Hartford Food Distribution Group Loses Fresh Produce Source

Every Sunday for the past eight years, Hartford Food Not Bombs has received donations of produce from the Whole Foods in West Hartford Center. This is food that is suitable for human consumption, but often not aesthetically appealing enough to get top dollar from consumers. Instead of dumping it, the company has been generously gifting it to this grassroots organization, which has been serving it as part of the free, vegetarian meals distributed near the carousel in Bushnell Park on Sunday afternoons.

This month, that arrangement came to a halt.

On March 2, when volunteers arrived for the weekly pickup, they were told that Whole Foods would be changing how it donates food that would otherwise land in the dumpster. The organization tried to set up a meeting with the manager, but to date, the only discussion between these parties has been through email.

The grocery store is now working with Food Donation Connection to coordinate how and where it gives. Before, groups like Food Not Bombs were able to work directly with the corporation known for its high quality food. That relationship appears to have dissolved overnight, with the community organization having to work with a third party that says Food Not Bombs in its current state does not qualify as a charitable organization and is now unable to receive the food donations as it had been for almost a decade.

The Food Donation Connection, in an email, explains that “Whole Foods Corporate is currently taking advantage of the incremental tax savings that is available to them for donating their surplus food to qualified, non-profit organizations. By law, the IRS has specific documentation requirements that Agencies must possess in order for them to take the deduction. Unfortunately, a 501(C)(3) is one of the required documents needed for participation. Whole Foods has contracted with Food Donation Connection to ensure they are in compliance with Federal Tax Law.”

On its website, Whole Foods claims: “Our stores are not cookie cutter big box-type stores with directives from ‘corporate’ about how to run the business. Each of our stores has a lot of latitude in deciding the best way to operate that individual store to meet the needs of the local community.”

Brad Dietz, the Harvest Support Center Lead for the Food Donation Connection, told Food Not Bombs in an email exchange: “Until you obtain this nonprofit status, Whole Foods cannot legally continue to donate food to FNB. We understand your frustration, but we cannot ask WFM to put their entire food donation program across the country at risk.  The management at the West Hartford location is not in a position to change the decision.”

The philosophy of Food Not Bombs, an international organization founded in 1980, with its Hartford chapter in operation for the last eighteen years, is that anybody can shine attention on the issues of poverty and hunger. Anarchist principles explain the practice of helping when possible without asking officials first for permission to do so.

The timing of this change is less than optimal, says Dave Rozza, who has been involved with Hartford Food Not Bombs for the long haul. Until farmers’ markets begin operating for the season, there are not many options for the group to obtain quality produce. Although the Food Donation Connection has offered to help Food Not Bombs work toward obtaining 501c3 status — something the organization is not interested in — neither it nor Whole Foods has offered the group what it does want: fruits and vegetables, at least until the growing season begins locally.

While the group has some food that it can bring to the park on Sundays, the fresh fruits and vegetables are missed, especially the zucchini and mushrooms, Rozza said. This change is hard, he said, because those individuals partaking in free Sunday meals are often not getting very healthy meals otherwise.

Another unintended consequence of this change is that the local McKinney and Open Hearth shelters will not benefit from the surplus that Food Not Bombs had been donating to them. Rozza said the shelters were not dependent on them, but still, it’s something.

Rozza said that Food Not Bombs is not, at this point, aiming to restore its relationship with Whole Foods. After that eight-year relationship came to an abrupt close, the group needs to find a reliable source for produce that can be picked up on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays. If you know of such a source, contact Hartford Food Not Bombs directly by sending an email to hartfordfnb@gmail.com