On Tuesday, February 16, grocery workers and food rights activists stood off over the fate of multiple dumpsters full of food. After a Hollywood neighborhood grocery store threw out a massive amount of groceries following a power outage, activists attempted to save the food to redistribute it; instead, employees called the police, and a fierce argument has developed online surrounding the potential risk to vulnerable communities — either by choosing to distribute the food, or by choosing not to.
Like many other businesses and homes, the Hollywood Fred Meyer location lost power due to the snowstorms over Valentine’s Day weekend. After employees were directed to throw out thousands of food items like packaged meats and cheeses, milk, tofu, and juice, activists took to Twitter to alert the public about the available food. The Oregonian first reported that around 2:30 p.m., a number of local residents and activists showed up to salvage the still-intact food, only to be blocked by store employees. A tweet from Dr. Juniper Simonis, a local activist, showed a dumpster filled with thousands of pounds of food. Around 4 p.m., Portland Police officers responded to a 911 call from store employees, asking them to remove the individuals outside the store.
One such individual was Morgan Mckniff, who operates with Team Raccoon, a group that provided clean-ups for parks after the ongoing protests against police brutality, as well as respirators for protestors and families affected by police tear gas during last year’s summer. A former chef, Mckniff tells Eater that around a half a dumpster’s worth of food was successfully salvaged and redistributed; people brought food to food insecure Portlanders’ homes, volunteers dropped food in Portland’s many free fridges, and mutual aid kitchens prepared meals for those still without power. Mckniff said on Twitter that the team checked food temperatures and inspected items to evaluate whether it remained food-safe. “The point is that they didn’t even bother to check,” they say, referencing the Fred Meyer employees. “They just covered their asses and called the cops on the people who did show up to check.”
Fred Meyer, a chain founded in Portland and currently owned by grocery giant Kroger, remained quiet about the incident on Tuesday, but the following day issued a statement: “Unfortunately, due to loss of power at this store, some perishable food was no longer safe for donation to local hunger relief agencies. Our store team became concerned that area residents would consume the food and risk foodborne illness, and they engaged local law enforcement out of an abundance of caution. We apologize for the confusion.”
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), food in freezers during an outage would remain safe for around 48 hours; food in refrigerators would last closer to four. Other items, including shelf-stable ones, would remain safe for longer. A spokesperson for Fred Meyer was able to confirm that the shop had lost power due to the storm, and that the outage had lasted 48 hours, though it was unclear if that was 48 hours before the disposal, or total; Fred Meyer’s spokesperson did not respond to emails with follow-up questions.
It’s also unclear whether the Hollywood Fred Meyer had closed at any point, or if the market had considered donating the food before the full 48 hours had transpired. In the last year — facing untold crises like the pandemic, wildfires, and most recently, catastrophic snowstorms — mutual aid groups, food shelters, and restaurants have worked to help alleviate hunger around the city and state. Many of them accept donated food from places that have lost power or otherwise been forced to close, including Blanchet House and Feed the Mass. Julie Showers, marketing and communications director for Blanchet House, says that the nonprofit often accepts food related to power outages; the team inspects the food to make sure it’s safe for consumption, and then repurposes it for use. “We rely on food donations to meet the need,” Shower says. “It’s also an incredible way to keep good food from going to waste.”
Some Twitter users have expressed concern that donating the food within the window would have put them at risk of a lawsuit. If Fred Meyer had chosen to donate the food when the power first went out, they would have been protected, in part, by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The bill protects businesses from being liable when donating products in good faith. Mckniff tells Eater that they are aware of the bill, and even brought it up to Fred Meyer workers during the standoff. “It was a disgusting display of capitalism and property over people,” they say.
and i was like ok, that’s a lot of food.
but i was not prepared for what i saw in the orange dumpster.
this is the orange dumpster.
it was basically full.
— Dr. Juniper L Simonis; The Professor (@JuniperLSimonis) February 17, 2021
According to police, workers called the cops out of fear for their physical safety. A representative from Portland Police told Eater they responded to two 911 calls from a Fred Meyer manager, who was reportedly concerned about the size of the crowd, and said there were threats being levied at the workers.
Three officers remained on the scene for around an hour, during which a number of others, including trainees and their training officers, arrived. According to the PPB, at one point 11 police were on the scene for around 5 minutes. According to the police report, as well as witnesses on social media, the police vacated the area a little after 5 p.m.
Debate on social media regarding the safety of the food has raged on over the course of the day; some assert that the food could cause food poisoning throughout the unhoused community, while others say the food was obviously safe and showed no signs of spoilage. The heart of this debate comes out of an urge to help the one million Oregonians who are food insecure, a number that doubled in 2020. The question remains: If the food was sitting untouched in a power outage, why was there no effort to donate that food before it became a question of safety? Instead, much of it joined the 40 million tons of food thrown away by Americans each year.