The Waste Not Orange County Coalition is a public-private partnership that increases the flow of — and access to — wholesome nutrition for food-insecure families.
Dr. Eric Handler is a pediatrician — and the Public Health Officer for Orange County, California. Over four years ago, he was attending a meeting in Sacramento, the state capital, and met Mark Lowry, Director of the Orange County Food Bank. “We spoke for an hour, and during our conversation, it struck me to ask Mark if he had enough food in the Food Bank to meet the demand and he replied ‘no’,” recalls Handler. “In response, I asked that if we were to capture all the wholesome food thrown out in Orange County, could we end hunger? And he said yes. That changed my life. I wanted, as both a pediatrician and the Orange County Public Health Officer, to make that happen.”
That conversation prompted a brainstorming of ideas to eliminate food insecurity in the county, which ultimately led to formation of Waste Not OC (Orange County) Coalition (WNOC) in November 2012. Handler and Lowry became the leaders of the WNOC Steering Committee. The Coalition is a public-private partnership formed with the goal of eliminating hunger and reducing food waste by facilitating donation of wholesome surplus food from food producing facilities to local pantries. WNOC partners with Food Finders, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that transports excess wholesome food from hospitals, restaurants and other businesses and institutions to food pantries in Orange County.
“The overall vision of WNOC is to end hunger in Orange County using a three pronged approach: Educating the community about food donations, identifying food insecure individuals and connecting those individuals to sources of food,” explains Handler. “Hunger is often perceived as a problem too big, too overwhelming for one community to handle. The solution to food insecurity lies in triaging responsibilities across programs in the county health department, private businesses, nonprofits, other organizations, and individuals.”
Since its founding, “305 TONS (500,013 meals) of newly recovered food have been given to those in need!,” announces a ticker on WNOC’s home page (www.wastenotoc.org). “Those metrics are the most important to us, which is why they are the first thing people see when visiting our website,” adds Handler.
Dr. Handler and Mike Haller, Orange County Environmental Health’s Food and Pool Safety Program Manager, were Keynote Speakers at BioCycle’s April 4, 2016 workshop, Wasted Food Prevention And Rescue, at BioCycle’s WEST COAST16 Conference in San Diego. After the Conference, we spoke with Handler and Haller about a range of topics — from “institutionalizing” food donation from food producers to connecting food insecure families to wholesome food at Orange County pantries.
Assessing The Need
BioCycle: How widespread is food insecurity in Orange County?
Handler: By our calculations, 335,000 Orange County residents — about 1 in 8 — face food insecurity on any given day. That includes 1 in 5 children. People are surprised by that statistic, given the wealth in some of our County’s communities. Feeding America provides statistics on food insecurity using its application, Map The Meal Gap. In 2013, 12.9 percent of the population in Orange County faced food insecurity. In 2014 the percentage dropped to 10.9 percent in part due to Waste Not OC.
But as the Orange County Public Health Officer, it’s important to share a broader perspective on this issue: Social determinants of health are housing, employment and hunger. If these determinants aren’t addressed, we will not be able to address health of our population in a sustainable manner. It is difficult because all three are such large issues that many people don’t know where to dip their toe in the ocean to address them. Having myself and others say we can make a difference with hunger is huge.
BioCycle: What tools does the County use to screen for food insecurity?
Handler: Prior to WNOC’s formation, doctors were reluctant to screen for food insecurity because they did not have the proper tools at hand to help their patients. Now, with WNOC’s food pantry Google Map, they are able to direct their patients to nearby pantries with ease.
We developed a set of Standard Practices for Clinics to address the relationship between food insecurity and health. Standard Practice #1 is to screen patients for food insecurity. This includes a 2-item screening tool with three possible answers — “often true,” “sometimes true,” or “never true” — used by health care professionals to quickly identify households with young children at risk for food insecurity, which enables providers to target services to ameliorate the health and developmental consequences associated with food insecurity.
The two prompts are:
- Within the past 12 months we worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.
- Within the past 12 months the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to get more.
If they screen positive — often or sometimes true — they may go through health assessments and will be connected with WNOC’s food pantry Google Map. Screening is now done at all 15 of the County’s Family Resource Centers, Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) as well as at other health care facilities servicing families. Over 40,000 people have been screened.
BioCycle: Is this screening unique to the Orange County health care system?
Handler: No, we see it being adopted in more cities and counties. In fact, this screening is so critical that in 2015-2016, Universal Screening for Hunger/Food Insecurity During Office Visits, was #7 on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Top Priorities. It’s incredible that something so small as asking two questions is so huge in making a difference.
BioCycle: Has Orange County been able to get these screening tools institutionalized within the health care system in the county?
Handler: As a result of WNOC’s awareness campaign, AltaMed, a system of federally qualified community health centers and CHOC, have worked with WNOC to implement the food insecurity screening tool into their electronic health records and use WNOC’s interactive pantry map to provide food pantry information to those who struggle with hunger. And Orange County 211, an online, social services phone directory, has partnered with WNOC to combine pantry databases.
BioCycle: Is most of the food donated already prepared, or do the pantries also receive fresh produce?
Haller: Prepared foods can be donated. It is dependent upon the support structure of the recipients. For example, if a pantry does not have a refrigerator/freezer they will be limited on the types of foods they can accept, handle or store for extended periods of time. The key is matching the donor with the recipient.
The only foods that cannot be donated are expired baby food products including infant formula. For the most part, almost all packaged foods that may exceed their expiration code dates can be donated. Most people don’t realize this and discard perfectly safe food relying solely on a code date. Again, most of the code dates are arbitrary dates used by manufacturers to set quality limits on their products. These dates do not reflect safety measurements or criteria.