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Food fight: NC restrictions hinder school meal donation initiative
East Meck philanthropist aims to change rules
Published Monday, March 20, 2017 6:48 pm
by Herbert L. White

East Mecklenburg High School senior Hanna Wondmagegn, founder of the campus Food Rescue program, wants the North Carolina Department of Public Health to ease restrictions on food donations, which are tougher than the federal government's.

















A food rescue campaign at East Mecklenburg High School is choking on North Carolina donor regulations.

A re-interpretation of state rules has stymied the campus Food Rescue initiative to donate unused meals to needy students. The program has gone from nearly 4,700 donations in the 2015-16 academic year to none since the start of 2017.

“I think there was a miscommunication of what we could do from the beginning,” said East senior Hanna Wondmagegn, who founded the food rescue program in 2015. “We were given the go-ahead, but in actuality, we weren’t supposed to and the state health department finally sent the correct information.”

The N.C. Department of Public Health, which regulates food donation rules, is stricter than its federal counterpart. Cindy Callahan, head of the state Food Protection and Facilities Branch, determined in a December memo that once food is removed from refrigeration or heat, it’s ineligible for donation.

“Served food is food that has come into contact with the customer or is transferred from direct supervision and oversight by employees of the food establishment,” Callahan wrote. “For example, food transported to a classroom or other location has been ‘served’ and has left the control of the permitted food establishment. This food cannot be returned to the food establishment to be donated.”

The result is loss of donations from fruit cups to milk and juice in a public school district where 54 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, a generally-accepted measurement of poverty.

“As of right now, we’ve gone from collecting 4,650 items to zero because the items that we can collect no one even eats or they don’t get it,” said Wondmagegn, national director of student leadership for Food Rescue, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based nonprofit. …“That eliminates like 99 percent of [meals], and to me, it’s unnecessary.”

According to state rules, which were last updated in 2009, donations can include:

• Unserved food that never reaches an individual, such as items that remain in a cafeteria refrigerator and

• Packaged items that aren’t time/temperature controlled for safety, whole fruit or foods in an unopened original package such as crackers, salt or pepper.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture advocates food recovery programs with the stipulation that donations are refrigerated within 30 minutes of serving. East Mecklenburg’s lunch period is 25 minutes, during which time meals were collected in coolers and donated to the Independence Regional Library across from the campus.

According to USDA’s website: “Donations of non-perishable and unspoiled perishable food from homes and businesses help stock the shelves at food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, and shelters.  Donations of perishable prepared foods, typically collected from restaurants, caterers, corporate dining rooms, hotels, and other food establishments, also play an important role in feeding families in need, though such donations usually require special handling such as refrigerated trucks and prompt distribution.”

Food recovery advocates say the North Carolina rules interpretation hurts the state, from adding edible food to landfills to eliminating a source of nutrition for low-income residents.

“This enforcement of the policies in the memo will keep the current North Carolina policy of feeding landfills instead of feeding families with unopened nutritious food in place rather than allowing Hanna and her passion to usher in a new day for the entire city of Charlotte and state of North Carolina,” Food Rescue President John Williamson said.

As a sophomore, Wondmagegn organized the Food Rescue program at East by convincing school administrators and students to donate unopened food.

The program spread to Hough and North Mecklenburg high schools, Northwest School of the Arts as well as Windsor Park Elementary, where Wondmagegn’s mother, Yetmwork Duke, is a cafeteria worker.

Food Rescue also looked to build partnerships with food pantries, but those efforts are on hold. Wondmagegn said the initiative will reach out to food pantries for guidance on how they handle donations as well as appeal to state lawmakers to ease the guidelines.

“There’s still hunger,” she said, “but I feel the times have changed to the point where this needs to be changed as well and that’s what we’re trying to do.”


When I worked at Harris Teeter they could never donate rotisserie chickens or fried chicken because of health codes.
Posted on March 20, 2017

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