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Oak Harbor food bank explains discard policies

Jean Wieman, left, executive director of North Whidbey Help House, and assistants examine food items for their pull dates. A critic said some food is being wasted, but Wieman replies that the charity is just cautious in assuring food that is distributed to the needy is safe. - Jim Larsen / Whidbey News-Times
Jean Wieman, left, executive director of North Whidbey Help House, and assistants examine food items for their pull dates. A critic said some food is being wasted, but Wieman replies that the charity is just cautious in assuring food that is distributed to the needy is safe.
— image credit: Jim Larsen / Whidbey News-Times

A small drama unfolded Friday at North Whidbey Help House involving a woman raiding the charity’s garbage can and a resulting drive-by by the Oak Harbor police.

Mary Hanson, a feisty 85-year-old, pulled into the Whidbey News-Times parking lot just ahead of the police, the bed of her small pickup truck partly covered in rice products she had collected from the Help House garbage can, located just down the street. The police didn’t stop to make contact with Hanson.

Jean Wieman, Help House executive director, said she called the police on Hanson because of the woman’s frequent trips to the garbage can.

“We’ve found her going through the garbage before and I’ve asked her not to do that,” she said. “If she got hurt, it’s a liability. That’s why we called the police department.”

From her perspective, Hanson was just collecting evidence that the food bank tosses out good food. Several dozen packages of rice products in bags and boxes looked to be in good shape, with pull dates a year or more away.

“It’s sold legally in the grocery stores,” Hanson said, wondering why it was in the Help House garbage can.

Wieman explained that some of the rice bags contained tiny moth larvae, little brown specks that could be seen moving around inside.

In such cases, Wieman said, no chances are taken. Any food that may be contaminated by larvae or other vermin is thrown out.

“My thinking is we can’t guarantee it,” Wieman said. “We play it safe ... when in doubt, throw it out.”

As a result, Help House threw out all the food in the two banana boxes, including packaged items that appeared safe.

However, Hanson recovered some other items from the garbage that weren’t so easily explained, including soup and other canned goods.

“I can’t explain these,” Wieman said as she eyed Quaker Oats boxes and several canned items that Hanson had found in the garbage.

But it wasn’t long before Wieman had an explanation, using her experience and that of her employees. When food boxes are given out to the needy, some of the recipients go through the boxes and discard what they don’t want. Food is sometimes found all over town.

“There were green beans and pork & beans sitting in the bushes,” Wieman said, pointing to some nearby foliage. In such cases, the food items are sometimes placed in the garbage can.

Wieman denied Hanson’s allegation that food items past their pull dates are routinely discarded. While they’re not placed in food boxes, they are put in a separate container from which anyone can take food, whether or not they’re registered as a food bank recipient.

“Up to a year past the pull date, it all goes in the freebie box,” Wieman said.

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