Transformation in hunger relief Professional kitchens gleaning unserved foods take a fresh approach


WASHINGTON -- A fleet of six refrigerated trucks pulled up behind the D.C. Central Kitchen one day this month and #F unloaded a treasure trove:

Seven kinds of rice from a Capitol Hill reception. Curried vegetables from the Bombay Club. Chicken breasts from a catering company. Green beans from the Marriott.

Within hours, the kitchen staff performed its daily miracle, turning the food into 3,000 meals for the needy. And then the drivers returned to the streets to deliver it.

The calculations that moved that fresh food into those trucks, through Central Kitchen and onto the tables of shelters are part of a revolution in hunger relief that could help feed 10 million people.

Spurred by a decline in the flow of food from traditional sources, relief programs are pioneering innovative techniques to get meals to the hungry, with striking results. The keys to success have been the use of unusual sources of food, professional cooks and federal initiatives.

Ruth Newman, for one, is delighted. So far, the changes mean fresh vegetables and salads every day for the 80-year-old woman, who eats lunch at Sarah's Circle senior center in Washington.

"I don't know what they done, but it sure has changed," she said, slicing a carrot on her plate. "We used to get some of the sorriest food you couldn't eat."

The new food operations reflect a radical shift. Traditionally, food pantries have been stocked with a drab assortment of canned goods, day-old bread and cereal. Soup kitchens and shelters -- which tend to be generally small, makeshift operations and inexperienced cooks -- have done what they could to turn those items into meals. Now, a more efficient approach is taking root.

The potential for capturing a greater portion of the food that would otherwise go to waste can hardly be disputed. The Agriculture Department estimates that 25 percent of the 380 billion tons of food produced in the United States every year -- about 96 billion tons -- is wasted. Only about 1.5 billion tons of that is salvaged.

And there is no question that the wasted food is urgently needed. Even in an age of affluence, studies show, 4 million children often go to bed hungry. Millions of elderly Americans, faced with soaring medical bills and other expenses, often lack money for food.

A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that most of the hungry are members of working families, often people who have moved off welfare but are in low-paying jobs that keep them below the poverty line. This month, the Council of Mayors reported a 14 percent rise this year in requests for emergency food aid nationwide.

But capturing the surplus food to meet that need has long been elusive. For one thing, checkout scanners have made supermarkets more efficient, reducing waste through better -Z inventory control. Manufacturers, in turn, are producing less surplus food.

That efficiency has translated into sharp drops in food bank supplies of traditional staples such as cereal and canned soup -- a decline of 10 percent in three years.

Mindful of that trend, food banks began exploring a new frontier -- the use of refrigerated trucks to capture millions of pounds of fresh, never-served food: chickens from Boston Market, pizzas from Pizza Hut, lasagna and stuffed peppers from convention centers, colleges and hotels.

That sort of food has never been tapped for the needy on a large scale. But fueled in part by Americans' growing propensity for dining out, it is now a resource of enormous potential.

"Right now, we're catch as catch can, but in the future we'll be able to provide a full, balanced meal," said William G. Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank. "This means absolutely more food for people."

Such donations were too small to be measured in 1996. This year, food banks nationwide collected 15 million pounds of fresh produce and 2.2 million pounds of prepared and perishable food, according to Second Harvest, a nonprofit group that represents food banks.

The government is propelling changes, too. A 1996 good Samaritan law protects food donors from liability claims in case of illness -- a concern that had inhibited some donors in the past. And President Clinton set a national goal last year to increase the amount of food rescued by one-third by the year 2000. That would equal an extra 500 million pounds of food a year for the hungry.

Though considered unrealistic, that goal spurred efforts that helped recover 61 million pounds of additional food this year.

The need for food might seem surprising in the midst of a robust economy. But even with unemployment at historic lows and welfare rolls shrinking, pressures on working Americans in low-wage jobs remain severe.

"You have a significant group of Americans who remain quite poor and have not benefited from the good economy in a substantial way," said Doug O'Brien, director of public policy and research for Second Harvest, whose programs were forced to turn away 700,000 hungry people last year.

"Many families need a little help," said Christina Martin, executive director of Food Chain, a national food-recovery organization.

A national model

It is doubtful that the new strategy on hunger relief has a messenger more persuasive than Robert Egger, a former

nightclub operator who is executive director of Washington's Central Kitchen. In the heart of the capital, in the basement beneath the nation's largest homeless shelter, Egger directs a food operation that has become a national model.

Unlike traditional soup kitchens, Egger's "community kitchen" is run by professional cooks. His and other community kitchens are equipped to derive the most from an unwieldy donation -- say, 50 turkeys or 100 pounds of ground lamb -- and combine it into meals. They also provide job training for the homeless.

