Meet the COO of Feeding San Diego

She might have swapped out her helmet and steel-toed boots for her own desk and COO nameplate, but Alicia Saake knows Feeding San Diego’s 42,000-square-foot warehouse as well as any of the nonprofit’s floor workers.

By just resting her hand on a crate of pickling cucumbers, she can tell from their cool temperature that they were just delivered.

Then, gesturing toward a box of what appears to be perfectly good apples, she makes her hands the size of a small cantaloupe and says, "Sometimes, they’re this big." Too big to sell in stores, that is, which is why farms have donated them to Feeding San Diego. Saake refers to it as "a hunger relief organization. It really is capturing food before it goes to waste and giving it to people that need it."

A lot of times that "waste" is nonperishable products past their "best of" or "sell by" date (which aren’t federally regulated) or in the case of produce, not pretty enough to go into stores.

"We’ve seen sweet potatoes that look like ducks, and there’s tons of carrots that look like people, humans with little arms and legs," Saake says. "We were working in the ugly produce before it started getting cool." She points to a lone box in the corner with some bruised apples.

"This product didn’t pass our food safety test. Our volunteers checked it, so now it’s going to a farmer in East County to compost."

Every bit of produce currently in the warehouse will be gone in three days. They’ve got to move it fast so it doesn’t spoil—and to make room for the three-to-five truckloads of fresh produce that come in per week. Over a million pounds of food moves through the warehouse per month, and eighty percent of that is produce.

It’s up to Saake and her team to broker it all—fruits, vegetables, nonperishables, literal leftovers—from farmers, stores, and manufacturers to agencies serving hungry San Diegans. Father Joe’s Villages, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego, Jewish Family Service of San Diego, San Diego Rescue Mission, even the San Diego Unified School District are recipients. And that last one really strikes a chord with her.

As a volunteer here nine years ago, Saake learned about San Diego Unified’s "backpack bags," which are brown bag meals distributed to students who need food over the weekend. Turns out, several schools in Saake’s own high school district participated in the program too.

"I never knew. That’s really what drew me to do something about hunger locally, where I grew up," she says. "It’s happening all over San Diego County. One in eight people are food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. A lot of folks who are our neighbors and friends are facing it."

Last year alone, Feeding San Diego supplied 26 million meals. But unlike other food banks, the organization literally takes the goods to these agencies. No pickups at the warehouse. And Saake’s the one routing all the trucks to those pickups and drop-offs—either to the warehouse for storage, or directly to the recipients.

She creates routes with the help of a GIS map based on data from Feeding America that shows which areas in the community need food and where the potential waste is.

They pick up a lot of overstock from businesses like Starbucks. Saake actually piloted Feeding America’s first-ever food capture program with the coffee giant, coordinating trucks to pick up perishables from the coffee shops at night, and then take them directly to organizations that could serve them immediately.

"Right now, there’s more food going to waste than we can capture. We haven’t solved the problem yet, so that’s the biggest inspiration," she says, and naturally returns to that crate of apples to inspect one. "Beautiful, isn’t it?"

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