Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…Recover

335,000 people in Orange County are facing food insecurity each month. Among them is J.C. Rairan, a construction worker from Lake Forest recently out of work.  

By Nate Voge

In the parking lot outside of the South County Outreach (SCO) food pantry, J.C. Rairan, a short, middle-aged man with one headphone in his ear, loads some groceries into the trunk of his car. Just the basics, he says: eggs, milk, bread, maybe some extra sweets. Rairan, a construction worker from Lake Forest, has recently been out of work.  

Due to the high cost of living and lack of steady income, Rairan occasionally visits food pantries to save money for other expenses. “We save quite a lot and are able to make a car payment due to not having to buy a bunch of groceries,” Rarian says as he finishes loading his groceries and closes the trunk of his car. “The grocery stores are so expensive.”

Rairan is one of the 335,000 people in Orange County facing food insecurity each month. South County Outreach, according to Director of Operations Renee Stevenson, helps feed 2,000 to 3,000 of those Orange County residents each month. It helps in another way by recovering food that would have been thrown out by grocery stores and restaurants. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 31 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted, and Business Insider reported that grocery stores are responsible for 10 percent of food waste, which represents about 13 billion pounds of food wasted annually.  

Stevenson said their food recovery program at South County Outreach uses a team of 27 drivers to pick up food from grocery stores like Whole Foods, Albertsons, and Ralphs every morning. Dairy, meat, fresh fruits, and vegetables make up most of the grocery recovery— and since these items are nutritious, they’re the most important to the clients.  

The recovered food is weighed, inspected, organized, and put on the shelves at South County Outreach that day. “If you wouldn’t eat it, I’m not feeding it [to anybody],” Stevenson said. SCO’s recovered perishable food increased 25 percent from last year.  

Besides helping to fight hunger, food recovery programs also lessen the environmental effects of waste. Patti Larson, executive director of the Southern California food recovery organization Food Finders, wrote in an email, “By throwing away food, we are also wasting the resources that went into growing it. And, when we figure that billions of pounds of food in our landfills is perfectly good, edible food, and it causes greenhouse gas emissions—there’s no reason for that to continue.” The EPA website stated that 18 percent of methane emissions that come out of landfills are from wasted food. The 8.5 million pounds of food that Food Finders recovered last year had the same environmental impact as taking 575 cars off the road for an entire year, according to Larson.    

Three years ago the South County Outreach pantry, the largest in Southern Orange County, adopted the “client choice” model, where instead of each client receiving a box of food, they pick out what they need. The pantry looks like a small grocery store. There are shopping carts, aisles with bread, pasta and canned goods, a small toiletries section, fridges with milk, yogurt and juice, a freezer section, and fresh produce. Stacked on a table by the fridges are some Pizza Hut pizzas, extras made by mistake, Stevenson said.  

The “client choice” model not only gives the clients more dignity, Stevenson said, it also caters to their specific needs. For example, a homeless person might take a small amount of non-perishable items and some fully cooked food donated from restaurants, like the pizza, while a client like Rairan will take perishable staples recovered from grocery stores like eggs and milk.

Every time a client comes to South County Outreach, one the 150 weekly volunteers walks with them through the pantry to help with the process. One of these volunteers, Lily Ellis, who works full-time as a barber at Belltower Barber Shop, comes in every Monday with her husband.

She steps away from the boxes of oranges she’s sorting to explain her reason for volunteering. “You really see that a lot of people are struggling. They’re not lazy people. They’re just people that just make minimum wage, and it’s not enough, not enough,” she said. Ellis said she feels blessed she is able to help those less fortunate than herself.

Five percent of South County Outreach clients are homeless, 11 percent are seniors on fixed income, and 39 percent are children, according to Stevenson.

More than half of the clients are in and out in three visits to the pantry, and SCO serves about 750 new families each year. “If we can be here to help a little bit, then that’s OK. It’s not someone relying every single month on our services,” Stevenson said.

While South County Outreach distributes food and specializes in grocery recovery, the Orange County Food Access Coalition (OCFAC) helps fill the gaps in the fight against hunger. Director Christina Hall said some of the biggest factors regarding hunger in Orange County are the perception that everyone here is wealthy and the high cost of living for those who aren’t. With an emphasis on nutrition, OCFAC advocates to change food policies, conducts research, connects agencies, and recovers fruit from backyards with their “Harvest Club” program.  

Lindsey Harrison, volunteer coordinator and head of the Harvest Club, said teams of volunteers will glean fruit, mostly citrus, from homes and transport it to South County Outreach and other area pantries.The Harvest Club recovered more than 81,000 pounds of fruit from 458 volunteer residences, and delivered to 77 different agencies, according to OCFAC’s 2016 impact report.    

“We’re hoping to change the conversation with the homeowners, with the volunteers, so that they can see the kind of untapped resources around and funnel those resources where they can be used the best,” Harrison said.

Nate Voge is a Literary Journalism major at UC Irvine with an interest in food writing. He is a cook on a food truck, and after graduating, he plans on traveling out of country to volunteer on organic farms.

“If we know more about how food gets to our plates, we gain insight into bigger issues like food insecurity, health, and sustainability.”

Nate can be reached at [email protected].

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