Wednesday, January 11, 2011 | Each day in Orange County, people numbering in the tens of thousands need help feeding themselves and their families. And hundreds of organizations — including food banks, churches and others — work to meet this need.

Over the years, these groups have developed a distribution network that has proved to be effective in transporting canned fruits and vegetables, processed meats, dairy products, and other mass-produced food to soup kitchens, shelters and food banks throughout the 790-square-mile county.

But as good as the system is, it doesn’t regularly take advantage of all that grocery stores and restaurants are willing to donate. And it’s just beginning to tap into the high-quality, backyard-grown fruits and vegetables that could provide a nutrition boost to the hungry.

The Orange County Food Access Coalition has set out to end this waste and make sure that not only is available food distributed, but also that a whole new source of local agriculture and volunteers are brought to the cause.

The fledgling nonprofit, founded in August with the help of large food banks and a grocery chain, wants local governments, businesses and nonprofits to work together to get “healthy, locally sourced food” to those who need it.

That means, said Executive Director Gillian Poe, finding ways to tap all sources of healthy food, including that grown in backyard gardens and on fruit trees, and developing distribution systems.

A Not-So-Simple Plan

It sounds simple. Just gather up all the food that would otherwise go to waste — from grocery stores and restaurants and from backyard gardens bursting with tomatoes, avocados and oranges — and deliver them to needy families, seniors and the homeless.

But developing a solid, workable plan for all of this, including recruiting volunteers, finding money to pay staffers, working out pickup and delivery systems for the entire county, harvesting locally grown produce and making sure needy communities aren’t left out, is a major challenge.

Grocery stores have been criticized for not doing enough to ensure that good food isn’t just thrown away when it reaches the date at which it no longer can be sold. But the risks posed by perishable items are very real for those responsible for distributing them to the hungry.

Milk and cheese, for example, need to be kept refrigerated from the moment they leave the grocery store until they reach those who need it. Refrigeration trucks are expensive, and increasing such distribution will take money.

Just collecting nonperishable items, like canned goods, requires volunteers or staffers to travel to grocery stores, pick up the food, and take it to distribution centers, where it is sorted and packed into boxes or bags, making sure there is a nutritious mix of meat, vegetables and other items.

Providing nutritious meals for Orange County’s estimated 8,000 homeless, who on any given day find themselves living on the streets and sleeping along the railroad tracks or in a dark corner on the grounds of an office building, means packing bags of groceries with items like peanut butter or canned meat that don’t need to be cooked or refrigerated.

All these and other difficulties are exacerbated by the poor economy and high unemployment that have, throughout the county, increased demand from those who are having difficulty feeding themselves and their families.

“What is it that’s hampering our ability to distribute this food?” Poe asked. “Somebody has to go get that food.” And that, she said, “costs money.”

“It sounds really simple, but there’s dollars and cents involved.”

Looking for a Better Distribution System

Poe and others believe that despite these realities there is plenty of healthful food out there, and she’s looking for experts on distribution systems to help develop an efficient, practical plan for gathering and distributing more of the county’s surplus food.

Some groups, like Irvine-based Second Harvest, the county’s largest food distribution nonprofit and a member of the Food Access Coalition, have a sophisticated system that includes a 121,000 square foot warehouse at the Great Park in Irvine and refrigerated trucks that allow them to deliver food to 475 food banks and service centers throughout the county.

“We’re the largest hunger relief organization in Orange County,” spokeswoman Kathie Monroe said. Its trucks pick up donations from grocery stores like Albertson’s, Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart and Target and distribute an average of 1 million pounds of food a month.

Among the organizations it serves is the Orange County Rescue Mission, which cares for an average of 450 people each night.

But as good as those programs are, they don’t reach every family and individual in need. Some people don’t know about the programs or lack transportation. Others spend scarce resources on junk food and high-calorie snacks, unaware of the healthier alternatives available through food banks and the dangers of child obesity. And even though huge amounts of food are collected and distributed, there’s still more out there.

One part of the solution to the distribution conundrum is the Santa Ana-based Grain Project. It’s much smaller than Second Harvest but is concentrating on a different approach: helping people grow some of their own food and gatherign surpluses from backyard gardens.

Lara Montagne, director of the Grain Project, received $65,000 in federal stimulus funds last year to launch a 6-month community harvest program.

Within five months, the Grain Project, which also is part of the Food Access Coalition, collected more than 7,000 pounds of backyard vegetables, herbs and fruit and transferred it from gardens to 254 families.

Even with little advertising, Montagne said word spread, and gardeners from Costa Mesa, Tustin and Newport Beach began donating their homegrown produce.

“It’s community building — neighbors helping neighbors,” she said.

But the challenge is finding enough volunteers to collect backyard produce from those who grow it and delivering it to those who need it.

The Grain Project also runs a community garden in Santa Ana, where residents get together to plant and share their harvest. Residents are also taught how to plant a patio garden or a hanging basket garden.

This program is particularly needed in places like Santa Ana, which have sections Montagne calls “a food desert” of junk food, fast food chains and liquor stores, but few, if any, places to buy healthful food.

The Food Access Coalition is striving to put all of the county’s food resources — grocery stores, restaurants and home-grown produce — together under a distribution system that collects as much as possible and gets healthy food to those who need it most.

“People can’t sustain themselves on fruit and vegetables alone,” said Poe, anymore than they should only eat meat or bread. The goal, she said, is to make sure those who need it, “get a nutritious meal on a regular basis.”

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