Bakersfield has a hunger problem.

The city ranks first in the nation with the most people in a metropolitan area who cannot afford to buy the food they need, according to the national nonprofit organization Food Research and Action Center.

Every day, 116,000 people in Kern County don’t know where their next meal is coming from, the Kern County Public Health Services Department says.

But the health department has a plan.

A unique program would collect food from local schools and restaurants that would otherwise be thrown out, and redistribute that food to those who need it.

Called Waste Hunger, Not Food, Kern Public Health launched the program in April with two grants from Cal Recycle and the Kaiser Foundation totaling $121,000.

After a successful test-run at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, the program will expand to five more schools within the Bakersfield City School District starting in September for the official pilot. Beginning in November, the health department plans to officially launch the program, opening it up for other restaurants and businesses that want to participate.

“It has immediately grown to bigger than we could ever have hoped,” Kern Public Health Director Matt Constantine said. “We’re taking it slowly because we want to do it carefully, but we’re pretty excited about where this will go.”

The trial run

The students at Chavez Elementary, where the program was launched earlier this year, seemed to immediately understand how the program worked. Almost as soon as the new system was explained to them, they started donating the food they would have thrown out.

“It’s completely seamless,” said Eric Sabella, nutrition services director for Bakersfield City School District. “The kids really grasp the need for it. They really grasp the importance of it.”

The plan works like this: every day, kids pick up cartons of milk or packaged fruits and vegetables during their lunch.

Previously, unwanted food items would be thrown away, even though the item may never have been opened. Under the new system, the children have the option of putting unwanted items into one of three coolers: one for milk cartons, one for whole fresh foods and one for pre-packaged foods.

At the end of lunch, the health department picks up the coolers using refrigerated vans, and takes the food to a local agency to be distributed to someone in need.

“Rather than seeing this food go to waste, it will actually be eaten,” said Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson.

With thousands of students in attendance at BCSD, the program has the potential to provide much-needed food to the community.

“With so much food insecurity here in Kern County, it’s a blessing to be able to do something like this,” Sabella said. “I’m surprised that this is something that’s just kicking off now. We’ve always known that there’s been this issue with waste, but hey, it’s better late than never.”

Kern Public Health plans to take the same idea on a much larger scale.

Moving forward

As word of Waste Hunger, Not Food has spread, local restaurants and other school districts have expressed interest in joining the program.

“It’s been actually surprising at the level of interest from the health inspectors getting questions from restaurant and market owners,” Constantine said. “Members of the community have wanted to participate in whatever manner they can.”

The health department will soon train residents of the Bakersfield Homeless Center to be the drivers of the two refrigerated vans used for food delivery. After the pilot ends, the health department will begin accepting food from various sources around Bakersfield, including restaurants and markets.

The department has high hopes that Waste Hunger, Not Food could serve the pockets of the city that don’t currently get help from local charities. Whereas some charities require participants to meet certain conditions, Waste Hunger, Not Food is different.

“Our theory is, if you need it, you can get it,” Constantine said. “We are in kind of a unique situation where we don’t have any restrictions.”

If all goes as planned, Waste Hunger, Not Food could have a huge impact on food redistribution in Kern County by providing food to the niches within the county that had not been receiving services thus far.

“What we are trying to do now is find that small church on the corner that doesn’t have the same resources that we could bring food to daily,” Constantine said. “We are talking to groups that actually want to purchase a storefront.”

That would mean more kids, more coolers, and more food that would otherwise have been thrown out going to families that need it.

“This is a lot bigger than public health,” Constantine said. “This is what Kern County does well. We all pull together and we address the need. This has just been taking off. There’s nothing standing in our way.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415 or smorgen@bakersfield.com. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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