, 46, of Redwood City.

Some barrels carried labels from Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County along with a phone number, and, after Paiva posted the pictures on his website, the food bank scrambled to clean up the mess.

The pallets were filled with expired perishable groceries that had been donated to the food bank, and since the food had been unfit for human consumption, it was shipped to the pig farm, a Second Harvest representative explained.

But pig farm operator Tommy McDaniel said he was booted from the ranch in January after a legal dispute with a former business partner who owns the land.

The food bank stopped delivering the food after McDaniel moved, but he never told them of the huge cache that remained at the ranch, representatives said. Because it is in an isolated part of Helendale, no neighbors were around to report the odor.

McDaniel said it was the landowner's job to remove the garbage. McDaniel, who said he lost some of his 300 pigs when he had to depart so quickly, said there was no way to clean the mess before he moved.

Employees from the food bank were in Helendale on Tuesday, fighting the chilly desert winds to clean up and haul away the garbage.

"Legally, it's not our responsibility to clean it up, but morally we felt it's the right thing to do," said Second Harvest spokesman Andy Saavedra.

Officials from Second Harvest, which is based in Orange, say the bank has provided more than 200 million pounds of surplus food to local charities -- with about 20% of the donations doled out to farmers.

Jerry Creekpaum, food bank general manager, said it accepts food, even expired food, if there is a use for it, such as giving it to farmers.

In the Helendale case, none of the food is salvageable, and much will end up in a landfill, Creekpaum said.

For Paiva, a freelance photographer who seeks out desolate areas and has shot abandoned junkyards, deserted diners and old-drive-in movie theaters, finding the dump site was a shock to the senses.

He had sought out the burlesque museum because of its location along nostalgic Route 66. Instead, he found the heap.

"I've seen a lot of gross stuff in the desert," Paiva said, "decapitated animals and stuff like that. But this was just awful. A different kind of gross."

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