America's bounty keeps food banks busy

``If it's not fresh, it's not legal.'' That's the motto of the Legal Seafood restaurants, promising just-caught fish for finicky palates. Unfortunately, it also means that what's not eaten at the end of the day must go. Across the country, restaurants, farmers, grocers, and manufacturers face tons of surplus, slightly damaged, or unwanted food that US standards deem ``edible but unmarketable.'' Although a portion of the food will be redistributed by food banks or relief groups, most of it - approximately 137 million tons of it each year - will go into the trash.

Who's to blame? Everyone, says Westy Egmont, head of the Boston Food Bank. In the food business, he says, ``waste happens at every stage.''

Not only do statistics show that 20 percent of the food produced in the US is lost between the field and the table, but Mr. Egmont says approximately 20 percent of the food prepared in America's kitchens is never eaten. Reports from a study at the University of Arizona say about $11.7 billion worth of edible food is wasted in US homes each year. That's enough to feed all of Canada, the report says.

Meanwhile, with federal food-program funding cut by more than $12 billion since 1980, at least 20 million Americans - ones who could have turned to foodstamps or school lunches for a square meal a decade ago - are now insufficiently fed, according to government figures released yesterday.

In a nation where plates are, more often than not, piled high with food that no one is expected to eat, malnourishment is absurd, says Egmont. So his organization - affiliated with some 200 other food banks in a network called Second Harvest - is trying to put a little sense back into the system.

Tucked back in an old warehouse in the Roxbury section of Boston, the six-year old Boston Food Bank serves as a non-profit clearinghouse for food solicited from the private sector. Food made unmarketable as a result of mislabeling, overproduction, or other superficial flaws is donated to the Food Bank. It is then stored, triply checked, and redistributed on a daily basis to some 600 qualified charitable groups.

So far this year more than 4 million pounds of donated and surplus food have passed through the BFB, valued at approximately $8.5 million. And in keeping with Second Harvest's policy of ``tight-ship'' management, BFB, which charges its shoppers 12 cents per pound of food, spends only $1 for every $121 worth of food distributed.

Food banking can help solve the problem of redistribution, but as Egmont suggests, one of the basic causes of waste is lack of responsibility. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule.

For example, Legal Seafood's owner, George Berkowitz, developed a ``quick chill'' system to help redistribute the unused food. Some of Legal's chefs volunteer Saturdays to prepare high-protein meals. The meals are extremely popular with the soup kitchens, says Kristin Stangeby, who runs the selling floor.

On the college level, Smith College in Northampton, Mass., has a system in which a student can notify the college dining services when she is going to miss a meal during vacation periods. Smith then donates 10 cents for that meal to the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and, at the same time, avoids wasting a helping.

Tufts University, outside Boston, has also adopted a program to help students take responsibility for food waste. Excess prepared food is taken daily from the dining halls to a local soup kitchen.

Egmont says that while the food bank concept may be ``the most logical, immediate `band-aid' available'' for food waste,there is no substitute for government programs. And the problems of overproduction, poor distribution, and hunger will continue until the US has a more economically just society, he says.

Other problems, he says, are that in a culture oriented toward highly processed food, serving sizes are predetermined by the packager. A single-serving package can sometimes hold enough for two, and most Americans, he says, tend to throw out leftovers after a day or two. He also attributes excessive waste to American trendiness. As long as a product is in vogue, he says, retailers cannot keep enough on the shelf. When the fads change, a surplus is almost inevitable.

That's when the food bank comes to the rescue. ``[At BFB] we just watch for the trendy ads and then wait for the food to come in.''

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