Special Reports

State ag board puts focus on reducing food waste

SACRAMENTO -- Reducing food waste and finding ways to provide unmarketable or surplus food to the hungry is taking on greater importance in the state, California agriculture officials say.

The State Board of Food and Agriculture convened a panel of experts during its Tuesday board meeting to better understand the issue and sort out how to raise awareness of the problem.

"It saddens me to know that we witness food insecurity at the same time that we are talking about food waste," said Craig McNamara, president of the state board, which advises the governor and the state Department of Food and Agriculture secretary. "But this is something that we can tackle in California."

State board officials say the issue of food waste is especially important, given that California is the largest agricultural producer in the nation and one of the top 10 leading states for food insecurity in the nation.

RELATED STORY: Fresno-area farmers work to reduce food waste, feed hungry

California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said the state has set a goal to double the amount of produce donated to the California Association of Food Banks' Farm to Family program. The program collects fresh produce that, in some cases, would be culled and donates it to the state's food banks.

Ross said she would like to see that amount of donated food doubled from 100 million pounds to 200 million pounds by 2015.

"We want to be able to turn excess into access," Ross said.

The discussion of food waste has become a hot topic nationally, fueled in part by a report last year from the Natural Resources Defense Council. It's the subject of an occasional series in The Bee about food waste in the Valley titled, "Our Wasted Bounty."

RELATED STORY: Valley restaurants work to feed the poor with leftovers

The environmental group found that 40% of the food produced in the United States is wasted. The NRDC estimated the waste amounted to more than 20 pounds of food per person every month.

Dana Gunders, project scientist for the NRDC, said the report found waste at all levels of the food supply chain, from the farm to the home.

At the farm, Gunders said, waste occurs because of overplanting, market fluctuations, labor shortages and product-grading standards.

"One grower told us that he has 200,000 pounds of peaches a week that he can't sell because of defects," Gunders said.

Among the solutions NRDC proposed is to make more growers aware of tax credits for donating food, create more flexibility in produce-grading standards, and raise consumer awareness about food waste.

Ross agreed consumers must play a part in reducing the amount of food tossed at home.

"We have created a stigma that if you are not eating fresh, it is not as good for you," Ross said. "But we need to educate consumers and make them feel comfortable about all the food choices they make."

Board members also heard from a Monterey County-based farmers group that has been reducing food waste for more than 20 years.

The group -- Ag Against Hunger -- has donated 200 million pounds of vegetables and fruit to food banks since it began 23 years ago.

Lindsay Coate, executive director of Ag Against Hunger, said the organization also has begun trading its produce with other food banks in the state, including Fresno's. It also operates a gleaning program that has 1,000 volunteers.

Board members said they wished Coate's group could be replicated throughout the state.

"How can we clone you?" McNamara said.

Coate said the Monterey County group would not exist without the support of the growers in the region.

"There has to be pride and ownership in order for this to work," she said.

Bob Gore, an agriculture consultant, told the board that the timing is right for looking at food waste, adding that the board can help coordinate the various efforts going on in the state.

"There are a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of good things," Gore said. "And what they need to do is be connected."