We have all been there: the post-party cleanup. Whether it’s in our homes, at a community event or following a corporate function, once the party is over, we survey the stove and the table tops, assess all the uneaten food, open a large plastic trash bag and throw it all away: the extra pot of rice, the tray of untouched beans, the pan of roasted potatoes, and we think, “What a waste.”
This thought also bothered Jeff Schacher, the principal of a software company that designs web-based applications to help restaurants manage logistics, inventory and scheduling. Jeff knew, all too well, that as much as restaurants strive to eliminate waste, excess food is inevitable: diners either don’t walk through the door as planned or don’t order certain items as anticipated. Pounds of potatoes, rice and ribs that never see the outside of a pot are thrown away night after night, across the county. What a waste.
Jeff researched the idea of food rescue, saving perfectly good food from the trash and redistributing it to people in need, and wondered: Is there a need in Fairfield County?
Sadly, the answer he uncovered was a definite yes. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, 1 in 6 people across America, including 17 million children, are food insecure: they do not have enough food to sustain a healthy life. While most of us associate hunger with homelessness, there are a growing number of people who are not homeless, who do experience hunger. They are working people, who after paying for gas, the mortgage and utilities, do not always have enough money to put food on their tables, and they make up more than one-third of the people served by Feeding America. By comparison, only 10% of those served are homeless.
While you may not have a food insecure family living next door, they do live in our community. A recent study, released by Feeding America, assessed food insecurity to the county level and estimated there are 100,000 food insecure people living in Fairfield County. Of that number, 38,980 are children. In fact, Connecticut had one of the largest increases in food-insecure households in the country. According to Nancy L. Carrington, the Connecticut Food Bank’s President and CEO, “The Food Bank has had an average 30 percent increase in demand for our services in the past few years, and is seeing more people who are seeking food assistance for the first time.” Carrington added, “The study also confirms our assessment that half of the children living in food insecure households in Connecticut are not eligible for federal child nutrition programs because they live in a households with incomes over the threshold to qualify.”
With the local need clearly established, Jeff and his staff launched the idea for a non-profit food rescue organization and Community Plates was born. The organization’s mission is to connect surplus food from restaurants and other sources to food-insecure households. Jeff hired Kevin Mullins as Executive Director and charged him with finding out if food could be rescued: Would restaurants and grocers be willing to donate? Kevin started his restaurant outreach with Matt Storch, chef and owner of Match in Norwalk. Matt’s concerns were echoed by every other restauranteur contacted: What is the liability risk? Would the varying quantity of food be enough? And, would the pick-ups be disruptive to the kitchen staff?
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996, addressed the first concern. The law, pushed through Congress by former Representative Bill Emerson in response to hunger and the 14 billion pounds of food sent to landfills each year, protects good faith food donors from civil and criminal liability should the product later cause harm to a recipient. From there, Kevin assured Matt that whatever his kitchen could provide, in addition to food from other donating restaurants and grocers, would be more than welcome and needed at area pantries and shelters. The two worked out a schedule and a system that would not interfere with the kitchen, and Match became the first restaurant to donate surplus food to Community Plates.
When I spoke with Matt, he told me he had spent years trying to figure out what to do with leftover food, but Health Department concerns kept him from delivering the surplus to area shelters. Working with Community Plates, Match’s surplus food (food that has never been plated) like mashed potatoes, potato latkes, scalloped potatoes and rice are put in specially labeled aluminum containers provided by Community Plates and placed in the walk-in. Volunteers come into the kitchen and pick up the containers at 2 pm. every Wednesday and Friday, and according to Matt,
“The system works perfectly. This was a long time coming – it’s amazing how much gets wasted. This is a great idea and it feels good to know the restaurant is helping the community.”
Today, 12 restaurants and grocers donate regularly: Match, O’Neil’s, Barcelona, Penne Panini, DaPietro’s, Brewhouse, Pasta Nostra, Bull’s Head Diner, Trader Joe’s in Darien and Fairfield and Starbucks and Whole Foods in Darien. In addition, approximately 20 other restaurants and grocers donate occasionally. According to Kevin, Community Plates volunteers regularly pick up meats of all kinds in addition to fresh produce from their grocery partners. The meat is always fresh, but is either overstocked or approaching its sell-by date.
