NUTRITION ACCESS REPORT: Food for thought on donation programs
Sound Consumer March 2020 | By Rachel Tefft
Each day, at every one of our locations, drivers arrive from agencies that partner with PCC and load up their vehicles with items the store staff has selected and sorted that morning for donation. Everything you see in the stores can be seen in these donations, including PCC deli salads, fresh baked breads, dairy products and of course fresh produce. Additional selections come from the center of the store—canned and boxed soups, as well as cereals and crackers, to name a few.
Each store has individual community partners using these donations in different ways, ranging from meal deliveries for elders to backpacks of food for students. Navigating this complex system requires daily steps, conversations and individually tailored processes. The unique beauty lies within the relationships that make this program work, grow and improve as needed.
PCC has run a form of Grocery Rescue since we opened our first storefront in 1967. As new stores opened, new partners in each community joined in. Every department has different protocols on what is donated and there are differences even within categories; for instance, sandwich bread might be donated as it approaches its sell-by date, whereas baked goods are donated daily.
In 2017 PCC began a system-wide partnership with Food Lifeline, a local organization that serves more than 300 food banks, shelters and meal programs in Western Washington. Food Lifeline tracks our donations in certain ways, such as by pounds of food donated, but we have worked recently to identify more clearly what our impact was through these daily donations. We learned from our longstanding partners that we still had a lot of room for improvement to support our neighbors doing the work of gathering, sorting and distributing these foods once we set them aside.
In September the Columbia City store began a staff-led pilot project to improve the existing system. This involved connecting with each neighborhood partner to hear how the current process was working and how we could better support their needs. It included store leadership connecting with every department to share the story behind where this food goes when it leaves the store, training staff members on best practices for sorting and selecting items, checking back with the community partners and responding to feedback, and creatively shifting our protocols. We learned there were several ways we could improve the quality of the donations we set aside, through simple steps such as making it clearer where donations should be held and clearly identifying which items are part of the program. The staff of the Columbia City store rose to that challenge. They added brightly colored standardized bins for donations, for instance, and retrained staff on sorting practices and PCC standards for donated items.
Afterwards, the store leadership from Columbia City supported PCC’s new stores in West Seattle and Ballard, helping those stores modify their model to meet the needs in their own neighborhoods. PCC plans to expand this new approach to each of our existing stores and partners in 2020.
Food donation is a complex program that requires continual commitment, conversation and evaluation. We have to consider factors like the added time and resources new processes might require, knowing that our staff members, while passionate about this cause, also face extremely busy days managing the moving parts involved in operating a grocery store.
At the same time, we must consider the challenges our partner organizations face as they continue their daily work with individuals and families experiencing hunger and homelessness. Many of the organizations we partner with are underfunded and rely on volunteers to make their daily pickups from PCC, giving us yet another reason to make the process run as smoothly as possible for all concerned.
For all the good it provides, few believe that the current donation model is the best way to fundamentally address food insecurity in the long run. Complications include the unpredictable quantities of food that agencies receive and limited storage facilities, agencies’ desire to select foods that would best serve their clients, and the knowledge that these donations are a band aid rather than a solution to inherent flaws in our food system. We are committed to doing the best we can with the program that exists, though, while also working on systemic efforts around hunger, poverty and food injustice.
While there is still work to be done, the passion, creativity and dedication that exists in each PCC store brings me hope. We are inspired by staff members’ commitment to this work even on busy Sundays, or after multiple long shifts, and by the care they take with the needs of their partner organizations. No matter how these programs evolve in the future, sustainable solutions are centered in real relationships like these.
Rachel Tefft is PCC’s community nutrition program manager.