Gleaning groups see threat in new California food-safety law

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Alongside a half-dozen other hard-working volunteers, Eileen O’Farrell knelt down and plucked a Meyer lemon from a tree in a Healdsburg homeowner’s yard. An hour later on Tuesday morning, O’Farrell and the rest of the group had picked and boxed roughly 400 pounds of lemons from the hillside grove.

The harvest of sweet-scented citrus was meant to save fruit that O’Farrell said otherwise would have been left to rot. Instead, it was destined for the Healdsburg Food Pantry, a charitable donation from the homeowner and the nonprofit group — Healdsburg-based Farm to Pantry — that had gathered to glean, or pick, the unwanted produce.

The practice, employed by groups and individual volunteers at farms and orchards across Sonoma County and the wider Bay Area, is credited with getting healthy food to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

It faces new and some say potentially insurmountable hurdles, however, in the form of regulations that gleaning groups statewide worry will be put in place under a recent state law aimed at improving food safety.

Groups fear that some of their donors — owners of gardens and orchards that aren’t set up for commercial sales and aren’t accustomed to such regulations — could be scared away by requirements that gleaners say would be onerous. The regulations are meant to improve the tracking of food to cut down on food-borne illness.

“Many of our donors are saying they don’t want to participate anymore because of all the questions,” said Dani Wilcox, gleaning coordinator for Farm to Pantry, which has donated 87 tons of produce to food banks and after-school programs in Sonoma County since it began eight years ago. “I understand that government wants to know where the food is coming from once it’s donated, but this was just supposed to be easy, and it’s become overly prohibitive.”

Farm to Pantry organizers said five of their 100 donors already this year have opted out of registering with the county.

A half-dozen local groups are known to focus on or participate in gleaning operations.

Sonoma County is one of the few counties in California that already require small-scale farms and property owners who sell or give away their produce to fill out a certification form tracking how their fruits and vegetables are grown and harvested. The three-year-old program, modeled after a similar effort in Napa County, was among the first to be adopted in the state.

The local programs came in the wake of the 2006 nationwide spinach recall, prompted by a deadly E. coli outbreak tied to a cattle ranch. A similar 2011 case linked to cantaloupes contaminated with listeria caused the deadliest outbreak in 90 years, killing 29 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sonoma County health and agriculture officials said no harmful bacteria or food-borne pathogens have been linked in any way to local farms or gleaning operations.

Until now, the county’s certification program hasn’t been an issue for gleaners because it hasn’t been enforced for their donors.

But California’s new food safety law, Assembly Bill 1990, which went into effect in January, now specifically calls out gleaning operations in the state health and safety code. It authorizes local governments to require a “community food producer” — commercial or noncommercial — to register, and to label the donated food with the name and address of the farm, orchard or garden of origin.

Gleaning advocates are concerned tighter local enforcement could follow. The anxiety extends to groups throughout California.

“All of the sudden this longstanding, mostly ignored practice is being scrutinized,” said Craig Diserens, executive director of Village Harvest, a gleaning group in the Santa Clara County.

Suzanne Grady, program director with the gleaning organization Petaluma Bounty, said she is lobbying the county to limit requirements on food donors.

“This new state law is putting a great burden on us,” she said. “It risks good food going to waste.”

Sonoma County officials said they don’t foresee a move to crack down on gleaning operations or aggressively police their food donors. Spurred by the state law, the county is, however, retooling its certificate program for noncommercial donors.

“There’s really no perfect way to do this, but what we’re trying to do is achieve equilibrium between ensuring food safety and not disrupting the flow of good food getting to people who need it,” said Supervisor James Gore, who is helping to craft potential revisions.

Gore spoke with county health and agriculture officials this week to identify potential solutions to the problem. One idea he floated was to shift the requirement to register with the county from property owners to gleaning organizations.

“We have an awesome gleaning movement in Sonoma County, and we don’t want to disrupt that,” said Gore, who previously served on the board of directors for CropMobster, the online gleaning marketplace founded in Sonoma County. Gore also has invited volunteers to pick oranges from trees at his Healdsburg-area home. “At the same time, we want to do our best to ensure that food is safe to eat.”

Environmental health officials pushed for the new state food-safety law. Now they are discussing how to implement it.

Santa Clara County officials said they are watching how Sonoma and other North Bay counties deal with the issue.

Karen Milman, Sonoma County’s health officer, said increasing popularity of farm-to-table food sales and donations made it even more important for health officials to be able to trace where the food comes from.

“This is a new and evolving issue,” Milman said. “We haven’t been tracking donations from gleaners, so it’s hard to know how much of a problem there is, but our goal is to let gleaning programs continue while still ensuring food safety.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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