One in five households with children in the United States faces food insecurity; that’s more than 17 million households. Programs like SNAP and EBT provide something of a safety net, but not all families are covered, and not all families covered by such programs are entirely free from the specter of hunger. To fill that gap in the United States, smaller institutions at the community level provide food aid. A key part of this hunger relief infrastructure are food banks.
The Issue With Food Banks
Unfortunately, the principle objective of food banks – feeding as many hungry people as possible – is sometimes in conflict with another important imperative: ensuring that the food that they provide to people is safe to eat. Without guidelines on what food is acceptable to collect and distribute, food banks might inadvertently sicken the population that they’re trying to help. If the rules by which they have to abide are too strict, however, there’s a possibility that the food available to them could be limited, thus interfering with the food bank’s key function. There is also a growing concern that those with means donate recalled food items to food banks, without informing food banks that the items they are donating are recalled. Hence, could also open up those needing safe food to foodborne illness.
This tension is complicated by a key difference between food banks and commercial businesses that serve food to customers. Commercial businesses buy their food from producers or distributors; those producers and distributors are regulated by the government to ensure that their products are safe to eat. Food banks, however, aren’t in the business of buying food. They are in the business of collecting and distributing food; there is rarely a monetary transaction and sometimes, not even a record. Their principal source of food is from donations; often, those donations come from individuals or non-commercial organizations that aren’t subject to the same regulatory framework as businesses who sell food for commercial purposes. The sources of food donated to food banks vary widely and is often unknown. So is the history of the food in question, which may have changed hands multiple times before it arrives at the food bank. Documents in the chain of custody are scare, if even in existence at all.
The typical customer base of food banks is different than that of a commercial food establishments. Food banks typically provide for marginalized or underserved populations – populations that often include the elderly, the very young, or individuals with various medical problems, including nutritional deficiencies. These people are at higher risk of adverse consequences from foodborne illness like salmonella or E. coli. So, essentially, people who are at the highest risk of long-term complications of foodborne illness are even more at risk due to the under regulation of the food they receive from food banks.
Food Banks Are Not the Bad Guys. We Can All Do Better
Food banks often handle staffing differently than commercial food establishments as well. Restaurants are staffed by paid employees. There’s a clear hierarchy in their kitchens and the employees who work there are typically trained in food safety and licensed as food handlers. Because food banks are not for profit organizations, they do not usually have as many regular employees on their payroll. Food banks rely on volunteer labor, which is much more irregular than a model that relies on paid staff. The volunteers might not stay for extended periods of time, which can complicate training them in proper food safety techniques. Because volunteer labor is unpaid, it can also sometimes be difficult to properly motivate volunteer staff to follow rules that are in place to ensure food safety.
Despite these various difficulties, there are several steps that food banks can take to ensure that a proper balance is struck between helping as many people as possible and maintaining an appropriate food safety standard.
First, food banks need guidelines as to what food they will and won’t accept, and screening processes in place to make sure that those guidelines are followed. Feeding America is the largest network of food banks in the USA. On their website, they spell out the guidelines that members of their organization must follow. They follow the same rules for acceptable food as food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants. They also employ third-party auditors to ensure that the guidelines set out by Feeding America are followed.
Other useful tips: don’t accept salvageable food that’s a bit compromised by fire, flood, or some other event but can still be eaten. That works if you’re a freegan dumpster diving for you own kitchen, but it’s too risky for an official organization like a food bank. Stick to non-perishable foods, check their expiration dates, and make judgement calls about whether or not they’re still good to serve. Refrigerate low-hazard perishable foods, like fruit and vegetables, and dispose of them if they start to turn – you don’t want the unpleasant odors or flies that come with. Take extra care with more hazardous perishable foods, like meat or milk; take care that they’re packaged correctly, designate separate areas for their storage and preparation, and use specially-trained volunteers or team members to deal with them.
Speaking of volunteers: although they’re not employees, you should treat them like they are. Make sure that relevant labor is licensed to handle food, if that’s what they’re doing – even in cases where resources are stretched thin and certifications seem onerous. Make sure that volunteers practice proper hygiene (including the ever-important proper washing of hands, which is a pillar of food safety). Equip them with gloves and hairnets so that they don’t accidentally contaminate the food that they’re handling.
And lastly, when you donate to a food bank, think about the food you would want to eat. Don’t donate expired, recalled, or tainted food to food banks. If it is perishable, make sure it is properly stored (hot or cold) on its way to delivery or donation. A hungry person is a person, too. We all deserve to eat safe food.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)