Sometimes effective policy makers must break character to get to the bottom of issues. Even if it’s the bottom of a dumpster.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), vice chairman of the House Hunger Caucus, was curious if a grocery store in his district was throwing away perfectly good food.

So he did a little congressional fact-finding dumpster diving.

“I went behind the store into the dumpsters, to look for what was in there — I was in a sports coat and a tie — and people came up to me and started yelling and saying, ‘What are you doing? This is private property,’ the Massachusetts congressman told a conference room of about a dozen people Thursday at White Pony Express in Pleasant Hill.

“I said, ‘I’m just trying to see what you have here: hummus.’ And as I was being scolded I said, ‘Tell me why this is being thrown away.’ (The store employee said) ‘Well, we have this routine where every so many days, we just …’

“I said, ‘Is it edible?’” McGovern said. “If I eat this will I get sick? ‘No, it’s perfectly fine,’ he said. ‘But why are you doing this? (I said)’”

“‘Because it’s the rules.’”

McGovern’s story illustrated the need for White Pony Express, an eight-year-old, rapidly-growing organization dedicated to exterminating hunger.

Whereas food banks deal mostly in canned food, White Pony Express is about perishables and speed — as in, collecting perishable food from stores and restaurants every day (except Christmas), cleaning it, re-packaging it, and getting it back out the door to the Contra Costa County groups needing it.

Hungry for inspiration

The outfit has grown so efficiently that McGovern, from the other side of the country, spent nearly two hours onsite Thursday, collecting ideas “to see if they’re nationally applicable,” he said. The Democrat — also chairman of the House Rules Committee — was on the West Coast, gathering intelligence for next month’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.

The conference hasn’t officially been announced, but McGovern said he expects President Joe Biden to make an announcement next week. Incredibly, McGovern said, it will be the first such conference since 1969. “The year we first landed on the moon.”

“It’s about food waste,” McGovern said. “Some communities are getting it right, some communities are getting it very wrong, and some are doing nothing.”

The small warehouse was busy Thursday, with trucks coming and going and volunteers cleaning and sorting fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, and some deli meat. It was quickly boxed and redirected to shelters, churches, food pantries, and other nonprofits countywide.

Rep. James P. McGovern meets with representatives of White Pony Express to discuss the Pleasant Hill pantry’s operations. In eight years the pantry has expanded to 400 volunteers and 17 paid staffers moving about 14,000 pounds of food daily. (Photo by Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News)

“Volunteers make sure the food that goes out on the trucks is the same quality that they would feed their families,” said Gary Bostick, the food rescue operations manager. “The sorting is done here, based on what destinations ask for, what’s culturally appropriate, (and) what people will eat.”

Word about the organization is getting out. It even helped the Vatican with a project.

“We have been sharing the model,” said Eve Birge, White Pony Express’ executive director. “We were in Mexico less than two months ago, helping a group there scale up a model similar to White Pony Express. And we’re creating an operations manual.”

White Pony Express has gone from four volunteers moving food in car trunks, to 400 volunteers and 17 paid staffers, moving about 14,000 pounds of food daily with 12 trucks through a 14,000-square-foot facility that is no longer big enough.

White Pony Express (WPE) volunteer Paul Russell of Concord breaks down boxes after food sorting. (Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News)

The food recovery business is set to explode since California just enacted SB 1383, a law requiring commercial edible food generators to have agreements with food recovery organizations.

It also mandates no less than 20 percent of edible food currently disposed of will be recovered for human consumption by 2025. The law isn’t just for hungry people: it is also meant to address greenhouse gases generated by food in landfills.

‘We go where the community needs it’

White Pony Express also distributes clothes, shoes, books, and toys at events, from a much-smaller “general store” operation. Though it did gather 33 pallets worth of food, medical devices, clothing, and tactical equipment like boots and gas masks for Ukraine.

“We go where the community needs it,” said the store’s lone paid employee, Steve Harrell. “It’s hard for the communities who need it to come to Pleasant Hill. So we go to them.”

Birge and company are scouting new locations, preferably one big enough for an industrial size kitchen to prepare and repackage food for distribution.

“We need to be located in Central County, because much of our focus is on East County and the Richmond area,” Birge said. “We want to have a model like this in every community.”

White Pony Express operates on a $2.5 million budget, 40 percent of which comes from individual donations. The rest comes from grants and other sources, including a partnership with CalRecycle.

“Someday, someone will explain to me the best-by (expiration) dates. I don’t understand. None of them mean that the food’s no good.”

Rep. Jim McGovern

“At the end of the day we can’t rely on big bureaucracies,” Birge said. “It’s really about neighbor helping neighbor.”

The food comes from companies like Hello Fresh, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Methodology, and Starbucks, among others. “Really wonderful, high-quality foods,” Birge said. “And we cornered the market on farmer’s markets.”

McGovern seemed impressed.

“Just because you’re having difficulties or challenges or are in a vulnerable population, doesn’t mean you should just have the scraps,” McGovern said. “You should have the dignity of good food.

“Someday, someone will explain to me the best-by (expiration) dates. I don’t understand. None of them mean that the food’s no good.”

McGovern said he will pass on what he learned and try getting White Pony Express a seat at the national table when it comes to food scarcity. “With this White House conference, what we’re trying to get the White House to figure out is: If the Federal government could be wind in your back, what would be the most helpful?

“Throwing away good food is a sin,” McGovern said. “You’re making sure we’re not throwing away good food. You’re making sure we’re re-capturing food. You’re getting to people in need. One of the things we’re trying to tell people, by doing that, you’re making your community healthier.”