WALLA WALLA - For professionals like Ken and Fred Thompson a food heist is a seamless operation.
"We're usually in and out in under 10 minutes," says Fred Thompson as he carts gray tubs laden with food inconspicuously out the back doors of Albertsons. The brothers repeat the whole operation three times a week, making off with anywhere from 400-600 pounds of frozen meat and dairy, and fresh produce - if they can get it. Biweekly, the brothers perform a similar operation at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in College Place.
Luckily for the grocers, these sly burglars work for the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank, which means they're only interested in items that are close to or on their "sell by" date, or are just not quite up to snuff for paying customers.
As the thrifty among us certainly know, most food remains edible and nutritious for at least a few days past the sell-by date, and if frozen, meat, dairy, bread and other perishables can stay good for quite a bit longer than that.
Thus, for the past year Wal-Mart and Albertsons have teamed-up with the Food Bank to get unsellable but still edible foods to the needy in town. So far, according to BMAC records, the Food Bank has collected 61,841 pounds of food from Wal-Mart and 41,176 from Albertsons in the past year.
According to St. Vincent de Paul's charity food manager Jack Pinza, this infusion of meat, dairy and produce has greatly helped food banks in town to provide nutritious foods to more people during increasing demand.
"With Albertsons and Wal-Mart pitching in ... we haven't had to give out hot dogs in a long time because we've had some higher quality protein," Pinza said.
Just over a year ago, the food that is now being used to help the needy cobble together a wholesome diet was simply being trashed at Albertsons and Wal-Mart. But according to BMAC Food Bank Manager Gail McGhee, Albertsons and Wal-Mart are the only two grocers in town that systematically donate to BMAC.
Are other grocers throwing away thousands of pounds of food that could be feeding the needy? If so, are there legal, financial and/or logistical circumstances that encourage them to do so?
Safeway spokeswoman Cherie Myers said Safeway's primary concern is to provide quality, affordable food to its customers. She said stores make every effort to send foods that are no longer marketable but are still nutritionally sound to local charities. In the case of Walla Walla, Myers said food went to the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank.
"We don't want to feed the Dumpster; we want to feed the customer," Myers said.
According to Pinza, Safeway's donations have been limited to day-old baked goods and breads, and the food bank receives other food from Safeway only "once in a great while."
Myers said that's partially because Safeway has a strict policy against donating frozen meats, which she said pose too great a risk of spreading food-borne illnesses.
But according to Barry Jenkins, director of environmental health for the Walla Walla County Health Department, freezing and distributing meats that reach their "sell by" dates is safe as long as the meat is handled properly. Jenkins said local food banks and other charities do a good job inspecting the food they receive.
"Most of them (food charity organizations) have somebody who's pretty well trained ... most of them are not taking chances on the products," Jenkins said.
Speaking for Safeway, Myers demurred. "If the Health Department went where the food was stored, they probably wouldn't have food banks, if they were held to the same standards (as businesses)."
State and federal Good Samaritan laws state individuals and companies that donate food in good faith are exempt from any legal liability, and the burden of ensuring the food is fit for consumption rests with the food distributors, not those who donate.
When asked why Safeway doesn't seem to donate non-bakery items in Walla Walla, Myers said managerial practices and technological advances have allowed the company to avoid overstocking, which explains why Safeway's food donations have "dwindled" over the years.
According to Christian Aid Center Executive Director Jason Wicklund, the Plaza Way Safeway has had food to give and has consistently provided his organization with "coveted" dairy goods. However, Wicklund said his group hasn't received donations from the Rose Street Safeway in a long while.
Super 1, which is owned by Rosauers Supermarkets, is assessing an expansion of its current donations. Store Manager Fabian McFeron said his store had been donating bakery items, superficially damaged cans and occasional food surpluses to BMAC, but had not consistently donated non-bakery perishables, like meat, produce and dairy, because of concerns about liability.
But Rosauer's President Jeff Philipps said the chain does not have a policy against donating perishables, and the company has worked extensively with Second Harvest in Spokane to provide food banks with lunch meat, dairy, bakery and produce as well as dry goods.
"We'll be happy to visit with the local food banks there (in Walla Walla) and have them explain to us what they have in mind, and help eliminate some of the waste that's ending up in landfills so that it can be utilized by others," Philipps said.
McFeron later clarified his remarks, and said the liabilities he spoke of concerned donations to individuals rather than food banks. Fabian said Super 1 would be happy to work with BMAC to expand donations on perishable items.
Representatives from smaller, locally owned grocers like Andy's Market, Grocery Outlet and Walla Walla's Harvest Foods, said their food excesses are not as extensive as those of the big corporations, because costs for food waste are absorbed directly by the store owners, who are not supported by larger corporate networks revenue.
Harvest Foods owner Nolan Lockwood said his store freezes extra meat that is close to, or on its "sell by" date and sells it to St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank, for what Lockwood described as a "very, very good price."
However, according to Lockwood, dairy and produce are another story.
"There are a lot of things like our produce items, once those have been culled we give those to one of the animal farmers, and he uses that product for feed ... most of the dairy items that we have, because of concerns about product integrity, those are destroyed," Lockwood said.
Andy's Market provides the Christain Aid Center with what Jason Wicklund described as "generous" weekly food donations, but the store has a relatively small dairy and meat section, and also gives unsellable produce to a local farmer.
Grocery Outlet owner Gary Wiley said the store is not able to donate much in the way of perishable food items. Wiley said meat can often be frozen to get more shelf life at the store, and the store is still in the process of refining its meat policies.
"Meat is actually a new item for us. We're still trying to work through with that," Wiley said. He said the store has very little waste.
Wiley said produce cannot be donated, because it would require too much extra time and labor for trimming (so the product would remain up to edible standards), and the store lacks adequate storage to hold old products while waiting for BMAC or other charity organizations to make a pickup.
"Rotation is very important to us. We try to keep everything in and out moving." Wiley said.
And what about restaurants and large caterers? According to Gail McGhee with BMAC, food banks in town aren't certified to distribute already prepared foods and therefore do not seek donations from restaurants. But organizations such as the Christian Aid Center and Senior Round Table Nutrition Programs can receive prepared food.
However, Wicklund said the only restaurant/caterer from which the center consistently receives donations is Walla Walla Catering Company.
According to many restaurants and caterers, these operations don't consistently donate because their success hinges on making their waste negligible.
"For a restaurant to survive in this economic climate, you can't have any waste ... in order to survive restaurants have to watch their pennies, and now they're watching half-pennies," said Bob Parish with Backstage Bistro.
For Bon Appetit Management Co., which provides daily meals and banquets for Whitman students, the problem hasn't been a lack of food, but a lack of staff to get leftover food to charities.
"We try to interact with the student population. They are often involved in taking leftovers different places in town. Some semesters we have a lot of participation, and some semesters there is less," said Prentiss Hall Manager Susan Todhunter, who said students have been able to deliver extra food to the Senior Round Table only a few nights a week and only from one of the company's two dining halls.
Todhunter said Bon Appetit worked with Christain Aid Center years ago, but the program ended for reasons that are unclear. But Todhunter said she is interested in having the center make scheduled morning pick-ups to help put some of that food to good use.
"I think there's a need to make another connection ... because if people are willing to work, and there's a need, then I think that we can make some adjustments," Todhunter said.
She also said Bon Appetit is considering incorporating the distribution of food into the company's responsibilities to help streamline the process and get food to those who need it.
Omar Ihmoda can be reached at email@example.com.