GETTING FOOD TO THE HUNGRY

 

Author(s): Sheryl Julian  Date: February 8, 1989  Page: 25  Section: FOOD

 

Every day whole truckloads of food in this country are allowed to spoil and become garbage. Barges of prepared fish products are dumped back into the sea, produce ends up in dumpsters, and groceries become landfill.

About 140 million tons of edible food a year in the United States never reach anyone's table, according to a national clearing house that distributes food to the poor. The amount that goes to waste in Boston is difficult to pin down, but community workers say a considerable volume of food from supermarkets, restaurants and caterers is left to spoil or is simply discarded.

 

For years, Boston churches and social agencies have been trying to get unused food to the hungry, but the need seemed to outstrip the effort and the enterprise was hindered by a lack of public awareness.

In the last five years, however, significant progress has been made to salvage food that isn't eaten and get it to the thousands of homeless and others who live close to or below the poverty line: the elderly, the unemployed and the working poor.s with labels glued upside down or damaged in transit, trailer loads accidentally sent to the wrong city, frozen products with freezer burn and fresh produce from wholesale distributors who can't move it.

 

"I've seen great changes in the quantity and in the quality of the food," says Suzanne Motheral, one of three part-time staffers at Food for Free, which transports groceries from small, independent markets to soup kitchens and low-income housing projects. Food for Free is picking up twice the volume of food it did four years ago and is now distributing dairy products and produce, not just bread.

 

The Boston Food Bank, the city's largest collector of surplus food, gathered 300,000 pounds of food from manufacturers, supermarket chains and others in January, more than it amassed during its entire first year of operation in 1981.

 

The Food Bank distributed a total of 4.7 million pounds of food to New England pantries and shelters last year, including the Pine Street Inn and Rosie's Place. The shelters offer hot meals; the pantries, bags of groceries. Both pay the Food Bank a small amount (12 cents a pound) in carrying charges.

 

Area college students also have organized efforts to pick up surplus food and deliver it to shelters. And plans are under way to improve systems of getting the food quickly from those who have it to those who need it.

Most community workers say an increased public awareness of the problems of homelessness and malnutrition among the poor have spurred some of the new programs and made more food available to the hungry.

Despite the gains, however, advocates are careful to point out that the problem of saving surplus food from the garbage is not solved. "If anyone wants to go around to restaurants and ask what they do with the food, they'll say they don't have any," says Shoshana Pakciarz, executive director of Project Bread. "But they're very willing if we help them figure out how to hook up with transportation and with programs that can store food."

 

Some of the thorniest problems are logistical. There aren't enough volunteers to transfer or package the food, not enough trucks to carry it, or enough hands to unload, cook and apportion it. Sometimes, manufacturers don't make the effort, and restaurants don't consider it shameful to waste food.

 

"I know of 150,000 to 250,000 pounds of surplus food a week between Portland, Maine, and Hartford, Conn.," says Nancy Jamison of Fair Foods, which collects produce and bakery goods and gives them out at the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Dorchester.

 

Nonetheless, a growing number of companies have made efforts to see that their excess doesn't go to waste. Among the foods the Food Bank gathered and distributed last year were 60,000 pounds of dairy products from H.P. Hood, 40,000 pounds of chowder and seafood from Legal Seafoods, 50,000 pounds of fish from Fishery Products of Boston, thousands of pounds of seafood from American SeaFresh of Boston, hundreds of pounds of groceries from S.S. Pierce of Boston, 20,000 pounds of beef from Colora do Beef Company of Beverly, a half-million pounds of juices from Ocean Spray Cranberries of Plymouth, one million pounds of damagedgroceries from Star Markets and Shaw Markets, 250,000 pounds of Hostess cupcakes and Wonder Bread from I.T.T. Continental B akers of Natick.

Most of the time, Food Bank's Roxbury warehouse receives deliveries that delight those who run it -- like the 20,000 pounds of fish that came in one day last year. But some donations don't meet the needs of those they're intended to help. "The other day we took a large amount of No. 10 cans of hot chili peppers. A truckload of them. It'll take us a long time to distribute those," says executive director Westy Egmont.

