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Rotten food allegations in eastern Madera County prompt changes from Food Bank

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Central California Food Bank plans to revamp procedures and documentation policies following a report last month from the Sierra Star detailing allegations from volunteers who said the food bank repeatedly sent spoiled food to its eastern Madera County distribution centers.

Andy Souza, CEO of Central California Food Bank, said the food bank’s quality control coordinator has always inspected the food but has never documented those inspections.

“We’re tightening (our food inspections) up a little bit, (our quality control coordinator) is going to be initialing pallets and we’re going to be doing more things to strengthen that system,” he told the Sierra Star.

“Since reading the article in the Sierra Star I have been working with our staff to review and improve our operational process as it relates to our Mobile Pantries and the food we deliver for distribution,” Souza told the Sierra Star.

The food is shipped out of the Fresno facility to over 200 distribution centers, or mobile food pantry locations, across Fresno, Kings, Madera, Kern and Tulare counties.

Mary Bowman, the former coordinator of the Oakhurst and Coarsegold distribution sites of Central California Food Bank, stepped down on Dec. 20 after what she says was five years of declining quality in the food shipments.

Eight other volunteers and David Fisher, 75, coordinator for the food bank run out of the Grace Community Church in North Fork, also came forward with similar complaints.

Souza said the volume of food they receive and distribute, which totals about 38 million pounds annually, makes it difficult for the food to go through a more thorough inspection process. So the food is sent out with the idea that the volunteers at the distribution sites will be able to sort through the totes of food and only distribute what is edible.

The American Institute of Bakers inspects the warehouse for food safety every two years, but does not inspect the food itself, he said.

Long term, he said he hopes the food bank can build a packing line for staff and volunteers to sort through and eliminate as much spoiled or damaged food as possible.

But for Souza, the prime cause of these recent complaints was the lack of communication.

He said moving forward, the drivers will work together with the coordinators to fill out a form to record how much food is being sent back and the reasons why it was not distributed.

“When we end the distribution, we’re all going to be on the same page of what it was. How much it was, what it looked like,” he said. “So we’re going to be getting that immediate feedback from the distribution, from our driver and (the distribution site).”

One of the new procedures will include getting photographic documentation whenever excessive amounts of spoiled food are discarded.

Bowman said she drove down to Fresno to make her grievances known. Spokespersons for the Central California Food Bank said they didn’t know about the Bowman’s concerns with the food quality until she stepped down in protest on Dec. 20.

Souza said he did not know why there was a discrepancy between Bowman’s account and his team’s.

“We really hope that with this process that if there are issues, that we have the opportunity to work with folks immediately. And that we don’t have to rely on folks calling us,” he said. “It really is as simple as our driver who is there during the distributions can bring us some immediate feedback.”

These updated procedures are still being drafted and are not official but the group plans to meet with volunteers of the Raymond and North Fork distribution sites to get their feedback on the new procedures and to discuss what they feel needs to be added.

Bowman expressed her dissatisfaction with the changes, saying the problem is not communication but the quality of the food.

Souza has reached out to Bowman twice to run through the new proposed procedures.

“(Souza) never indicated anything about the food, It was all about the changes they were going to be making at (the) food bank,” Bowman said. “Nothing about food, all about people work.”

Bowman contested Souza’s point about the lack of communication with anecdotes of truck drivers who had already taken photos of the spoiled food and send them directly to Central California Food Bank to no avail.

Bowman recalls even writing out her own reports of the soiled food and sending them back with the truck drivers. Dawn Terrell, food bank coordinator for the Raymond distribution center at Raymond community church, said she did the same.

“This whole last year, we would go through the truck, see what condition the food was in and then on that paper write down what we see and send it back with the driver,” Bowman said. “They all knew, all the drivers know.”

In the time since the original allegations surfaced, Terrell has also come forward with reports of spoiled food sent up to her distribution center.

“Just last month, I did not serve the small oranges that were dripping nasty smelly juice onto the carton of small oranges below,” Terrell said in an email from Jan. 19. “Angela Vue, Direct Service USDA coordinator, attended the distribution. Of course, I took advantage to point out such atrocious food that was sent to us and as always, the response was ‘I will look into it.”’

Terrell said the food bank will continue to operate but she does not plan on sorting through any bad food.

Souza expressed interest in bringing Bowman back as coordinator of the Oakhurst and Coarsegold distribution sites, but said she had not returned any of their calls regarding the matter.

“We would hope she would come back because she’s been a great part of ours for a long period of time. If she doesn’t, and it doesn’t work out, we certainly respect that,” he said. “We’d even like her to sit down with us and go through the form.”

As of now, the Coarsegold and Oakhurst distribution sites are without a coordinator and are not operational. The two locations would hand out food every second and third Tuesday of the month, respectively.

They were located at the Our Lady of the Sierra Catholic Church in Oakhurst and the Coarsegold Historic Village.

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