FORT LEE, Va. – In a classic case of a crisis creating an opportunity, the government shutdown of 2013 served as a catalyst to revive donations from military commissaries to local food banks, with the stores donating more than 4 million pounds of groceries to date, including an expected 2 million pounds this year alone.
Since 1985, military commissaries have been authorized to make donations to food banks designated as eligible to receive that food by the departments of Defense or Health and Human Services, and by Veterans Affairs for certain veterans’ organizations. However, with a dwindling number of food banks seeking that status over the years, the program fell into disuse.
When the Defense Commissary Agency, like other government agencies, was confronted with the 2013 shutdown, it faced another problem: what to do with groceries that remained wholesome but unsold due to the doors of stores being shuttered. Thus, the effort to revitalize the donation of the unsold goods to food banks was born.
“We got approval from the Department of Defense on a temporary basis to allow stores to use local food banks to get rid of their organics that were unsellable but edible,” said Randy Eller, deputy director of DeCA’s logistics directorate.
Turning that one-time project into an ongoing program involved nearly six more months of work. “We really pushed the button to encourage food banks to seek permanent designation,” he added. “Many did, and that’s how the whole thing just kept on rolling.”
From that first year’s donation of a little more than 636,000 pounds of goods to 72 food banks, the program has grown to 127 stores donating more than 1.8 million pounds of otherwise unsellable merchandise to 107 food banks across the nation so far this year, with the total expected to top 2 million pounds.
“’Edible but unsellable’ means the product may not be up to the commissaries’ visual expectation for sale but is still good for consumption,” said Eller. “Everything that gets donated is certified as edible by a food inspector.”
While that amount of merchandise “waste” may sound like a lot, in a system as large as DeCA’s chain of 241 stores, it represents a very small amount. “This may sound like a lot, and the food banks are certainly grateful, but edible, unsellable product amounts to less than 1 percent of what we sell worldwide,” explained Eller. “We’re diverting all this from the waste stream, and we’re not only keeping it out of landfills, we’re feeding the hungry.”
To be eligible for donations from stores, nonprofit food banks must formally request and be designated as eligible to receive commissary food donations from the assistant secretary of defense for readiness and force management.
A food bank is defined as “a public or private charitable institution that maintains an established operation involving the provision of food or edible commodities, or the products of food or edible commodities, to food pantries, soup kitchens, hunger relief centers, or other food or feeding centers that, as an integral part of their normal activities, provide meals or food to feed needy persons on a regular basis.”
This system differs from the annual USDA sponsored Feds Feed Families campaign that runs June through October. With Feds Feed Families, commissaries serve as collection points for their installations, and all donations come from DeCA customers.