 

Unloading inappropriate donations is only one problem in the system. Another is the notion that food on the brink of rotting is all right for people who might go hungry otherwise.

 

Egmont, however, is adamant on this point: "We're not a dump," he says.

 

Others agree. Holly Safford of The Catered Affair, whose firm has donated to shelters "more legs of lamb and beef tenderloins than I care to count," says the only food she donates is "food I would offer a neighbor."

"Quite frankly," says Friar Michael, who organizes hundreds of weekend meals at the Church of all Nations in the South End, "there are people out there who intentionally or unintentionally aren't giving the best they have. If I wouldn't eat it I wouldn't serve it." Weekdays on Tremont Street, Friar Michael hands out about five dozen sandwiches donated by caterers.

 

The way Boston agencies feed the hungry is typical of other large cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, though advocates here say there is more coordination here.

 

Project Bread raises money to help finance the 89 food pantries and 26 soup kitchens in the Boston area while Project Bread Hunger Hot Line refers hungry people to those places. The Boston Food Bank collects food donations -- canned goods and any food except fresh produce -- from industry and chain stores. Fair Foods collects fresh fruits and vegetables from wholesale distributors. And two vans, one from Food for Free and the other from Student Food Rescue, scour markets and neighborhood grocery stores in Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Brighton and Allston for day-old bread, unsalable groceries and odd-sized produce.

 

Anyone who donates food in good faith is covered by the 1984 Good Samaritan Law, which offers protection against law suits brought by anyone who becomes ill after eating the donated food. There are also some tax benefits to donating surpluses.

 

Other initiatives are under way to solve long-standing problems. Beginning March 1, Food Bank will offer a pick-up service called "Second Helping," sponsored by Boston College Alumni Association. The new service should help the bank pick up more spur-of-the moment donations, particularly from parties and restaurants, which it had to pass up in the past because of transportation problems.

 

Enough trucks, drivers and mechanics are always a concern, says Nancy Jamison of Fair Foods, which depends upon "a core of volunteers with pickups and flatbeds, and a guy who owns a fence company and helps us once a month." Elegant Caterers in Roxbury also loans trucks to Fair Foods when possible.

 

Generally, Fair Foods can pick up to 12,000 pounds of food at any one time, although there have been some exceptions. Last summer a vendor offered 14,000 pounds of corn on the cob, and Fair Foods had the volunteers to get it.

 

Fair Foods has also called upon a fair amount of ingenuity. When it receives produce that is about to go bad, Jamison parks a truck at a low- income housing project and invites residents to help themselves. She dislikes the idea that people who are hungry are made to "wait in lines all day and sign their life away" for a simple bag of groceries. Others have also tried to whittle away at bureaucratic problems. Three Boston University students -- Janet Alexander, Bob Thistle, and Doug Thompson -- concerned about the city's challenge to feed the hungry, launched a food pick-up program last summer that is now run by a dozen students. The "Student Food Rescue" operates out of the school's community service organization, The League.

 

Spurred by grants from Project Bread and Boston Hunger Clean-up, Food Rescue leases a van and picks up surpluses at Au Bon Pain, Freedman's Bakery, Bread & Circus, The Great Buffet and Souper Salad. In its first six months of operation last year, it transferred 24,000 pounds of food to shelters. "None of us realized that it would be that much, " says Janet Alexander.

 

The BU students who established Food Rescue were guided by Food for Free, which has been salvaging food for seven years, making pick ups at Boston Food Co-op in Allston, Cambridge Food Co-op, Bread & Circus,Erewhon, Chapin's Market, Warburton's, Vie de France, Broadway Supermarket and Peter's Fish and Vegetable Market, all in Cambridge, and at Quebrada Baking in Arlington, and Crescent Wench in Somerville.

Motheral says Food for Free often finds out about surplus food from "a worker who is aware of the waste and who feels bad about it and wants to do something."

 

Once, she said, a store manager called her to say that if the van couldn't come to his store before 8 a.m., the leftovers would become garbage. "They wanted it out of there early," she said. Food for Free couldn't meet the early deadline.

