Bam. The soup can smashes to the grocery floor, dented. The shopper returns the can to the shelf and chooses another.
End of the sale, but not of the can.
Food drives by Boy Scouts, letter carriers and Realtors collect tons of food in Spokane and North Idaho each year, but week after week, the single largest donor to the Spokane Food Bank is area grocery stores.
Last month, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that more than one-fourth of the food produced in this country spoils, is tossed out unused or goes uneaten on the plate.
At the same time, nearly 20 percent of all requests for emergency food assistance were unmet in 1995, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Enter the dented can. Grocers call them “unsaleables,” products too crushed or near the pull-date to sell.
Through a public-private partnership, the food bank is increasingly recovering unsaleables. It’s called urban gleaning - the kind that President Clinton and national experts want maximized to feed the poor.
“Ninety-nine percent of people who drop a can have no clue what happens to that dented can, but ultimately it winds up at the food bank,” said Patrick Cadagan, center manager for Processors Unlimited, the largest food reclamation center in Spokane.
“We rely on the mistakes and pickiness of consumers,” said Al Brislain, executive director of the Spokane Food Bank.
Since opening in Spokane last August, Processors Unlimited has reclaimed $500,000 worth of damaged food a month from dozens of stores ranging from Rosauers on the South Hill to Safeway in Bozeman, Mont. As much as 70 percent is donated to the food bank, said Mike McNally, regional manager for Processors Unlimited Co. in Denver.
The stream of salvage has swelled so much in the past eight months that the food bank could have shifts of volunteers sorting daily - if it had enough volunteers.
“If we didn’t have this food we couldn’t be anywhere near meeting the need,” Brislain said. “We take food-drive food and add it to the industry food to make nutritionally balanced meals.”
Processors Unlimited sorts damaged goods from all area Safeway and URM Stores, including Rosauers and Yoke’s.
Albertsons and SuperValu also have reclamation centers that donate to the food bank.
A little more than 1 percent of all food in grocery stores is damaged by workers or customers, McNally said.
Forklifts crush boxes, stock clerks slice bags open, consumers drop cans. One study showed the average product was handled 33 times before it got to a customer. In addition, 16,000 new products entered grocery stores in 1995 alone - 90 percent of which were eventually pulled, according to the USDA.
In a tidy warehouse on east Trent, Processors Unlimited workers open banana boxes of damaged goods. This is where Cheese Nips go to die. Where dented cans of Dinty Moore stew and crushed Double-stuff Oreos are sorted and the computer beeps: return, destroy or donate.
Mostly, it’s donate.
Some products, like all baby formula, are immediately destroyed at the manufacturers’ request. Open bags of dried pasta or flour are hauled off for livestock feed by farmers.
The rest, including Campbells’ soup, pet food and Presto logs, are donated to the food bank.
“It’s what I really like about food banking,” Brislain said. “We take the food that would otherwise go to waste. Most of it can’t be sold through normal channels and so much of it is perfectly good.”
Groceries have always marked down or tossed damaged goods or returned them to salesmen. More than a decade ago, two Safeway employees started Processors Unlimited, which now employs nearly 1,000 people in 33 states.
Supermarkets pay the firm to sort the products, bill manufacturers for the cost and then return, donate or destroy them.
Donating saves an estimated $50 million nationally in garbage and landfill fees. It also earns supermarkets tax breaks. The Good Samaritan Law, passed by Congress last year, protects donors by limiting liability to gross negligence and intentional misconduct. Brislain wrote the model law that eventually became the national law.
But a chief reason grocery stores have been so willing to give is because of the food bank’s affiliation with Second Harvest, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization.
“It’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Brislain said.
Second Harvest members (Spokane has been affiliated since the 1980s) follow strict national guidelines to determine what food is fit for human consumption. As a result, as little as 30 to 60 percent of all salvaged loads reach hungry families.
“Our motto is, when in doubt, throw it out,” Brislain said.
“We depend on the food bank to make that determination for us,” said Stuart Simon, an industrial engineering director with Safeway.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, volunteers from Audubon Methodist Church and retirees who call themselves the F-troop stand before bins of salvaged food, examining scratches, dents and dings. “Our attempt at Dumpster diving,” explains Terry Moore, food bank program manager.
The food bank combines the salvaged food with an array of donations from food drives and national donors. Spokane recently received $30,000 worth of cold cereal through a Second Harvest food bank in Iowa for the cost of transportion - about $1,500.
Donated meat, dairy products, frozen food, produce and bread from such leading donors as Orowheat and Snyder’s are handled separately and pose an even larger problem. In the past year, the food bank has raced to get out flats of fresh raspberries, a semi-truckload of bananas and pallets of fresh corn before they expire.
“Sometimes our challenges aren’t finding the food or finding the needy people, it’s finding the channel and figuring out the logistics,” Brislain said.
Food from the Spokane Food Bank goes to 19 agencies in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana, which distribute everything from oatmeal to cleaning supplies. Pet food goes to non-profit animal shelters such as SpokAnimal.
Even chewing gum is distributed, since it may be an item someone won’t then spend their food money on.
“Everything here has a value,” Moore said.
People interested in volunteering for the Spokane Food Bank should call 534-6678.
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