“We do sort through the produce and usually use 85% of what is donated. The bottom line is we are there when it's headed to the dumpster. I recently rescued $1400 of meat from a grocer that ended up going to food-insecure individuals and families served by Person to Person of Darien.”
With donors in place, Kevin had to approach the food pantries and shelters that serve the food insecure to be sure they had the resources to handle rescued food donations. The Open Door Shelter and Manna House of Hospitality in Norwalk, one of the county’s largest shelters and soup kitchens, serves over 1,000 meals a day to residents, walk-ins and working non-residents who pick up meals to take home to their families. Executive Director Bill Okwuosa was thrilled to accept rescued food.
“We all like good food, he said. “People don’t want to eat crappy food just because they’re in a shelter. This is a home. We welcome the food and the variety.”
One of the unique aspects of CP’s program is the direct transfer of food. Because most rescued food is prepared or close to its expiration date, it is distributed immediately and often served within 3 hours of its delivery. A few weeks ago, Kevin delivered chicken, spinach and onions rescued at Trader Joe’s, as well as containers of rice from Match to Open Door, where the chef was able to compose a dish of roasted chicken and sautéed spinach with onions, served over the rice.
“Walking in and smelling those aromas and seeing how happy the chef was, I was encouraged that the residents and clients of The Open Door Shelter got a better meal on that day than they would have otherwise. It wasn’t just healthier food, but it tasted better and was out of the ordinary,”
said Kevin. Other agencies accepting donations are Person to Person in Darien, the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, the Christian Community Action Food Pantry and the New Covenant House in Stamford.
Community Plates works because the food available to feed food-insecure families is available in close proximity to where the hungry live and work. It is the coordination and the constant balancing act of the 3-groups that support the endeavor: the donors, the receiving organizations and the volunteer food runners, that present the greatest challenges. This is where Jeff’s expertise in web design is giving Community Plates a critical advantage. Community Plates is ready to launch an app. that will allow them to better mange the needs of volunteers and take advantage of rescue opportunities from donors. Volunteers will be able to log-in, access the schedule and sign up for runs. If they need to cancel a scheduled run, the open slot will be pushed out to other volunteers, so they can sign-up to fill the void. The app. will also send text or email reminders the morning of a volunteer’s scheduled run, and allow donors to alert Community Plates of unplanned donations. Both Matt from Match and Open Doors’ Bill Okwuosa commented on Community Plate’s smooth operation; the web and i-phone applications will only add to their efficiency in matching rescued food to donors in need.
Community Plates is currently focusing their efforts in Norwalk, but the goal is to expand further into Stamford and Bridgeport. Expansion will depend on CP’s volunteer base. Kevin has 10 more restaurants interested in donating and plans to approach caterers and corporate cafeterias in the future, but he needs to ensure there are volunteers to staff the pick-ups before he asks the suppliers to commit. He would like to see volunteers donate 1-2 hours each week, “adopting a run” so they go to the same restaurant and shelter or food pantry at the same time each week. However, he understands that flexibility is key for volunteers and is happy if someone can donate even one hour each month. Kevin plans volunteer runs on the “grocery to home” principle: as a volunteer, you will never be travelling farther than from the grocery store to your home.
Community Plates is rescuing 5,000 pounds of food a week and serving 6 hunger-relief agencies. Their goal is to reach all the 100,000 food insecure people living in Fairfield County. To do so, they’ll need approximately 35 donating partners in Bridgeport and 50 in Stamford, in addition to the 35 existing partners in Norwalk, and at least 75 more volunteers to rescue food, deliver it to those who are hungry, and eliminate needless waste.
To learn more about Community Plates, or become a donor, sponsor or volunteer, visit www.communityplates.org, or phone 203-451-6662.