By Mike Stuckey Senior news editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/23/2007 8:22:52 PM ET 2007-03-24T00:22:52

Troy Paiva has seen a lot of weird stuff in his decades of stalking the high deserts of Southern California with his camera, but nothing compares with the massive, rotting mess of food and drink that he stumbled upon recently in the Mojave Desert.

“There’s thousands of things out there,” said Paiva, 46. “There’s a whole pallet of yogurt, there’s a whole pallet of Reddi Wip whipped cream. It’s cases and cases and cases, stacked on pallets and pallets and pallets.”

And it all came from a food bank, which is now scrambling to clean up the mess after receiving a call from MSNBC.com.

Paiva, a free-lance photographer and graphic designer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, was seeking fresh material for his passion of “night photography of the abandoned roadside West,” when he and a friend stumbled across the food cache near the hamlet of Helendale, along the fabled Route 66 highway between Barstow and Victorville.

Looking for a museum run by retired strip-tease dancers in early March, they ventured up a dirt road and came to what appeared to be an abandoned ranch. When they opened their car doors, they were nearly felled by the stench.

“It was horrendous,” Paiva recalled Friday. “It was really bad. Sometimes you smell dead animals and that’s what it smelled like. Creepy, spooky, gross, disgusting, filled with animals and bugs.”

Click, click, whiff, whiff: Eeewww!!
They snapped a few images of old cars, trailers and buildings, then rounded a corner and saw an awful buffet spread before them. “There was a case of eggnog … whole cases of spinach that are just desiccated into a bunch of dry leaves … a case of Rembrandt tooth whitener, which I find highly amusing as a food bank item anyway.”

The stuff may have covered an acre of land, Paiva estimated. In among it all were several barrels with the name and telephone number of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County, a program that works with 390 member charities to help feed 200,000 people a month, according to its Web site.

Shown Paiva’s photographs of the macabre scene by MSNBC.com, food bank General Manager Jerry Creekpaum immediately recognized the crates and pallets as “the product that we send out to our pig farm, product that has gone beyond code shelf life.” Checking into the matter further, Creekpaum found that the pig farmer had been evicted from the ranch in January before he was able to feed the stuff to his animals or move it.

“I was unaware that he had been evicted,” Creekpaum said. “Nobody knew that there was still food on the land.”

Creekpaum vowed to contact the land’s owner and haul the debris away. “At this point, its going to have to end up at the landfill. It’s probably no longer suitable even for pigs.”

But why did Second Harvest, which is an affiliate of the nation’s largest hunger charity, have to throw out so much food to begin with?

20 percent gets thrown away
Creekpaum said 20 percent of the food, drink and other donations that his food bank processes, much of them from large corporate sources, must be tossed for a variety of reasons. "Most of the product we get is already past the date it can be in the grocery story,” he said, although it can still be safely used. But much of it can’t, so it’s sorted out and sent to the pig farm or a landfill.

But what about all the bottled water that can be seen in Paiva’s pictures? And the toothpaste? “That water was fluoride treated so that’s something that spoils,” Creekpaum said. He said he would look into the toothpaste further.  “I don’t think there have should been toothpaste on there. That’s not policy to send that to the pig farm.”

Christine Ahn said the desert food dump appears to be a consequence of the “piecemeal and oftentimes self-serving proposals for ending hunger” that she criticized in a 2004 paper titled “Beyond the Food Bank,” written for the Institute for Food and Development Policy. "I think that's your story right there."

Ahn and fellow author Brahm Ahmadi said that tax breaks and public relations initiatives are fueling a food donation cycle whose goal is not to end hunger so much as to serve corporate needs.

Their report noted that snack foods, cookies, coffee, soda, water and other beverages accounted for 25 percent of the 279 million pounds of grocery products donated to Second Harvest nationwide in 2003. Apparently inspired by tax breaks, other donations ranged from wallpaper to glue.

“We’re not really looking at the root causes of why are people lining up at the food banks,” such as a lack of “self-sufficient local food production … living wage jobs, universal health care and affordable housing,” Ahn said.

"I don’t like to get into any kind of political debate along those lines,” Creekpaum responded, but “for people to say that people only donate for a tax break is, I’m sorry to say, asinine. Most of the ones that are donating are donating because they believe in the cause they’re donating to."

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