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Teaming up to feed the hungry, not a landfill

Kaiser Permanente of Southern California partners with food recovery agencies to help alleviate hunger and reduce food waste.

Several times a week, a volunteer from Lighthouse Outreach Ministries in Costa Mesa, Calif., makes a 15-minute drive to the Kaiser Permanente medical center in nearby Irvine and loads up buckets of donated soup and oversized trays of foods such as roasted mixed vegetables, steamed broccoli or chicken with rice. The ministry serves 2,000 meals to homeless and hungry community members every week.

“It has changed the way we operate,” the group’s outreach director, Lindah Miles, says of the donations. “The food is beautiful, like what you would make for your family. We feel good about serving people healthy meals that were planned by dietitians.”

The partnership is orchestrated by Food Finders, a local food recovery nonprofit. The group connects donor institutions that have excess perishable prepared food with pantries, shelters and missions that serve meals or distribute groceries to food insecure people.

Patti Larson, executive director, says last year the organization rescued a total of 8.5 million pounds of food in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. More than 49,500 pounds of donated food came from nine Kaiser Permanente facilities. 

Kaiser Permanente

Pictured: Denise Martin from Village Family Services and Kaiser Permanente Panorama City Medical Center food & nutrition department staff. Credit: Kaiser Permanente of Southern California

John Yamamoto, vice president for legal, government and community benefit for Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, says food rescue partnerships provide a simple solution that has a multipronged impact.

“We are trying to extract the most value from the day-to-day function of serving food in order to address a community need, be good environmental stewards and reduce waste in our operations, which allows us to improve affordability for our patients,” he says. 

Kaiser Permanente’s partnership with Food Finders began with facilities in one county in 2014. Today 12 of Kaiser’s 14 facilities donate, 10 of them through Food Finders. Kaiser Permanente also works with four other food recovery organizations: Inland Valley Hope Partners, Salvation Army, Mary’s Mercy and I Care Shelter Home.

Before the effort began, un-served patient meals and cafeteria foods went to landfills. Composting programs exist in the area, but none are able to accommodate the large amount of wet waste the facilities generate. 

To address the problem, the organization started to envision foodservices not only as the source of nutritious meals for their patients, staff and guests, but as a resource for local communities. 

The idea dovetails with Food Finders, whose mission states that they will not only distribute food but also improve nutrition in food insecure communities. Hospitals are natural partners, Patti Larson says, that give the group access to fresh produce and other high-nutrition foods. “They’re really setting a precedent for the hospital industry.” 

Food Finders

Volunteer picking up at South Bay Kaiser. Credit: Food Finders

Elizabeth Trombley, manager of Upstream Community Health at Kaiser Permanente of Southern California, says that though they curb waste by preparing meals based on projections and the unique daily needs of the patients, “there’s always a variable based on who’s in the hospital, what they choose to eat and what they’re well enough to eat,” she explains. “That mix results in a surplus.” 

They’re not alone. Every year, 126 billion pounds of food is tossed in the trash, according to Feeding America. Ten billion pounds of food waste is generated by institutions and foodservice organizations.

Food Finders is mitigating the problem by distributing foods such as fruit and cheese platters, soups, casseroles, whole or chopped produce and pantry staples. They do not accept partial trays of food from self-service areas. 

Each site works out a pickup schedule with the agency based on the projected amount of food and the timing of agency programs. Pickup frequency ranges from two to five days per week. 

On pickup days, a volunteer from Food Finders or a representative from the recipient agency picks up donations from the medical facilities and drives them directly to the agency. To curtail the program’s carbon footprint and foster connections within communities, food travels no more than a few miles.

“We’re really good at keeping the food in the cities where it’s donated,” says Diana Lara, vice president for operations with Food Finders. “That’s really important to us because we want that donation to benefit local people in need.”

Brief transportation times also help ensure that food remains at a safe temperature. Donations are covered and refrigerated prior to pickup and are either served immediately or refrigerated on arrival. Food Finders uses their own refrigerated trucks for larger deliveries.

Once delivered, agencies have the pleasure of serving fresh minestrone or lasagna to guests. And foodservice workers in the Kaiser Permanente kitchens, who would otherwise have disposed of this food, know that they have contributed to the health of the community.

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