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City to loosen enforcement on food donation charities

Monday, August 3, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Covid-19 has increased food insecurity across Travis County while creating further operational complications for local food banks, soup kitchens and other charitable feeding organizations. To help meet the rising demand, the city is looking to remove some of its structural barriers that may limit the flexibility and reach of local food pantries.

Allen Schroeder, founder of local nonprofit Save the Food Austin, participated in a prior city-led working group on food salvage efforts. He told the Austin Monitor that the central barrier is that the city doesn’t allow food pantries to reportion large servings of food from restaurants or delis into smaller giveaway-sized portions, thus limiting their options and sources for food distribution.

“The city won’t allow that to happen inside of a pantry unless you have a kitchen permit and you have a certified food handler in that pantry, which is ridiculous, because, you know, who’s got that?” Schroeder said. “To be a certified kitchen you have to have a double sink, you have to have a mop sink, all your surfaces have to be stainless steel, you have to show that you’re running it like a kitchen. Pantries can’t do that.”

City Council approved a resolution Wednesday calling on the city manager to pause enforcement of any restrictions on food charities that do not impact community safety or health at least through the end of the year. The resolution also asks for a new task force to address other ways to amend and simplify the city’s Food Enterprise permitting process to encourage organizations to step in and offer their services.

Council’s request is a continuation of a previous effort by a 2019 working group of the Austin Travis County Food Policy Board, whose final recommendation requested such a task force to guide the permit revision process.

Only 24 percent of food recipient organizations in Austin and Travis County have gone through the process of receiving a food establishment permit in order to handle foods considered potentially hazardous. While no permit is required to donate pre-packaged dried foods like soup cans, cereal boxes or bottled water, donations of foods like cut tomatoes or melons, dairy products, fresh shell eggs, meats or cooked foods must be approved by the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

The city holds charitable feeding organizations that deal with food requiring time and temperature control to the same standards as restaurants, but many food pantries are volunteer-led and lack the time and resources to complete the permit process. They often operate out of temporary borrowed spaces and have little authority to make physical changes to bring them up to city standards of a proper kitchen.

City of Austin food service permit fees range from $359-$896 depending on the size of the establishment and food risk category. The fee amounts are one of the factors the task force – made up of members of the Austin Travis County Food Policy Board, community stakeholders and city staffers – is asked to address in the coming months. Council has requested the group summarize its preliminary findings for the Oct. 27 work session and prepare a final report with any fee changes by Nov. 12.

Schroeder said he would be willing to join the task force if invited, although he works only in packaged goods and would not be directly impacted by the permit process revisions. While Save the Food supports relaxing restrictions on food pantries, the organization’s primary objective is to reduce food waste by partnering with local grocery stores to bring residents packaged foods that would otherwise be discarded.

In recent years, Schroeder has tried pressuring Austin Resource Recovery to encourage restaurants and grocery stores to donate food rather than composting, but said the effort has so far been “very complicated” and met with a lot of hesitancy from the city. “The food business here in Austin is very powerful. They don’t like politicians telling them what to do and to say that you have to put your food aside for a nonprofit to come and pick it up, that’s too invasive,” he said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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