Leave the lasagna at home — flood relief organizations can’t use homemade food

By Kendall Brunette

Colorado residents rushed to their kitchens nearly two weeks ago when epic floods swept through the state’s northern regions.  Soon after, homemade turkey sandwiches, bags of nuts and boxes of chocolate chip cookies found their way into donation centers and shelters across the state.

The only problem – most disaster relief agencies cannot accept these gracious offerings.  The reason is simple – food safety.

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Members of the CU Boulder football team donated their time to serve food to flood evacuees.
Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado

As the initial flood waters receded, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, as well as various food banks and food pantries opened their doors to disaster victims in search of food, drink, shelter and safety.  Local residents who managed to remain dry and unharmed began donating food to the cause; however, many unsolicited donations were turned away at the door.

According to Patricia Billinger, communications director for the American Red Cross of Colorado, most disaster relief agencies, particularly those that receive federal funding, cannot accept food donations that are not pre-packaged or prepared in a commercial kitchen.

The Red Cross consults with a panel of doctors and health care professionals who provide guidance and recommendations for the agency, Billinger explained.

One of these recommendations is that the source and preparation methods of all food donations must follow strict health department guidelines for food safety — the same codes and regulations adhered to by restaurants.

Their goal is to ensure all food distributed to disaster victims is safe.  The Red Cross does not want to “make a bad time worse for their clients,” Billinger said.

The Red Cross is joined by several other relief agencies, including the Harvest of Hope Pantry based in Boulder, Colo.  When the floods hit Boulder County, Executive Director Barbara O’Neil and her staff opened the food pantry doors and offered food to those in need.

Unlike the Red Cross, Hope Pantry is a self-governed non-profit that receives no state or federal funding.  Because of a lack of government oversight, the food pantry is able to set its own food donation guidelines.  O’Neil agreed the first priority of the food pantry is to provide safe assistance to hungry clients.  Like the Red Cross, Hope Pantry tries to educate the public about the needs of its clients — which include canned food, bottled water and toiletry items — before donors even reach the pantry’s doors.

O’Neil noted an important distinction between food pantries, food banks and relief agencies.

“Food banks supply food pantries,” O’Neil said.  Both pantries and banks are self-governing non-profits that rely on private donations and non-government funding.  In the case of natural disasters like Colorado’s flooding, national agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are the first to respond to the needs of victims.  After the storm passes and these nation-wide agencies leave, food pantries and banks remain to answer the lingering needs of victims.

Terry Tedeschi is the development director for Community Food Share in Louisville, Colo., a non-profit food bank.  According to Tedeschi, food pantries distribute between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds of food per year, while food banks distribute over 8 million pounds of food per year.

Tedeschi’s greatest concern is distributing food containing allergens.  Many of the homemade food donations she saw during the flood had undocumented ingredients.  These donations are subject to Boulder County Health Department food safety regulations, which include ingredient labeling and preparation restrictions.

Tedeschi, O’Neil and Billinger all stressed the importance of individuals consulting donation guidelines before baking dozens of cookies and cooking pots of stew.  Though these donations are greatly appreciated, the overarching effort to provide disaster victims with safe food takes precedence.

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