Tossing their cookies: Harris Teeter food heads to Tennessee

After the smoke cleared from the January 15 potato chip conflagration on aisle 11 at Harris Teeter, a company spokesperson announced that everything in the store would be thrown away and the store restocked in record time to reopen on January 22.

The question for locals was: What's happening to all the food the store's pitching?

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Products said that some items in the store were fine to sell. However, Harris Teeter's Tara Stewart announced on January 16 that because the food didn't meet the company's quality standards, it was being thrown away.

But what about food banks or shelters who depend on food donations?

"We're deeming it inedible," says Stewart. "With smoke damage and water damage, it's not the quality we'd donate."

Still, some area nonprofits weren't put off by food that had survived a fire. In fact, Emergency Food Bank chair Marsha Trimble called the North Carolina-based chain to ask if any of the food was usable and if so, could the food bank have some, according to treasurer Mary Haas.

Food banks do have their standards. "We don't give away any dented cans to clients," says Haas. "If we think we wouldn't eat it, we don't give it out."

The Thomas Jefferson Area Food Bank takes canned foods as long as the manufacturers' labels are visible. At the Salvation Army, Major Bruce Smith says, "If the Department of Agriculture says it's okay to use, whether it's from Harris Teeter or any place else, we'd be able to use it."

However, Smith emphasizes that the grocery chain has been good to the Salvation Army. "We would certainly trust Harris Teeter's judgment about the quality of the food," he says.

"In food banking, you have to be careful what you say," says one industry insider, who did not want to be named.

Still, the idea of a whole grocery store full of food going to the landfill raised plenty of local eyebrows.

"It's a shame when food banks are well-stocked on Christmas Eve and that's it," says Jackson Landers. "People in Charlottesville are hungry."

Well, it turns out the all the food in the store isn't going to a landfill after all.

Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokeswoman Elaine Lidholm reports that six to eight semi-truck loads of salvageable Harris Teeter food are headed to Turrentine Salvage in Nashville, where it will go either to food banks there or salvage grocery stores.

The four truckloads destined for the landfill included all the store's alcohol– because of uncertainty about its quality after it was exposed to heat– and anything with the Harris Teeter brand name on it.

"They own the property," says Lidholm. "We say what can be salvaged, and they choose what to do with it."

Spokesperson Stewart at Harris Teeter headquarters was surprised to hear that some of the food would be saved after all. After investigating, she reported that after the fire, the contents of the store belonged to its insurance company. "We have no say in what happens to it," she says.

And to make sure there are no hard feelings about the food going out of state, Harris Teeter is giving $5,000 to the Emergency Food Bank.

She still has doubts about the suitability of using smoke- damaged food. "One guy took some canned goods from the store to his hotel room," she relates. "When he came back, the room smelled like smoke and that's from cans."

The Emergency Food Bank has no problem with receiving cash instead of food. "This is a biggie," says Haas. "We don't get lots of $5,000 donations."

Local firefighters also benefited. Harris Teeter donated $5,000 in gift cards for charities to be divided among the nine different fire departments that responded to the fire.

One day after the conflagration, the contents of the store were being emptied into trucks headed to the landfill or Tennessee. And over the weekend, more trucks lined up to restock the store. "We've never done this before," says Stewart. "We've wondered how quickly you can restock."

The company will find out– if the Charlottesville store reopens as planned at 8am on January 22.


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