Food Rescue: A Safe Place at the Table
Federal nutrition programs and services provided by charitable food programs are essential for maintaining nutritional adequacy in the diet of hungry people. Food rescue, the capturing of safe food that would otherwise be wasted, provides an opportunity for a charitable food program to supplement the food resources in an emergency community food program. City Harvest, founded in 1982, is the world's largest and oldest food rescue program. In 1995, City Harvest made a strategic decision to enhance their food safety program and sought to recruit a culinary professional (Certified Chef, Certified Culinary Educator, Certified Working Chef) to develop and implement this program. The decision to hire a culinary professional and establish a complete food safety program was based partly on the philanthropy work of the Chef and Child Foundation of the American Culinary Federation. Chef and Child had created an integrated media tutorial on food safety in soup kitchens and established a nationwide network of culinary trainers to provide this training. Certainly, a dietetics professional could meet the requirements of this position, and I began my work as the Director of Food Operations in July of 1995.
Everyday, City Harvest delivers an average of 34,000 pounds of food that would otherwise go to waste — about 13.5 million pounds last year — to food pantries, soup kitchens, daycare and senior citizen centers, homeless shelters and charitable organizations serving low-income families and individuals in New York City. Our Hunger Hotline connects thousands of callers each month to emergency food in their neighborhoods. At City Harvest Operation Frontline classes (a partnership program with Share Our Strength, a private national hunger relief organization), volunteer culinary, nutrition and finance professionals provide the basics in cooking, nutrition and personal finances to low-income New Yorkers.
There are more than 140 food rescue programs in the United States of America but food rescue efforts are located throughout the world in countries such as Argentina, Canada, Germany, India and Israel. Many program founders read, saw or heard about City Harvest in the international media and were inspired to start their own program. Other founders used City Harvest as a model and visited us to gather advice and information. The smart, simple solution of capturing wholesome, nutritious food and safely delivering it to emergency, community-based programs is "practical magic."
City Harvest delivers food to more than 700 emergency food programs. Products are donated from every part of the food system (farmers, manufacturers, distributors, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, corporations, schools and healthcare institutions). Food donations are given to City Harvest for free, we give it to emergency food programs for free and in turn, the emergency food programs prepare meals or provide food packages for free. Many food donors are encouraged by the fact that there are national and state Good Samaritan Laws, which protect from liability those making "good faith" donations of food for the benefit of those in need. Trained staff, refrigerated trucks and health department-inspected recipient agencies reassure food donors that food will receive proper handling.
The original plan for food safety training utilized the Understanding Prepared and Perishable Foods Integrated Media Tutorial. Program staff included drivers, driver assistants, agency relations and food development personnel. In addition, the Safety and Food Excellence (SAFE) program, developed by Colorado State University and Cornell University Cooperative Extension, supplemented the program by providing a curriculum outline for an on-going food safety training program.
City Harvest identified food safety as a core value in our strategic plan. The minimum requirements for all program staff, and our recipient agency network, now include the ServSafe™ program of the National Restaurant Association, and integrates the Soup Up Food Safety curriculum developed by Cornell University Cooperative Extension. This requires two full days of training and completion of the national certification examination.
Food safety is an important concern for the hungry. City Harvest works harder than most to assure food safety because of our clientele. People with compromised immune systems like young children, the elderly, people with diseases such as cancer and HIV, pregnant and lactating women, and people who are poorly nourished, are at an increased risk for acquiring a food-borne illness. Many of the people who use soup kitchens, homeless shelters and the emergency food system have compromised immune systems.
The donation, collection and distribution process has been refined over the years. City Harvest picks up donated, usable excess food from 650 regularly scheduled donors every week, and distributes it to 458 member agencies encompassing more than 700 emergency food programs. Food donors are scheduled according to when they anticipate having food (morning, afternoon, evening or night) and how often they anticipate having food (every day of the week, once a week, three days a week, etc.)
Each day, thirteen refrigerated trucks travel regularly scheduled routes. City Harvest has sixteen routes in all, 10 in operation on weekdays, three during the evenings and three on weekends. The day routes are divided into morning and afternoon sections. Drivers pick up food from a certain number of regularly scheduled donors in the morning and then drop the food off at regularly scheduled emergency food programs. After lunch, drivers pick up from scheduled afternoon donors and drop food off at scheduled afternoon food programs. City Harvest does not store food. Food is picked up and delivered the same day.
We often receive call-in donations from food establishments, photo shoots, events or others with excess food. These donors usually call that day for a pickup, and sometimes prearrange a pickup. Call-ins known about prior to the day's start are added to the driver's route. The driver gets a copy of the call-in sheet with the name and address of the donor and other particulars (e.g., equipment needs, entrance details.) If a call comes in after the drivers are out on the road, the dispatcher assigns the pickup to the driver nearest to the donor's location. Drivers communicate by using a two-way radio.
