SAN FRANCISCO — The West Coast port shutdown was not a calamity for all involved: food banks from San Francisco to New York City are finding pantries fat with tons of perishables that never made it to market.
Sometimes it’s pallets of bananas from Ecuador that sat a little too long off the Southern California coast; sometimes it’s greens with slightly browned leaves; sometimes it’s milk with a use-by date fast approaching.
In every case, the 10-day shutdown of 29 major Pacific ports that ended last week has proven a surprise boon to food pantries. With some produce wilting in the backlog on the docks, some companies are opting to donate rather than ship behind schedule.
“To get this kind of poundage of fresh fruit is a real blessing,” said Darren Hoffman at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “At least it didn’t go to waste.”
That warehouse has already received a 16,000-pound shipment that included lettuce, cabbage and green onions — their leaves too tattered for grocery store display, but still perfectly edible.
“Nutritionally, it’s fine,” Hoffman said. “You peel off the first leaf and bam, it looks like a million bucks.”
On Wednesday, the food bank received 25,000 pounds — about 450 cases — of bananas from Del Monte.
Los Angeles wasn’t alone.
Truckloads of the bananas with a shelf life of about two weeks are chugging from Port Hueneme northwest of Los Angeles to San Francisco, New York City, Dallas, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis and smaller cities in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Oklahoma.
In all, Del Monte gave 50 truckloads — about 1,000 tons — of bananas, according to Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman with Chicago-based America’s Second Harvest, which coordinated the distribution. That single donation equaled nearly a quarter of all produce the nonprofit transported last month.
With 30 truckloads already en route, America’s Second Harvest is finding the unexpected windfall has added unexpected costs that are straining its transportation budget. Sometimes truckers donate their services, Hofer said, but bananas are perishable and, “if it’s product that has to move, we have to pay.”
In Seattle, a major grocery chain already donated around 250,000 pounds of dairy products including milk, yogurt and cottage cheese rather than risk it spoiling before it reached Alaska.
The donation was particularly appreciated because, “protein is a very hard commodity to come by,” said Linda Nageotte, director of Food Lifeline, which supplies food banks in Seattle.
The Oregon Food Bank also got a truckload of dairy products from Seattle’s docks.
And what do the two sides locked in the labor dispute think of one fruit of their battle?
Officials representing both dockworkers and shipping companies said they were happy someone was getting goods that might otherwise rot, and then blamed each other for the problem.
The longshoremen’s union said that dockworkers had asked to move perishables during the 10-day lockout.
“It’s an unintended consequence that charity is coming out of what is pure greed” from shipping companies, said Steve Stallone, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Joseph Miniace, president for the Pacific Maritime Association, said the donated produce seemed awfully expensive given that the shutdown had cost the U.S. economy billions.
Miniace had one other thought.
“Spread the cabbage out,” he said. “Keep everybody regular.”
Associated Press Writer Peggy Andersen in Seattle contributed to this report.