Edible food recovery isn't a new concept in Humboldt County. Many local nonprofit organizations already have a system in place to take food donations from grocery stores and restaurants, and use it to feed those in need. Food for People, Humboldt's principal food bank, estimates 336,000 to 500,000 pounds of donated food are collected per year from businesses. But with the passing of California Senate Bill 1383 mandating the creation and regulation of this type of program, Humboldt's food recovery systems will only become more efficient and organized, creating a more robust countywide program.
In the five years Grocery Outlet in McKinleyville has been open, it has regularly donated leftover food to multiple community organizations like Food for People, Arcata House Partnership, the Salvation Army and even a pig farm.
"There's quite a bit of food we're able to donate, non-perishables, food that has an expired expiration date or that has damaged packaging but is still safe to eat," said owner Annica Powell. "It's great. We love being able to help our community."
Twice per week, the Salvation Army picks up food donations from a bin at Grocery Outlet and takes it to their food pantry to feed people using their services.
"Humboldt County is already set up for success," said Monica White, a sustainability manager with Edgar and Associates, a consulting firm based in Sacramento that specializes in solid waste management, recycling, composting and renewable energy issues. Edgar and Associates wrote an S.B. 1383 compliance roadmap and helped various Humboldt County cities meet important deadlines earlier this spring.
S.B. 1383 is aimed at diverting methane emissions generated by rotting organic materials, like food and green waste, in landfills by requiring cities to offer organic waste curbside recycling and create a food recovery program in which businesses like restaurants and grocery stores, as well as schools and hospitals, donate leftover food to local shelters and food pantries instead of throwing it away.
The law states California must divert 20 percent of edible food currently being dumped into landfills by 2025. If Humboldt County can divert 20 percent of its edible food to local food pantries instead of the landfill, about 1.43 million pounds of food would go to those in need.
Although S.B. 1383 is designed as a climate change bill, it will have a dramatic impact on social services in a state with one of the highest per-capita homeless populations. In Humboldt County, 15 percent of the population lives in poverty and 18 percent of the population is food insecure, higher than the national average of 12 percent.
"It's exciting," Robin Praszker, city of Eureka Community Services Department's environmental project manager said. "There's going to be a lot of extra food in the community. There'll be more access to nutritious food, especially in rural areas of the county."
S.B. 1383 requires all "Tier 1 food generators," meaning larger grocery stores, wholesale food distributors and supermarkets, to begin donating leftover food (prepared food, packaged foods, produce, including food that can't be sold because it's past the sell-by date but still otherwise safe to eat) by Jan. 1. "Tier 2 food generators," which include restaurants with more than 250 seats or larger than 5,000 square feet, hotels with more than 200 rooms (hotels and businesses on tribal lands are exempt from S.B. 1383), health facilities like hospitals, with more than 100 beds, large venues and state and educational facilities with large cafeterias, must begin donating leftover food that's safe to eat by 2024.
"Food recovery is different, it's a lot to chew on," White said. "This legislation is the first of its kind and there's a big lift that has to happen to get everyone on board."
Each city in the county is responsible for educating Tier 1 and Tier 2 food generators in their jurisdiction about S.B. 1383's food recovery requirements. And as part of enforcing S.B. 1383, California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) requires routine reporting and audits of businesses, local nonprofits and food pantries to hold stakeholders accountable and ensure everyone is following the law.
Edgar and Associates created the county's initial S.B. 1383 compliance plan back in June and now Abound Food Care, a sub-consulting group of Edgar and Associates, has put together the county's food recovery capacity plan.
As part of the initial capacity plan, CalRecycle asked jurisdictions to submit data and estimates of how much edible food within their jurisdictions needs to be diverted to meet the state's 20-percent goal. Cities, however, have never needed to track detailed data on the amount of edible food that's thrown away, nor the amount that's been saved and donated to nonprofits, but CalRecycle found a few different ways this data can be calculated to give estimations.
