Update on AB 234- Progress was made!

After much deliberation, compromise and revisions, AB 234 was passed by the governor in October with much improvements from the original draft. Intended to be a clean-up bill to AB 1990, AB 234 addressed some concerns related to new regulations reducing the willingness of people to donate food, increasing administrative burdens on volunteer gleaning networks and potentially threatening the supply of free fresh and healthy produce for people who need it most.

When AB 1990 was passed, the intent was to make it easier for school and community gardens, backyard growers and other micro-enterprises to sell their produce to the community. Additionally,  donated goods were included in the bill because of increased federal pressure to implement the FDA’s Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act as well as the Food Safety Modernization Act. Sonoma County officials proactively created a Garden Producers’ Certificate to aid small scale operations to be compliant with pending laws. It seemed that local health officers felt increased pressure to regulate and limit food safety liability of community food and small scale farming operations, whether the food was for sale or donation. Health and Agricultural Commissioners from other counties pushed for a state-wide law that would set the standard for county-level regulations of small scale producers, food pantries and gleaners.

When local gleaning and food pantry groups met with County officials to understand how existing and pending clean-up law AB 234 would impact gleaning and emergency food distributors, local groups led by Petaluma Bounty balked at how the unintended consequences would negatively impact food insecure community members. Specifically, donors were going to have to register with the county, gleaning groups were required to ensure traceability and labeling from source point to consumer, and food pantries would need to take on significantly more administrative burden that were more similar to grocery store operations than charitable activities. Based on their interpretation of the existing law, local enforcement officers felt their hands were tied regardless of the impact on donated produce or community need.

Suzi Grady, Director of Petaluma Bounty and Caryn Mali, Community Engagement at PPSC, then began a campaign to mobilize community supporters and solicit feedback from state lawmakers. Ultimately, they attended the California State Senate Health Committee meeting to request on behalf of community supporters and food insecure community members, that the law be amended to address concerns related to unintended consequences (See previous blog post for a full briefing).

Grady stated, “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?”

Thanks to much deliberation and consideration by all parties, the now passed version of AB 234 has transformed significantly for the better. Local groups (mostly volunteer driven) are still concerned about increased administrative burden, but Grady and others are working toward solutions that meet the needs of all parties. While donors are not required to register, gleaning groups and pantries are required to retain sources for 30 days. Grady admits, “There is still much work to be done on this bill as well as educating law makers how to consider multiple perspectives related to community health. Food safety is one of multiple concerns for communities facing food insecurity.”

The 2014 Sonoma County Hunger Index reported that 35 million meals went missing last year in our county. Programs like Petaluma Bounty, Bounty Hunters Program turn a food waste problem into a food access solution. Last year, Petaluma Bounty Hunters, as part of a larger volunteer network, harvested or recovered and redistributed over 135,000 pounds of food.  Gleaned by volunteers from backyards, orchards, farmers’ markets, and local farms, the Bounty Hunters program distributes the produce to Petaluma Inter-Faith Pantries, PPSC Senior Nutrition Center; which includes the Senior Café and Meals On Wheels, COTS Kitchen, PEP Housing, and low-income housing centers throughout Petaluma.

Elece Hempel, Executive Director of Petaluma People Services Center stressed that “changes to AB 234 were implemented because of the excellent work that Grady did to draw attention to the fact that prior versions to this bill would have made it harder to get food to those who need it the most,” she said “I am so proud of what they were able to accomplish”.

Grady added, “We will always need to find ways to provide food to the most vulnerable. Our collective progress on AB 234 keeps more resources and energy directed at implementing community solutions to hunger and food insecurity. But more work still needs to be done!”.

To learn more about AB 234 visit the official California Legislative Information site, to find out more about Petaluma Bounty, visit our website www.petalumabounty.org, where you can donate, volunteer or find out where to access food distribution sites.

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