Photos by Sherry Yang
A farmer picks 10 oranges from one of the trees in her orchard. These oranges are the result of five to eighteen months of growth, 138 gallons of water and hours of work. But odds are, 4 of the 10 will soon end up in an American trash can.
40 percent of food in the United States is never eaten, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“That [waste] could be from any gamut,” Jill Santos, Ventura County branch manager of produce recovery nonprofit Food Forward said. “It starts at the field where they’re growing it and where they’re harvesting it — there’s definitely waste in the field. And then when you bring it into the processing facilities, there’s waste. And then there’s waste in packaging and wholesale, and then in retail, and then [at] the consumer level.”
But what does 40 percent really look like? In 2014, Americans wasted a total of 38.4 million tons of food, according to an EPA study. The residential sector generated 56 percent of this food waste, the study said.
This waste has a cost — $165 billion each year, the NRDC reports. But the nutritional cost is sizable as well: the food thrown out in just 2012 alone could have provided more than 80 percent of American adults with 2,000 calories per day, according to a report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
And most of this waste is produce rich in vitamins and nutrients. In the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, nearly 50 percent of all fruits and vegetables produced are thrown away, according to the NRDC.
Amidst all this waste, groups in Los Angeles County are taking notice and taking action.
College Students Against Waste
Across the nation, 230 colleges have joined the fight against food waste in creating their own Food Recovery Network chapters. The nonprofit organization, which has collected and donated a total of two million pounds of food to date, aims to help students cut out waste in their higher education institutions, according to its website.
Pepperdine University’s chapter joined the cause in 2017. In its first semester on campus, the group recovered and donated 907 pounds of food from campus events, executive vice president and sophomore Ozie Le Sage said.
“We have plenty [of food],” Le Sage said. “We have so much, and just the idea of being able to reduce waste and give to people who need is something that I think really is important as a Christian and as a person trying to implement sustainable practices into my life and into the university.”
Pepperdine’s chapter recovered food mainly from catered events in its first semester, Le Sage said, but the focus for this semester is recovering unsold food from the newly built on-campus Starbucks.
The group is scheduled to collect unused food from the coffee chain three times per week, in addition to maintaining its recoveries at other campus events like Reelstories. While Starbucks sometimes gave up to 100 pounds of food last semester, they appear to be cutting back on orders this semester to waste less at the outset, Le Sage said.
All food collected by the group is donated to one of their three partner organizations. Their main partner organization, the Malibu Methodist Church, holds dinners for the homeless community each week.
“We give them food and then they bring it to the dinner,” Le Sage said. “Whatever we have for them they can give to the homeless people. One time we had some pastries, and they were like, ‘Oh, they ate the pastries as appetizers and loved it!’”
The Pepperdine chapter also donates to United States Mission in Canoga Park, which uses the food to feed those living in the organization’s transitional house while they search for work.
When they are able to collect especially large quantities of food — like the 450 bagels and 44 tubs of cream cheese they collected at Step Forward Day in September — Le Sage said they take it to the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, which serves hundreds of homeless individuals.
Finding these organizations and transporting the food to them have posed the largest challenges, Le Sage said. The three chapter leaders, including Le Sage, are the group’s only trained drivers, and the organizations range from 15 minutes to more than an hour away.
“In the early going it was really difficult finding organizations that we could donate to, because a lot of organizations can’t accept perishable food,” she said. Food Recovery Network also requires that receiving organizations be registered nonprofits and have refrigeration capabilities.
“They have all of these requirements because we want to make sure the food is being donated safely,” Le Sage said.
Volunteers recovering food from events take the temperature of hot foods and make sure the food hasn’t been sitting in the “danger zone” — between 41 and 135 degrees — for more than two hours. And they can only accept catered or prepackaged food, Le Sage added.
“Basically, if it doesn’t look like something I would eat, we don’t want to take it,” she said. “We don’t want to put anybody at any sort of risk.”
Le Sage said the group is always looking for opportunities to recover food on campus, and has worked with Sodexo, Pepperdine’s dining service, to include the option to have food recovered on their catering forms.
Student groups can also fill out a Google form for food recovery at their on-campus events.
“We’re just trying to reduce food waste in any way possible,” Le Sage said.
Pepperdine Dining Services, run by food purveyor Sodexo, is also taking action on an institutional level.
“I’m sure that each one of us has seen poverty and hungry people in different parts of the world and even in our own neighborhoods,” Resident District Manager Randy Penwell said. “We don’t want to be contributing to that in any fashion.”
Pepperdine’s meal point system reduces food waste that likely would have occurred with a buffet-style system, according to Pepperdine’s Center for Sustainability website.
On the food preparation side, the main focus is proper portioning, Penwell said. This means making the appropriate amount of each dish and serving appropriate portions to consumers.
“If it’s one of our regular staffers who’s been here for a long time doing [a] station, he knows exactly what he needs to prepare,” Penwell said. “If we have to substitute somebody in there, they may not know. They might overproduce or underproduce.”
Penwell said they typically overproduce for fear of running out of food, and this usually only occurs with entree-type dishes. And human generosity might complicate individual portioning when it comes to serving consumers.
“My crew, they want to be good people, and sometimes we over portion in that regard, so it can cause a little consternation in different areas.”
Any leftovers that have not been in contact with the public are reutilized if possible, turned into meals that can then be sold in Nature’s Edge, for example. Leftover cookies may be crumbled up to make a pie crust. Cookies that turn out too crispy might end up at the yogurt bar as a topping, Penwell said.
Any reutilized food must meet all appropriate Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points food safety requirements.
“We’re not giving people a bad product; it’s not a product that’s going to jeopardize someone’s health,” Penwell said.
