Local group confronts hunger one plate at a time
Published 11:55 am, Sunday, October 2, 2011
Call them crazy, but Kevin Mullins and Jeff Schacher believe that food insecurity in the United States -- and Fairfield County in particular -- is a problem with no good reason. It's just a problem of logistics.
That's why, earlier this year, they started Community Plates, an organization that rescues healthy surplus food from Fairfield County restaurants, caterers, grocers, bakers, etc., before it ends up in the Dumpster, and brings it to where it can make a difference.
Community Plates' more than 50 volunteers began rescuing food in May, and have some 20 donors already, ranging from Match Restaurant, in South Norwalk, and Fairway Market, in Stamford, to Trader Joe's, Barcelona, O'Neill's Pub and the SoNo Brewhouse.
One rescue might entail picking up one pan of food, while another might consist of 13 bins of food weighing hundreds of pounds.
They already serve seven agencies in Norwalk -- including Open Door Shelter and Christian Community Action -- Stamford, Darien and Bridgeport, and will be expanding to Greenwich.
"I think this week we will cross over the 10,000-pound mark. So we will rescue 10,000 pounds of food or more this week. It may be closer to 15,000," said Mullins, a Norwalk resident and former pastor of Northeast Community Church in Norwalk.
"So you are talking 40-50,000 pounds for the month. And if our growth keeps up like it is, we may be on pace to having a million pounds a year as soon as 2012.
"It won't just be us that make it happen, but we believe that along with other people that are part of this food rescue movement, that hunger in the United States really should be solved."
To get another step closer to its goals, Community Plates will hold its first fundraiser Oct. 4 from 6:30-9 p.m. at Stepping Stones Museum in Norwalk.
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The gala cocktail party, will include a DJ, passed hors d'oeuvres by Marcia Selden Catering, beer and wine provided by Diageo, and the evening's signature cocktail, a blue kamikaze. Since many volunteers were recruited online, it will be the first time organization leaders and volunteers meet and the first opportunity that Community Plates has had to gather its entire food-rescue community in one place. The event will celebrate the work accomplished since the organization's launch in January of this year.
Mullins said going forward he hopes to expand the three prongs that have already made the organization a success -- donors, volunteers and receiving agencies.
"Ideally they build simultaneously so you keep things in balance," Mullins explained. "First you have the donors, people who are interested in food rescue opportunities and allow us to set up a schedule to rescue food from them."
He said potential donors just need to contact Community Plates, and someone will reach out to establish the easiest way to make a donation happen.
"What's the perfect time for us to come? What door should we go to? All those things are important. Our goal from the beginning with the donor was to make it so easy for someone to donate that they really couldn't say no," Mullins said.
"It's 1,000 percent effortless," said Matt Storch, executive chef and partner at Match. "You just have to have the will to do it. It's a great thing. For years we've thrown things out. It's the bottom line. There are things that we cannot reuse for the next day. ... Not that they are going bad, but they might not reheat that well. We were never allowed to transfer it to soup kitchens or shelters because it was already prepared.
"To me this is a no brainer. ... They come twice a week. We put it in containers they supply so its not any out of pocket expense for us whatsoever."
Community Plates is also looking for food runners, who make everything happen from a transfer standpoint, as well as additional receiving agencies to serve.
He pointed out that the mission of Community Plates is not really about distribution. It partners with agencies that already do a wonderful job at distributing.
"That to us was the not reinventing the wheel part. There are already so many great places out there that distribute food. But because of the 2008 (economic downturn) and ongoing stubborn economy, those agencies are really feeling pressure of the perfect storm of more people needing their services combined with rising food costs, combined with lower financial donations," Mullins said.
"Our thought was we can step into this gap, and we would love to find a way to lower the food budgets of these agencies so that these dollars can be freed up to focus on other things ... whether that is housing or job training."
Funds raised from the gala will primarily cover materials costs, enable further expansion in Fairfield County and finish development of a ground-breaking Web and smart-phone app which Community Plates will unveil in October. The app will streamline the food-rescue process, connecting the three vital streams of donors, volunteers and receiving organizations. The app will be demonstrated for the first time at the gala.
"If you are a volunteer and you realize this coming Tuesday and Thursday you have a window of three hours where you can do some good, you can go to the app, pull up the available food rescue times, see what's available in that time slot, sign up for it, and then it gets taken off the list. So there's not this e-mailing back and forth. That's what we've been doing. It can be messy frankly," Mullins explained.
He added that in addition to regularly scheduled runs, the app will give Community Plates the ability to respond to "emergency opportunities."
"For instance, a caterer gets out of a large event that was planned for 300 people. Let's say there was a really heavy rainstorm or for whatever reason people didn't show up and they have all these pans of food left over. They will be able to pull up the app and say, `I have 12 pans of food that will be ready at 11 p.m.,'" Mullins explained.
"Then it will push that notification out to all our volunteers that are fit for that type of run. People can respond in real time and say, `Ok I can take that run.'"
Mullins is also excited to share the app with organizations that do food rescue that didn't have the advantage of a software development team working on their behalf from the beginning.
Mullins is referring to Schacher's web-based software company called WhentoManage. It provides restaurant operators a simple way to manage their labor, inventory and reporting.
It was because of his dealings with restaurants that Schacher, a New Canaan resident, became aware of the amount of waste involved.
So he started researching what kind of need and opportunities were out there.
"From the beginning his thought was if there was a way that his team on the for-profit side could help with the technology side, meaning putting tools in place that would help facilitate the food rescue process and make it more efficient, then he felt that it was something he could give that would really make a difference," said Mullins, who had been friends with Schacher for years.
Schacher then tapped Mullins, who was thinking about moving to the Midwest, to be his partner in the endeavor.
Mullin is glad he did. Recently he rescued $900 worth of meat from a grocer in one day.
"People coming into the food pantry just for the basic staples got really nice cuts of meat because of the efforts of our volunteers. It's a quality of life thing. It's a dignity thing," Mullins said. "For people to be able to go to a food pantry and leave feeling like they have some really nice choices for their family, it's amazing. It's such rewarding work."
Tickets to the gala are $50. For tickets or information about Community Plates, visit www.communityplates.org.