 

Undoubtedly, other grocery store managers and industry executives share a similar attitude about discarding food: it's too much trouble to recycle it.

 

Fair Foods' Jamison thinks that a city community program -- in which teen- agers are paid to collect the surplus foodstuffs in every neighborhood -- is a solution to some small problems. But all advocates for the hungry agree that only legislation will solve the major problems.

 

"There are too few of us to begin to cover all the bases," says Food Bank's Westy Egmont. "It's not a problem that can be solved on a charitable level," agrees Shoshana Pakciarz of Project Bread. "You have to solve the problem through legislation, so people can buy food themselves. You have to raise the minimum wage, create low-income housing, then you create supplemental feeding programs at a rate that is reasonable -- right now it's 60 cents per meal. We're living in a 'Tale of Two Cities,' " says Pakciarz, "a glittery one and a poor one." The poor one, she says, isn't a tale people want to listen to.

 

SIDEBAR: THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO HELP

 

What can you do? Any small effort, say the people who work with the various shelters and agencies -- whether it's once only or once a week -- is needed.

 

They say that you can work as an accountant or proposal writer for one of the hunger programs. You can fix broken trucks or use your own pick up to collect food. You can glean usable products from thousands of pounds of damaged goods, working alongside other volunteers in a warehouse.

 

You can package bread and muffins. You can answer phones. You can do the books or type letters. You can pack up five bags of groceries and call Project Bread to find five families who need them, like one Quincy teacher and her grade school class did as a Christmas project. You can play the piano in a soup kitchen, cook a meal, or put together menus with the products at hand. You can make sure your company and your neighborhood market recycle their unusable food and if they don't, you can salvage it and bring it yourself. If you want to help, says the administration at Project Bread, they'll find a slot that suits you. Here are the organizations you can call:

 

Boston Food Bank (427-5000) (CORRECTION: Because of a reporting error, an article in yesterday's Food section gave the wrong phone number for the Boston Food Bank. The correct number is 427-5200.) is part of a national network called Second Harvest, which collects food and feeds the hungry around the country. Food Bank's Boston warehouse has the capacity to accept tractor- trailers of food that is cosmetically damaged, products that must be removed from supermarkets because of expiration da tes, mislabeled food, misshipped food, food from overproduction. The Food Bank will take any food and provisions except fresh produce. They need protein (meat, fish, and peanut butter especially). Only nonprofit agencies, not individuals or families, can use Food Bank's services. About 300 volunteers work with this organization.

 

Fair Foods (288-6185) is one of four local programs that has transportation to pick up food. Fair Foods picks up fresh fruits and produce from wholesalers and bakery items from local manufacturers or distributors and gives the food away at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Dorchester. They need trucks and drivers who can pick up at 4 a.m.; cooks who can teach people how to prepare some of the fresh produce they've never used.

 

Food for Free (868-2900) is one of four local programs that has transportation to pick up food, mostly in the Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Arlington area.

 

Project Bread (723-5000) is the central organization that raises funds for 250 emergency programs across Massachusetts. They work to educate the community about hunger, they run the Walk for Hunger every year (the 20th anniversary will be held on May 7), and they operate Hunger Hot Line.

 

Project Bread Hunger Hot Line (523-7010) is for individuals or families who need a bag of groceries, a hot meal or long-term guidance within the system. The Hot Line also links people who have food donations to the shelters or centers that need it most at that moment (they keep track of what each shelter and pantry is lacking and will arrange transportation).

 

Hunger Hot Line will also find a place somewhere in the city for someone who wants to volunteer. They operate 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and there is also a recorded message.

 

Second Helping (427-5200) is one of four local programs that has transportation to pick up food anywhere in the city. They will begin service March 1 and will be able to pick up prepared foods from restaurants and caterers.

 

Student Food Rescue (353-4710) is one of four local programs that has transportation to pick up food, mostly in the Back Bay, Brookline, Brighton, Allston, Newton area. Food Rescue is run by students and is part of The League at Boston University.