Montgomery County researches plan to redistribute unused food to hungry

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of food discarded every year by supermarkets, restaurants and other nonresidential establishments. It is an estimated 96 million pounds, not 56 million pounds. This version has been corrected.

October 9, 2012

Supermarkets, restaurants and other nonresidential establishments in Montgomery County throw away 96 million pounds of food a year.

A new initiative by the County Council aims to use it to put meals in the mouths of the hungry instead.

The council will appoint a work group, including representatives from county government agencies, public schools, the food industry and local nonprofit groups, to research implementation of a food recovery program and produce a report by July, council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County) said Tuesday at a news conference.

At $92,909, Montgomery’s median household income is the 10th highest in the country, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But a third of Montgomery students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, said Ervin, who sponsored the council resolution.

“Hunger is an ever-increasing problem in our county,” Ervin said.

The county is working on partnerships with restaurants, hospitals, supermarkets including Giant and Safeway, and schools, including the Universities at Shady Grove and Montgomery College, to redistribute unused food, said Ervin’s chief of staff, Sonya Healy.

Montgomery’s food recovery initiative follows in the footsteps of several others in the Washington area. D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit established in 1989, prepares 5,000 meals a day for homeless shelters in the District, spokesman Paul Day said.

Ervin was inspired to establish a food recycling program after she learned of efforts at the Food Recovery Network, a student group at the University of Maryland. Since September 2011, the group has scooped up leftovers from the university dining hall and sports games and delivered them to charitable organizations. It spends about 10 cents per meal on costs such as transportation and has donated 30,000 meals to Maryland food banks and homeless shelters

Food Recovery Network co-founder Ben Simon, a University of Maryland senior, is helping Ervin and other officials plan for the countywide program. He has experience in dealing with such challenges as potential donors who fear a lawsuit if their food makes someone sick. A federal law passed in 1996 protects donors from liability in such situations, he said.

The Rev. Ben Slye describes the deliveries that his Christian Life Center in Riverdale Park receives from the Food Recovery Network on Mondays and Fridays as “incredible.”

“Baked chicken, fried chicken, salmon, fish, tuna, rice and beans, pizza,” Slye said. “Every kind of food you can imagine.”

Food from the University of Maryland’s dining halls typically feeds 200 of the Christian Life Center’s clients per week, Slye said. The haul after a Terrapins football game can feed 1,200.

If county authorities throw their efforts behind food recycling, Slye hopes to be able to feed many more.

“There’s not a food shortage problem in our nation,” Slye said. “There’s a food distribution problem.”

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