"Freights" and "specials" are well received by recipient agencies. Freight donations provide large quantities of individual food items. Nutrient-dense donations of fresh produce are typical freight examples and feedback indicates more than half of the recipient network desires fresh produce. Special one-time donations often require expert food safety planning. The most challenging donation to date was the "World's Largest Meat Pie" prepared in a special oven in Bryant Square Park. The required safe food handling process was conducted in witness of the City of New York Department of Health and resulted in the successful rescue of more than six tons of potpie filling.
A food development team sources food from the entire food system. City Harvest arranges for food donations in a variety of ways. First is word of mouth, a current food donor tells someone else about City Harvest who then calls us when they have extra food. We also solicit new food donors by targeting certain groups like meat wholesalers, top-notch restaurants, bakeries and hotels, and send them a food donor kit. We follow up with a phone call.
City Harvest also advertises its service by getting free ad space in trade publications that will be seen by food merchants of various types. We put fundraising ads in The New York Times every November and December, which often result in food donations, as well as financial contributions.
The most common reason people donate food is that they hate to waste food and they want to feed hungry people. Many New Yorkers are aware of hunger and homelessness; they see it every day when they leave their homes. More and more are leery about giving money to those who panhandle for fear the money will be used for drugs or alcohol. Donors are concerned that people are not eating so it is far more appealing to them to give food to both the homeless and the hungry (which includes many non-homeless families, children, senior citizens). Giving through City Harvest is the easiest and most effective way to provide food for the hungry.
A wise person learns from their mistakes and an even wiser person learns from the mistakes of others! The following are the first steps toward starting a food rescue program in any community.
- Assess the community’s need for program:
- Are there hungry people? Who are they? Where do they live?
- Are there established programs that feed the hungry, like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and senior citizen centers? Where are they? Do they have enough food? Can they use extra food, especially if it's already prepared or not in top condition (like stale bread)?
- Is there much food wasted? By whom or what kind of food establishments?
- Does your community have any laws that will protect food donors from liability if donated food makes someone ill?
- Is anyone else doing this, or something like it? Do they want help? If not, are they doing it well? Can you compete for support and funds? Should you even try, or will it polarize your community?
- Identify support for starting such a program:
- Are there people willing to volunteer to pick up food and deliver it to where it's needed?
- Is anyone willing to take on the tasks of identifying potential food donors, handling telephone calls and arranging the schedules for pickup and delivery of food donations? Does anyone in your community have experience with transportation that they'd be willing to share?
- Are any restaurants, food wholesalers, supermarkets or other food establishments willing to sign on at the beginning? Are they willing to let you use their name to try to bring in other food donors?
- Do you have a local health department or authority willing to work with you to set up safe food handling practices?
- Are there any people with money who would like to help start this by contributing to defray costs of telephone, postage, supplies and other essential items?
- Do you need support from government authorities? Are they willing to provide financial as well as political support?
- Make a plan for starting the program:
- What do you want to call your program? Does any other group in the country have that name?
- What geographic area will you serve? Can that expand over time, or will it be limited? Decide how much food you can handle the first six months, first year, second year, etc.
- How fast do you want to grow? Where would you like to be in five years?
- Do you want to incorporate or not? Do you want to have non-profit status? Is there a volunteer lawyer in your community willing to help you do this work?
- Do you want to be an all-volunteer program, have a small staff with mostly volunteers, or have an entirely paid staff? How will you develop along those lines? How will you train volunteers and/or staff? How will you raise funds? Who will run the operations, do the fundraising and perform other tasks?
- How do you want to run the organization? Do you want a small governing board, an advisory council, an administrator or some combination of these?
- How will you make sure the community supports this program? In what ways can the community get involved?
- How will you keep food donors involved and feel "program ownership?"
- How can you raise funds to support the program? Are there any prominent people in the community who will sign on as advisors or governing board members who will take most responsibility for raising money?
- Is anyone in your community willing to provide you with free advertising space and advertising designs?
- Share your written answers with supporters for their comments and suggestions, and to form the basis for any fundraising appeals.
Emergency Food Programs are community nutrition programs. They react to hunger with speed, compassion and minimal paperwork. Dietetics professionals provide a unique skill set for working and volunteering in food rescue programs. As food rescue extends the normal food chain, deliberate efforts to capture safe, nutritious food will allow a safe place at the table.
For further information see Web site www.cityharvest.org or e-mail email@example.com.