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Food donation stalls as university plays liability ‘hot potato’

Hanna EggplantI stood in front of a large field, stretching over an acre into the distance, lined with rows of eggplants, tomatoes, chard, and zucchinis—all rotting to waste. This field was the product of a plant science class I had recently taken at my university: each student planted crops in the spring when the class was offered, but then left town for summer, leaving the field to explode with unpicked produce.

That same summer, I was working with families that struggled with homelessness, and could not allow myself to passively watch this field of dinners rot to waste. I realized my school needed a produce recovery program to harvest and donate uneaten campus-grown produce!

My efforts to establish a produce recovery program begun in July 2012, and nearly two years later, after communicating with professors, the chancellor, vice chancellors, deans, the provost, food safety specialists, risk managers, and food bank directors, I am disheartened to report that I have still not implemented such a program. My very first meeting was with a vice chancellor, and I remember confidently entering the appointment after having memorized the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act—a federal act relieving food donor liability—and feeling well-equipped to counter any concerns he might throw at me. As it turns out, this federal act and a moral conscience are not enough to convince a public university to donate fields of unpicked produce.

Instead, coordinating with the administration has felt like a game of hot potato in who will claim liability for a hypothetical food safety incident. The vice chancellor directed me to the risk manager who directed me to the food safety specialist and so on. Even though students were already permitted to eat the produce, I had food safety specialists scrutinizing the slope of the field, its proximity to a road, and the kind of sink used to wash the vegetables. On the other hand, food banks indicated that they would appreciate any produce “without large chunks of dirt on it.” This contrast in stringency makes it nearly impossible to negotiate between the two parties.

Hanna tomatoI’m still actively working to establish this produce recovery program, and week by week untangle the multiplying concerns that the university lists. There have undoubtedly been high points in this process: food banks generously agreed to cover the university in their insurance policies, passionate students got involved, and I’ve learned more than I could have imagined about donating food! While the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act is a promising step, there are additional systemic hurdles that must be overcome to prevent massive produce waste.

Hanna Morris is a recent Environmental Science and Management graduate from a California university, the name of which she chose to exclude to highlight the bureaucratic challenges of donating food present in many institutions, and to be sensitive to the reputation of the university. She is actively involved in the zero waste movement, and hopes to pursue a career where she can combine waste reduction with social justice issues.


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