One estimation method relies on waste characterization studies and waste disposal records to calculate how much food waste must be diverted. Using CalRecycle's most recent disposal reporting service records and its 2018 facility-based characterization of solid waste study, Abound Food Care found that Humboldt County disposed of 3,588 tons of edible food in 2018. So, Humboldt County would need to divert an estimated 718 tons (about 1.43 million pounds) of food per year to meet the state's goal.
The final draft plan has been officially received by the Humboldt Waste Management Authority Board of Directors. The plan is an outline and a resource for all Humboldt County cities and jurisdictions to use as a guide for implementing a robust food recovery system and meeting the state's goal. The plan sets up short-term and long-term goals that focus on supporting the nonprofits, food pantries and local businesses to begin creating a more efficient food recovery system. This plan is the first step toward building a countywide, collaborative program.
Abound Food Care and Edgar and Associates met with local cities and the county in the past few months to talk about the plan, offer edits, ask more questions and discuss how they'll take a regional approach to creating a food recovery program.
"The conversation is really about implementing regional coordination," said Praszker. "We have all this information (in the plan), now how do we go about implementing it?"
In the plan, Abound Food Care estimates there are approximately 39 nonprofit food recovery organizations and pantries — including Food for People, the Eureka Rescue Mission and Yurok Food Distribution — currently conducting food distribution or food services in the county.
The report found that a lack of cold-storage capacity, limited pantry space, staffing shortages, a reliance on volunteers, few funding opportunities, a shortage of trucks, limited storage locations and little to no software to document the incoming and outgoing food donations make food recovery more challenging for local nonprofits.
Abound Food Care estimates there are as many as 54 Tier 1 food generators (grocery stores, wholesale food distributors, and supermarkets) required to have food donation programs in Humboldt County. About 33 of those are already participating in food recovery programs and 21 will need to begin soon. Each jurisdiction is responsible for enforcing S.B. 1383 mandates, and ensuring businesses and nonprofits in their city are following the law.
Businesses that aren't currently participating in a donation service told Abound Food Care that they often don't have enough extra edible food to donate or that they compost/repurpose their excess food. If businesses don't have leftover food to donate, they must provide proof through an audit executed by the enforcement agency (the city or jurisdiction in which the restaurant is located).
Abound Food Care also estimated there are about 154 Tier 2 food generators required to participate in food recovery programs in Humboldt starting in 2024. Of those, 47 are already participating, 61 need to begin participating and 46 did not respond to Abound Food Care's survey. Most of the county's Tier 2 food generators are schools.
The city of Fortuna is one of a few cities in the county that has passed an organic waste collection and food recovery ordinance, which includes enforcement provisions.
"The [city of Fortuna] will conduct inspections, remote monitoring, route reviews or waste evaluations, and compliance reviews, depending upon the type of regulated entity, to determine compliance, and if the city determines that ... commercial edible food generator, food recovery organization, food recovery service, or other entity is not in compliance, the city shall provide educational materials to the entity describing its obligations under this Chapter and a notice that compliance is required by Jan. 1, 2023, and that violations may be subject to administrative civil penalties from the city starting on Jan. 1, 2024," the ordinance states.
Businesses not in compliance with this mandate risk an administrative citation from the city. An administrative fee in Fortuna is $100 for the first violation, $200 for the second and $500 for the third offense within a year.
The challenges of Tier 2 food generators (restaurants, school cafeterias and hospitals) are different from Tier 1 generators because their food is already cooked as meals, so it is more difficult to repurpose or store at proper temperatures for it to be safe for consumption after it's donated.
The survey found the Tier 2 generators that aren't participating either did not have extra food to donate, compost leftover food, don't know the types of food they could donate or have staffing challenges that would hinder the donation processes.