If the meal doesn’t sell there, it’s likely headed for the trash. If there’s an “abundance” of that type of food, Dining Services might reach out to the Food Recovery Network to donate it, but Penwell said this is not common and most of the donations they give come from catered events.
Dining Services determines how much of each dish is prepared using history — if a dish has sold well in the past, they may make more. New dishes require the equivalent of an educated guess.
Historical data also plays a star role in ordering produce and ingredients, Director of Operations Elizabeth Nepute said. They order ingredients and produce based off a “par set” — what they’ve found they need in the past — and do daily inventories to adjust as needed. Ensuring that older food is used before new arrivals is also key to reducing waste, Nepute added.
“[Food waste reduction] is a daily goal of ours too because we’re also trying to run a business,” Nepute said.
Pepperdine Dining Services uses LeanPath, a food waste prevention service that logs the weight of any food waste before it is thrown away. The service then provides analytics and suggestions on how to reduce waste.
Penwell said he thinks the data collected for this program skews the perception of how much food is wasted slightly, because this includes the weight of things like watermelon rinds and other trimmings that are not necessarily edible.
Crown Disposal, Pepperdine’s waste management service, also composts waste materials from Dining Services. Fruits and vegetables used in the food are all chopped in-house, Nepute said, so Dining Services contributes hundreds of pounds of composting each week.
Aside from official programs, Penwell said it’s common for administrators, faculty and staff to show up after catered events to eat leftovers, but he doesn’t mind. He’d rather the food be eaten, he said, which is why Dining Services tries to support any food waste reduction efforts they can.
“It doesn’t benefit any of us … to throw that in the trash,” Penwell said.
Rick Nahmias, executive director of Food Forward, started the nonprofit after going on a walk with his dog around his neighborhood. Ventura County Branch Manager Jill Santos said Nahmias lived near a food pantry and saw people walking out with processed foods often.
As he walked through his neighborhood, Nahmias noticed “fresh produce just dropping from the trees,” Santos said. So he organized a fruit collection, which soon turned into a bustling nonprofit.
Food Forward now serves the Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties with about 200 volunteer events each month. Since its start in 2009, Food Forward has recovered 50 million pounds of produce and donated it to about 300 receiving agencies. Last year, the organization had 9,000 volunteers.
“Our short mission is to fight hunger, reduce food waste and build community,” Santos said. “I would say that it’s a really simple solution to this complex food justice issue that we have in the United States and even globally.”
The organization recovers produce from backyards, farmers markets, orchards and wholesale markets.
Santos said the backyard picks are “the heart of the organization,” and still represent most of the recoveries that take place in L.A. County, since there aren’t as many large orchards in the area.
Food Forward will send volunteers to recover from backyards with at least 200 pieces of fruit to donate — roughly 40 pounds of produce. Those who don’t have that much can sign up for a DIY pick. The organization will send information, pickers and boxes to the homeowner and connect them with a food pantry in their neighborhood.
“We get a lot of like … the adorable little old lady that can’t pick it herself,” Santos said.
In the last year, Santos estimates they recovered roughly half a million pounds of produce from backyards alone.
Food Forward’s wholesale recovery program, started in 2014, brings in the most produce.
“Right now it’s recovering about a million pounds a month out of the Downtown LA Wholesale Market,” Santos said. The Ventura County branch, which started collecting wholesale produce in 2017, ended the year with 191,000 pounds of recovered wholesale product.
“There’s a huge opportunity to recover,” Santos said.
Wholesale food can be unsold for various reasons, Santos said, including economics, market factors, climate, produce quality or shipping dates. Food Forward wants to make sure that food still gets eaten. The roughly 300 agencies that receive the recovered produce include food pantries, church organizations, homelessness aid organizations and veterans groups.
Food Forward ships recovered food as far as Washington State and Las Vegas, but most produce stays in Southern California.
There are benefits for farmers and property owners who decide to donate their unsold crop, Santos said. Each receives a receipt stating how many pounds were donated, which can be used for tax purposes.
Some orchards also allow Food Forward volunteers to come into the fields after they’ve done their first picks to take any leftover produce. Many of the organization’s orchard recoveries come from fields in Ventura County, which is ranked eleventh in the nation for crop value.
The largest challenge the organization faces, Santos said, tends to be connecting the produce with those who will receive it. The organization often works with food pantries and small community organizations that often have limited budgets and capacity. And Food Forward doesn’t store any of the produce they collect. Moving about one million pounds of produce each month requires a massive amount of infrastructure.
“Believe it or not, there’s cases where we have so much abundance that here in Ventura County, we don’t have the resources to get it [to receivers] and we’re overwhelming our existing partnerships,” Santos said.
The organization is looking for ways to expand their reach beyond the local region for situations like these. During citrus season, for example, they have enormous quantities of oranges, she said, and their existing partner agencies can only take so many.
In addition to distributing to individual agencies, Food Forward holds monthly free farmers markets in Simi Valley in partnership with Simi at the Garden. Community members can come and simply take any produce they want, free of cost. They’ve implemented versions of this program in LA and in areas affected by the Thomas fire earlier this year.
“We’ll be supplying like 10 receiving agencies which then obviously serve hundreds if not thousands of people, and then we have about 300 families [that will] show up at this event once a month,” Santos said. “And just the look on their faces and the demographic that comes — it’s the whole spectrum of the community. There’s nobody that we turn away.”
Santos said she enjoys that people are excited to try new things at these events. One free farmers market that featured pounds of turnips led to googling how to prepare and eat them.
“People were excited to try something new,” she said. “And they were just so grateful that they were contributing to something that is helping the environment as well. Like, ‘I’m going to eat this food, and it’s not going to go to the landfill. Well this is really cool.’”
Follow Cassandra Stephenson on Twitter: @CassieKay27