Unintended consequences of new state-wide regulation=less fresh produce to those who need it most

Dear allies in promoting healthy communities, food systems change, and food waste prevention.

Next week, AB 234 will be heard by Senate Health Committee and if the current language relating to food safety is approved, the ripple effects felt state-wide will include the significant reduction in the amount of fresh food our most vulnerable (low income families and seniors) citizens receive from charitable gleaning and food recovery efforts. We ask you to to take the time to read our white paper and consider the unintended consequences of AB 1990, AB 234, and this one method of promoting food safety. If you are in a position to do so, we ask you to write a letter of support (sample attached here) or at least a letter of concern so that our state law makers are aware that there a lot more perspectives out there that they have not heard from. If you can, please share a copy of your letter with me by Wednesday, June 24th or sign this petition. Letters and signatures beyond that time frame will still be gratefully accepted and there may also be other actions that you can take; bear with us as we learn and share about the process.

Our white paper is in response to AB 1990 and drafts of AB 234 shared with us, both of which don’t seem to address the most pressing issue of Approved Sources and traceability. Even though the present interpretation by Environmental Health Directors of AB 1990 and cleanup language in AB 234 is that gleaning groups no longer have to register with the county, they are enforcing the piece that all donated goods distributed by food banks and other charitable distribution efforts must come from an approved source and be traceable. The various negative unintended consequences on gleaning community food recovery groups are listed in the white paper.

We now urgently request your attention and assistance on this. We voiced our concerns multiple times over the last several years to our local enforcement agencies and were advised repeatedly that their hands were tied and they were just implementing the law. Further, it was implied that there was nothing they or we could do to change the law. Due to subsequent conversations with people in the legislative analysis field and otherwise, we no longer believe the latter is true. The legislative process for AB 234 is almost finished, and moreover, we do not have the capacity to confront this issue alone.

We are not lobbyists. We are a non-profit organization serving our community’s most vulnerable citizens through direct services, including supplementing emergency food services for low income families and seniors. Suzi Grady is a program director for one of our highly impactful programs, Petaluma Bounty, and she works on the front lines of hunger, diet-related disease prevention, food waste, food system transformation, direct service and community engagement. Everyone at PPSC and the Bounty is too busy doing the work we’re talking about to track and engage on the legislative process. However, the increased regulatory burden and subsequent unintended negative consequences have become too great to ignore – we cannot ignore legislation that will force our community to throw away fresh food that people so desperately need.

Food safety is a serious concern for all food producers and consumers. Yet, Environmental Health regulators are trying to enforce one method of regulating food safety concerns by treating all threats as if they are severe and have the same likelihood in very different food production/distribution environments. Instead of enforcing Approved Sources and traceability requirements in all circumstances, regulators must also consider the scale of operations, biological eco-systems, farm management practices, and probabilities; distribution methods, likelihood of success of prevention; not to mention untended consequences and other relevant health concerns of our communities. Instead, the current language treats all threats as if they are severe and will benefit from the same method of monitoring and containment. That logic may make sense in a setting where all people have equitable access to fresh produce and could just go back to the store for safer, Approved Source produce. But sadly that is not the case in our society.

To be clear, we are committed to ensuring all people have access to safe food; yet we bring a different perspective. Namely, that regardless of intent, the roll out of AB 234 will result in diminished food security, specifically reduced access to fresh fruits and vegetables for our low-income seniors and families. We work in communities where realities and health outcomes for citizens are shaped by the inequitable systems they are a part of. Regardless of intent, AB 234 will exacerbate inequitable access to fresh produce that our community’s most vulnerable face daily. Notwithstanding the concern regarding food safety, those of us working on the front lines with the food insecure know we must also factor in public health concerns related to hunger, malnutrition, obesity and other preventive health efforts. If lawmakers are truly concerned about the people who “are receiving their food for free”, it is crucial that they also hear expert opinions from other public health perspectives in order to make an informed decision that reflects a comprehensive appreciation for the actual risks, unintended consequences, and benefits of proposed legislation.

In many communities, the risk is greater that individuals will contract diet-related chronic disease (or secondary health ailments) than be exposed to food-borne diseases. We have been asked to consider the plight of a person that gets sick from a food-borne illness because traceability and Approved Source methods have not been implemented in all food distribution activities. But who speaks for the people who will surely go hungry, develop chronic diet-related diseases, become frail or worse because they were not able access unapproved community food at the benefit of a small number of people that could have been exposed to food-borne pathogens from gleaning and food recovery efforts? Furthermore, will those people be denied access to healthy fresh produce based on the potentially untested assumption that this one method of traceability and certifying Approved Sources is the best method to ensure food safety in all environments? Who currently is doing this research and has the answers to these critical questions? Shouldn’t law makers hear from these experts as well before making any decisions?

In two short weeks, it’s become clear that other voices have been missing at the table to inform the lawmakers’ conversation around community health. We are shocked to hear that our perspectives and concerns were not widely shared during the numerous conversations that we had with local enforcement agencies and public health leadership. Which is why we are adamantly requesting your support and action, so we can return to the business of supporting our successful, community-wide efforts to ensure everyone has access to healthy (and safe) food.

Long term, we want to see a bill that would define and offer an “informed consent” model where community members can choose if they want to accept donated produce from non-certified sources by labeling them as such. Pantries could designate a table “Community Produce, not from an approved source. Take at your own risk.” Consumers could be informed to take extra precautions (extra washing or cooking) and would understand that they take the food at their own risk (similar to existing labels on shellfish, seafood, raw meats, etc. Better to be informed and have access to the produce than to have limited or no access to perishable items.

Short term, we are concerned that AB 234 will undermine gleaning/food recovery groups’ ability to operate by inadvertently diminishing liability protection set out under The Good Samaritan Act. Further, the greater regulatory burdens on donors and volunteers will have a chilling effect on charitable activities. Thus, we want to be assured from state law makers that this is not the case and that they will rewrite the law if necessary. Additionally, the language around how gleaning and food recovery efforts are defined to include for-profit endeavors is misleading. For profit initiatives should be treated as food businesses and regulated similarly.

Thank you for your time and consideration on this important matter.

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