The dynamics of food donation
With more than a third of the food supply going to waste, Inmar's Rob Zomok discusses the benefits of donating food for manufacturers and retailers.
Rob Zomok has more than 25 years of leadership in the global supply chain space including significant domestic and international supply chain operational improvements for companies such as Hershey, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Meguiar's. He joined Inmar in January 2016.
It’s estimated that more than one-third of the U.S. food supply goes to waste. This waste, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, represents more than 133 billion pounds of food that the non-profit group Feeding America estimates to have a value of $218 billion. Those numbers are difficult to accept just by themselves but given that the USDA reports more than 41 million Americans were living in food insecure households in 2016, this kind of waste is almost incomprehensive. And, by any reasonable standard, unacceptable.
While there are a number of formalized efforts underway to try and address this issue (perhaps most notably the U.S. Food Waste Challenge co-sponsored by USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) there remains a tremendous opportunity for brands and retailers to play a significant role and positively impact the lives of millions – through food donation. Many trading partners are already contributing product but there could be, and need to be, more.
Besides helping combat a genuine health crisis, those that donate enjoy a host of bottom-line benefits. Waste reduction, cost savings related to dispositioning and achieving a significant tax advantage all result from implementation of a strategic donation program.
Obstacles to donating
Achieving optimal dispositioning of food products that have passed their “best by” date but have not yet reached their “non-viable” date – including through donation – remains a challenge for many. And while the barriers to donation are not unreasonable, they are far from insurmountable. However, given the benefits that all parties realize from food donation, it is imperative that sellers and producers educate themselves as to 1) what and how they can donate, 2) the service providers available to facilitate their donation activity, and 3) the protections that exist to enable and encourage donations.
Inmar, as one the nation’s leading returns logistics providers, operates approximately 30 facilities throughout the United States that, collectively, process an average of 7 million returned items each week to determine their optimal disposition. Of these, 21 handle food and household items received from dozens and dozens of retailers and manufacturers that have established donation programs and rely on Inmar to process and distribute items suitable for donation. Through these efforts, Inmar enables delivery of 15 million to 20 million pounds of useable product to food banks every year.
Concern over liability is arguably the greatest inhibitor to brands and retailers making food donations, but Congress sought to mitigate this concern as far back as 1996 with passage of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. This act, signed by President Clinton, protects from liability those who donate food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations for distribution to individuals in need. The Food Donation Act of 2017, which is currently in committee, amends the Emerson Act to further expand the liability protections for the proper donation of food.
Every item received at the Inmar facilities that handle food and household products, is individually evaluated at point of scan to determine their usability – including fitness for donation. Any items found to be leaking or that have had their integrity impacted, e.g. the seal is broken, etc. are subsequently destroyed so that food banks receive only genuinely useable items. At the same time, all Inmar facilities access a constantly updated database of products designated for a safety recall so that items which otherwise might appear appropriate for donation are flagged and culled – preventing potentially hazardous product from reaching a food bank and being distributed to constituents.
"Backbone of what we do"
On the receiving end of Inmar’s systematic screening process are food banks operating in 25 states – from Maine to Arizona. These organizations, in turn, work with hundreds of nonprofit partners in their respective states to see that the food received from supporting retailers and brands is properly and effectively distributed.
Typical among the food banks assisted by Inmar is the Food Bank of Greater Baton Rouge. Established more than 30 years ago, the food bank serves the hungry in an 11-parish service area, and currently distributes some 60,000 pounds of food per day – much of it donated by area retailers and national manufacturers.
“The monetary support we receive from donors and the food that comes in through volunteer food drives are extremely important to us,” says Bob Kanas, the food bank’s chief operations officer. “But the food donations we receive from retailers and manufacturers are at the backbone of what we do.”
According to Kanas, institutional donations account for 30% of the nonprofit’s food supply. That’s a truly considerable resource given that the food bank works to maintain a constant 1.6 million pounds of inventory.
“We’re very fortunate to have the support of many of our local grocery retailers including Rouses Supermarkets, Save-A-Lot and Albertsons, as well as several independent retailers that are part of Associated Grocers,” says Kanas. “The variety of items they donate allows us to provide those we serve with both nutritionally balanced and tasty meals.”
As a member organization of Feeding America, the Baton Rouge group also receives food donations from national donors including Keebler, Kraft and Campbell Soup. It’s an impressive, collaborative effort that is bringing crucial assistance to the hungry in east-central Louisiana -- and one that Inmar is proud to be a part of -- but there is still much more that needs to be done to combat hunger throughout all of America.
Further encouragement to donate can be found in The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (the PATH Act) which allows corporations an enhanced charitable contribution deduction for donations of food to a qualified organization for the care of the ill, the needy, or infants. Both Emerson and PATH warrant qualified legal review by all those considering, but not yet committed to, donating.
The challenge of maintaining food accessibility is only going to grow as populations increase and farmed acreage shrinks. Therefore, it's incumbent upon all those with the power to help make more food available to more people play their full part in addressing this serious and compelling issue. There is capable, professional assistance close at hand to fully enable the donation process. And more than enough good reasons to seek it out.