The plan outlines various actions jurisdictions can take to begin implementing S.B. 1383's food recovery program. Abound Food Care suggests starting slow by having jurisdictions support Food for People's current efforts by providing funding for the nonprofit to hire a warehouse coordinator and food donation pick-up drivers, as well as to buy refrigerated trucks to help with the increased volume of food that will come from S.B. 1383.
Abound Food Care also suggests cities provide funding for smaller food pantries to buy cold-storage trucks, scales, backup generators and supplies, like food recovery kits that come with thermometers, freezer bags and freezer blankets.
Another recommendation in the report called for the county to invest in a third-party, on-site food safety training and auditing program that will help businesses and nonprofits better understand how to safely handle food, and how to track where donations are going and coming from. This would help with the extensive reporting requirements of S.B. 1383.
Abound Food Care also recommends the county create an independent food recovery administrator position, which would manage the food donation program and assist with onboarding businesses, identify the needs of the food recovery network as the program expands and be responsible for educating food pantries on the tracking and reporting processes of S.B. 1383. This position could potentially be staffed by the Humboldt County Environmental Health Division, the report states.
The longer-term strategy and goals include finding ongoing, consistent funding to continue supporting the network of nonprofits and businesses in the food recovery plan.
During a Sept. 29 HWMA and Solid Waste Local Task meeting, Frank Nelson, operations manager for Recology, talked about how Recology's general manager came up with the idea of finding creative funding sources to help with S.B. 1383 food recovery compliance. Nelson said Mendocino County had taken advantage of state Fish and Wildlife Department grants to build refrigeration plants, adding that the county's fishing industry could potentially need more cold storage in the future, just like the county's food distribution network. This necessity could possibly lead to a partnership between the two services to meet regional demands.
White and Mike Learakos, CEO of Abound Food Care, caution against finding grant funding to sustain these types of programs because grants are like "happy hour food," which isn't very sustainable.
"There are multiple revenue streams," Learakos said. "We can't look for one quick ATM machine to fund this. There is a lot of cost-benefit in this program. And we look at cost beneficiaries, we look at potential revenue streams. It's in our best interest to — to [Wise's] point — yes, let's go beat the bushes. Let's go look for alternative ways of funding."
White then agreed and said there were also U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants to build more homeless shelters that could also connect with S.B. 1383's goals of getting more food to people in need.
White said providing funding for nonprofits and food pantries is just one of the ways jurisdictions can support nonprofits, but support can be more creative. For example, it can look like restaurants providing rented refrigeration space for a food pantry to store food. It can also look like a shared delivery and distribution route between businesses and nonprofits. For example, if a restaurant or business is picking up food from one part of the county, it could help a nonprofit with delivery in the same area.
"It's opportunities like this within a county like Humboldt, that's fairly rural, that we can really expand on and that really serves as a very good way to reduce the cost of compliance by bringing other private industries into this that can participate in a philanthropic way or help reduce sort of that cost. So, instead of having to buy refrigeration [space], you can rent space within entities that have existing capabilities," White said during the Sept. 29 meeting.
Creating a food recovery system is a matter of building relationships among stakeholders, businesses and nonprofits.
"There is a real opportunity here to reach out to Fisher People's Association, the food policy council, the North Coast Growers Associations," Leslie Castellanos, a member of the Eureka City Council and the HWMA board chair, said. "To me, the sooner we can start to bridge those conversations and really talk about the food system as a whole, the better [we'll be]. I do think a lot of these issues are kind of co-occurring across the county, especially the cold storage and transportation."
White said Humboldt County is already set up to have a strong food recovery network, not only because of all the food recovery that's already happening in the county but also because each city and the county are eager to work together to create one.
Humboldt County is in the very early stages of fortifying its food recovery programs and has much more to do, but, in the meantime, the Solid Waste Local Task Force will continue to meet to look at implementing more support services using a regional approach and discuss how each jurisdiction can use their resources to create a solid food recovery program.
Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 317, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Iridian_Casarez.