( Courtesy Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market )

Like for-profit food businesses, charitable food organizations are having to adjust or pause since the coronavirus started — including groups that redistribute fresh produce otherwise going to waste.

Based in Philadelphia, Philabundance is a hunger-relief organization serving nine counties in Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

To be cautious, Philabundance stopped all volunteer shifts at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in March, said Philip Ginterreiter, deputy director of food acquisition.

The group is exploring options with market management to continue to source donations safely and consistently during the ongoing crisis.

Donations have dropped significantly.

The market donated more than 1.7 million pounds of food two fiscal years ago, October 2018 through September 2019, Ginterreiter said. About 400,000 pounds of that 1.7 million was from weekly volunteer shifts at the market.

“Volunteers would help combat food waste by inspecting and sorting produce that is no longer sellable: Perhaps the vendors cannot sell their product quickly enough or it isn’t ‘pretty’ enough for retail shelves, but it’s still nutritious and healthy,” he said.

During the most recent fiscal year, October 2019 through July, the market donated about 916,000 pounds of produce to Philabundance. Only 141,000 pounds of produce were donated during the pandemic, March through July. 

“This drop in donations is attributed to the pandemic’s toll on supply chains and the food industry navigating operations through the crisis,” Ginterreiter said.

Stone fruits and leafy greens were the most prevalent produce donated over the last year.

At the Philabundance warehouse, there were typically as many as 40 volunteers, but now that’s slashed in half, said Samantha Retamar, Philabundance public relations associate. And with a 60% increase in need for food at food banks, it’s a tough spot, she said.

Still, the market’s partnership with Philabundance has helped through the years and will continue to do so, in whatever way that’s possible and safe.

“Whenever they can help, they do. They’re such a fantastic partner. It really reduces waste, and there’s so much food waste out there, when there is so much hunger,” Retamar said.

Based at the market terminal, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Cooperative is another way wholesalers and distributors channel their excess or out-of-spec food, said market manager Mark Smith.

“We are constantly trying to find outlets to use unsold items,” Smith said. “Hey, if we can donate food that would otherwise not be used, all the better.”

Called MARC, it’s a regional produce distribution system for 23 Feeding America food banks from the New England area south to the Mid-Atlantic region, director James DeMarsh said.

“Our normal trade is connecting food banks to available food,” he said. “Produce is very tough for food banks to do; they need specialized staff. But more and more food banks want to do produce and get away from packaged food.”

Since the coronavirus began in the U.S., MARC started creating mixed-produce boxes for food banks from what it bought at reduced prices from wholesalers. The cooperative started doing drive-through distribution then too.

Typically, the cooperative tries to pay the lowest price possible but offers a fixed price at the time of sale. MARC also accept donations. 

At the market terminal, purveyor Ryeco provides storage, and a company in New Jersey helps with distribution.

The cooperative moved about 34 million pounds of produce for its fiscal year ending June 30, which is a couple of million more than the previous year, DeMarsh said.

“The balance has changed a little bit,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program awarded the cooperative two rounds of contracts, requiring a shift in how it sources, DeMarsh said.

“The USDA program doesn’t want us to use out-of-spec or older produce,” he said. 

“Normally, the last couple years, we’d go to Philly wholesalers and say, ‘what are you having trouble moving?’ We can help shippers get things moved, but that’s been de-emphasized lately with the USDA program.”

MARC didn’t apply for the third round of USDA contracts because of the requirement to include meat and dairy in the boxes, DeMarsh said.

The cooperative can be flexible with packaging, but retail-packaged items are better.

“It doesn’t have to be handled as much or repackaged. It just makes everybody’s job easier,” DeMarsh said. 

Regardless, the cooperative is grateful for all donations, he said. And companies can avoid disposal fees by selling or donating a product while it’s still of good quality.

There’s more food bank demand and more complications in meeting it, but all parties are trying to figure it out during this ongoing health and economic crisis.

“The market’s management has been very open to experimenting with donation pick-up alternatives, and we appreciate their commitment to serving the community,” Ginterreiter said. 


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