Beginning in 1982, in response to growing unemployment leading to an increasing human need, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made surplus food goods available for distribution to needy citizens. The effort to feed hungry Americans began with two million pounds of cheese. The enormous quantity of goods donated, their perishability, and the great want of Los Angeles' citizens demanded an immediate distribution mechanism to deliver the federal cheese to poor neighborhoods across Los Angeles County.
Los Angeles County rose to the occasion, creating a network whose breadth and depth was equal to the task. The pilot program for managing the large quantities of donated food (which eventually included milk, flour, cornmeal, honey, butter, rice and cheese) was launched in 1983, and since then Foodnet has emerged as Los Angeles County's food distribution service. The robust network is defined by efficiency, flexibility, and un-bureaucratic organization and, as such, Foodnet challenged the community's skeptical perception of government programs.
The task of meeting the needs of Los Angeles' two million residents who live below the poverty line required the collaboration of several local actors. The State Department of Education administers the program on behalf of the State of California and the Los Angeles Country Board of Supervisors created Foodnet to establish channels of distribution among the county's private and nonprofit agencies. Approximately 1,200 food banks, churches, and other human service agencies deliver the food to those in need on a local basis. Annually, some 20,000 volunteers hand over the 36 million pounds of food to families of diverse ethnic and social backgrounds in 45 cities across Los Angeles County.
The immense challenge of orchestrating, coordinating, and successfully supporting low-income citizens has been met by Foodnet. The network of concerned citizens and generous agencies perform its duty without any reports of spoilage, no negative publicity or feedback from food recipients, and no jurisdiction or administration disputes among the participating actors.
Foodnet delivers cheese and other staples to the families in need, while using food distribution as a means to strengthen community organization. The local programs that work through Foodnet are not viewed as merely the mechanisms for getting the food out, but as equal, fundamental partners with state government. This interdependence and positive relationship stands out as one of Foodnet's most critical achievements.
According to USDA, Los Angeles County was the first unit of government to take full advantage of the federal surplus commodity program, to provide training for the staff who run it, and to assure eligibility compliance. The program was cited by the federal agency as a model for other jurisdictions and received two achievement awards from the National Association of Counties.