A Santa Ynez Valley organization dedicated to putting surplus fruits and vegetables into the hands of the needy has expanded its rescue mission to include prepared foods as well as produce.
Since 2010, Veggie Rescue, based in the Santa Ynez Valley, has been collecting fresh produce from local farms and delivering to organizations that feed community members in need countywide.
To date, it has delivered just under 1 million pounds of food, said Amy Derryberry, executive director.
But in November 2017, the volunteer organization branched out by launching a pilot program to rescue prepared food with support from the Community Environmental Council and guidance from the County Public Health Department.
Derryberry said Veggie Rescue began collecting excess prepared food from the buffet lines at the Chumash Casino Resort, owned by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.
Food is collected from the casino three times a week and delivered to the Buellton Senior Center.
Now, the fledgling program is on the brink of expanding to other regions of the county.
New rescue mission born
Derryberry said the concept of a prepared food recovery program was born during a meeting organized by the Santa Barbara Foundation and the Community Environmental Council.
The two organizations brought together agencies involved in addressing food insecurity and food waste in Santa Barbara County to find a way of rescuing the excess food prepared daily at dining facilities.
Their solution was to identify a donor facility, then use Veggie Rescue’s ability to transport food to an established network of organizations that feed the needy.
When organizers approached the Chumash with the proposal, the tribe immediately agreed to participate in the concept.
“The tribe’s partnership with Veggie Rescue is an example of the creative ideas our Chumash Casino Resort’s Facilities Department has implemented to help reach our goal of becoming a zero-waste facility by 2019,” Tribal Chairman Kenneth Kahn said.
“We’re proud of this partnership because Veggie Rescue prevents quality food from being wasted and makes deliveries to those in need,” he added. “It’s reassuring to know that the extra food we’ve prepared is nourishing members of the local community.”
Derryberry said when Veggie Rescue asked Pam Gnekow of the Buellton Senior Center if the prepared food could be used in center’s programs, she committed with enthusiasm.
“There are so many seniors in need of good food in our community, and we are thrilled to be the recipients of this terrific food, which allows us to expand our capacity to feed seniors,” Gnekow said.
Organizers realized one positive aspect of the plan would be the short distance the food would travel between donation and delivery.
When all parties agreed to the concept, the next step was for Veggie Rescue to secure financial support, which came from Santa Barbara Foundation’s Landscapes, Ecosystems, Agriculture, Food Systems, or LEAF, initiative and its Santa Barbara Food Systems Grant program.
Once backing was secured, Veggie Rescue set out to implement the program.
“With our years of experience delivering produce in our refrigerated van, this seemed like a natural expansion of our program, redirecting food that would have been sent to the landfill, and instead feeding it to fellow community members struggling with food insecurity,” Derryberry said.
But maintaining the quality of the donated food had to be assured, so Veggie Rescue contacted Kendra Wise at the County Department of Public Health.
Wise trained the Veggie Rescue staff how to keep the transported food at the correct temperatures, maintain a log of pickup and delivery temperatures and determine the proper equipment to keep food safe during transport.
The official launch
The program launched Nov. 6, when Veggie Rescue personnel arrived at the Chumash Casino and were escorted up to the kitchen next to the buffet line.
There, 27 aluminum trays weighing 62 pounds loaded with chicken, fish, pasta, mashed potatoes and assorted vegetables were pulled from the refrigerator.
The food was probed with a thermometer to check the temperature, then the trays were loaded into insulated containers and transported to the Buellton Senior Center.
Since then, the Senior Center has received deliveries of prepared food three times a week, with each week’s shipment averaging a total of 220 pounds.
Gnekow said the center has incorporated the deliveries into its onsite hot meals as well as those the staff produces five days a week for Meals on Wheels deliveries to shut-in seniors.
“Our meals are more diverse with the addition of the prepared food,” she said.
Derryberry said the organizers plan to expand the prepared food rescue to the city of Santa Barbara and, eventually, the entire county.