Bulgarian Food Bank: Food Needs You!

They are in the business of preventing food waste. If they were a “typical” business, they’d be winning industry awards for efficiency. But they are not. They have a staff of two and rely on donations for their existence and volunteer help for the bulk of their activity. There also is no industry: the Bulgarian Food Bank is the only entity in Bulgaria that rescues edible food otherwise destined for the dump. At the same time, it saves food producers and purveyors time, effort, and money they would otherwise expend in getting rid of the food themselves. And it helps feed over 30,000 Bulgarians in need every year.

Tzanka Milanova and Ilian Yordanov are what moves the well-oiled machine that is the Bulgarian Food Bank. Tzanka is the bank’s executive director, but she also does the accounting and data entry, cleans the refrigerators and storage areas, and lobbies the government to make it easier for companies to donate food. Ilian is responsible for marketing and donor relations in addition to being chief driver and food delivery guy. They both organize volunteers.

Their many responsibilities aren’t the only reason they have had to become master organizers. “The food that comes to us has a fast-approaching expiration date, and we have a responsibility to those who entrusted it to us, to the people who will consume it, and to those who support us to deal with it as efficiently as possible,” Ilian says. “Before we can do good, there is sorting and optimizing to do, and paperwork to prepare.”

The bank sources its food from a variety of businesses in the food production chain: food growers, food processors, supermarkets, and restaurants. No matter the source, the donated food has to be safe, of high quality, and within its shelf life. That it meets all three requirements often has to be verified. “Once we got a delivery of three tons of onions. Every head had to be individually checked for signs of rot, sorted, and sometimes peeled,” Ilian says. “This is where you need hands, lots of hands.” And although there is no shortage of willing helpers—more than 700 people volunteer at the food bank annually—volunteers need to be summoned and trained, and their visits carefully prepared.

Food pickups from donor sites are scheduled for Thursdays and Fridays, with the actual pickup so well organized that it takes no more than a few minutes from the time Ilian unloads the empty food containers to the time he drives away with the food properly stored in the refrigerator truck. Wednesdays and Fridays are volunteer days, and although food is handed out every day, each one of the almost 60 organizations the bank supplies with basic provisions gets a time slot for food pickup. “We keep emphasizing how important it is to be on time as someone coming early messes up the schedule just as much as someone coming late,” Tzanka says. The bank turns around nearly a ton of food every day, rescuing 270 tons annually.

Not all goes according to plan always, but Ilian and Tzanka are prepared to handle unexpected situations. Sometimes, a donor chooses to drop off food directly at the bank’s premises. These donations can happen anytime, and when they do, they require immediate attention. This usually means finding enough volunteers to help with loading, unloading, and sorting; ensuring there is enough storage space and, if there isn’t, finding a recipient who can use the food right away; and entering every donated item into the bank’s system. And then there are cooling system failures and vehicle breakdowns to deal with. “Then we start working the phones, and people always help out,” Ilian says. Donations to the bank do not always involve food, Tzanka explains, and the bank subsists on both monetary and in-kind donations from businesses such as repair shops and spare parts dealers.

This seems like a lot of work for a staff of two, so people often wonder why the organization is so small. The answer, invariably, is: “Because we haven’t figured out a way to make it smaller. If you work with public funds, you have to be efficient.”

Friends of the bank from the IT world have developed a software application that will streamline its work and make it even more efficient. An associated mobile app, to be piloted in the fall, will alert volunteers when their help is needed.

“A big food bank, with lots of staff and more recipients, will also mean that there is a serious problem in society,” Ilian says.

Both Tzanka and Ilian are adamant that the food bank is not a charity, although it saves thousands of Bulgarians from chronic undernourishment daily. “We are an NGO because the law does not allow us to be anything else. The food bank belongs to the food industry, and we have a shared responsibility to prevent food waste,” Tzanka says. And what better way to use rescued food than to give it to those who need it?

“It could be that simple, but it isn’t,” Tzanka says. Although Bulgaria produces 670,000 tons of excess food every year, according to a European Commission study, or a third more than it needs to feed its population, there is no government program to date attempting to address the problem. In fact, recent government regulations create obstacles to food donations such as by requiring donors to label individual packages in order to get a tax waiver for donated food. As a result of this new regulation, the bank has seen a 30% drop in food donations. At the same time, 1,5 million Bulgarians live under the poverty line and do not get enough nutrition.

So Tzanka and Ilian call on you: “Give food a hand!”

Watch this short film to learn more about the Bulgarian Food Bank.

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