From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily, Egger's 20-person crew, including volunteers and trainees, turns a hodgepodge of perfectly fine food destined for disposal into 3,000 high-quality meals for the hungry. The ingredients come largely from caterers, restaurants, hotels and produce wholesalers.

"For a long time, food banks just worried about where's the food coming from, and how are we going to get it," Egger said. "But it was given to people who had no experience cooking on a large scale."

Egger was all but dragged screaming into his early forays in food relief. Yet his vision is altering the strategy of hunger programs across the country.

Last year, only two community kitchens existed in the United States. This year, there are 14. An additional 13 kitchens will open next year. At least 40 other cities are giving the idea serious thought. Virtually all have been privately funded.

Egger's success seems to come largely from his defiance of traditional "soup kitchen" practices. Besides professional cooks, his staff includes homeless people who work in the kitchen's training program, which leads to a food certificate and, in most cases, a job.

At the chopping boards, soup vats and ovens, the trainees become instructors for the volunteers. They teach accountants and lawyers and nurses -- and last week the president of the United States -- proper techniques for dicing vegetables and preparing meat.

The idea has taken 10 years to evolve to its current efficiency and scale. Now the lessons Egger learned are being absorbed in other cities.

"People have always assumed that if they can get food to pantries, the pantries will know what to do with it," Egger said. "A truckload of eggplant would be donated to a food bank, and at the food bank, they would just keep their fingers crossed, hoping they could get rid of it. People were donating food only to have it get thrown out somewhere else."

In Baltimore, where a community kitchen is to open early next year, the nonprofit Abell Foundation donated $56,250 to pay the annual salary of the executive chef who will run the place. Sita Culman, the foundation's vice president, believes it's money well spent. The kitchen plans to begin by feeding more than 500 people a day and expand to 3,000 daily meals within two years.

"Food is being wasted -- we know that for a fact," Culman said. "This takes a stab at that -- it's win-win. That salary will be made up very quickly in the amount of food saved."

The money also reflects the shift to a more sophisticated approach to hunger relief, enlisting practical-minded professionals who know where the greatest waste occurs and how to stretch each pound of food.

Traditionally, food banks and soup kitchens claim to provide a meal for every pound of food donated. Community kitchens, Egger says, can double that output.

To understand the optimism behind the new programs, consider the changes at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Five years ago, it distributed 20 million pounds of food a year, a figure that had changed little over the previous decade. The amount this year will reach 30 million.

Instead of providing a couple of days' worth of meals for a needy family, as it once did, it can often supply a week's worth because more food is coming in.

Its trucks pick up food from only 20 of the 250 grocery stores in its immediate territory. But those few stops yield hundreds of rotisserie chickens, salads and breads.

A 'tremendous potential'

"We're not even beginning to tap the potential out there," said Michael Mulqueen, executive director of the depository. "There is a significant, tremendous potential for charitable food organizations to capitalize on now."

The programs have attracted financial donors easily, Mulqueen said. This year, he said, he doubled his fleet of trucks, from two to four. He will open a third community kitchen next year.

The growth of contributions is reflected nationally. Food Chain says corporate donations jumped 47 percent last year, individual donations 210 percent. Food collection grew by 50 percent.

"What we have is this incredible grass-roots approach to hunger and poverty that is not being helped in any large part by the feds," said John Morrill, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center in Washington.

But to take advantage of it, food banks must strengthen their capacity to handle more food.

"The food's out there; that's not the issue," said Martin, of Food Chain. "It's the distribution that's the real issue."

Maryland Food Bank's Second Helpings program illustrates how the pace of donations can exceed the ability of food banks to deal with it.

Equipped with a pager and a cellular telephone, James Hyman (( drives the sole Second Helpings truck around town each day to retrieve leftovers from food distributors and commercial kitchens and dole them out to shelters.

Hyman had to stand in line for a handout only a few years ago, so he takes his responsibility seriously.

"If I don't make a delivery, people don't eat that day," Hyman said. "That's what it's about."

One recent morning, his route included a stop at the kitchen of a nursing home on the west side of town. In its freezer, the cook had stored two weeks' worth of leftovers in the aluminum lidded pans that Hyman had left on his previous visit. Each bore a label. Garlic roasted chicken. Macaroni and cheese. Stuffed pork chops.

In all, Hyman picked up 600 pounds of food from that one nursing home, enough to supply a half-dozen shelters and soup kitchens that day.

But by 10 a.m., with 1,250 pounds of food already filling his truck, his pager beeped. A dairy was calling with 1,100 cases of yogurt and 4,200 pints of milk to give. It would take either a second truck or another day to collect and distribute it, Hyman concluded. And there was no second truck.

Despite the growing contributors of such food, some potential donors hesitate for one obvious reason: It will draw attention to their inefficiencies. While that does not seem to be deterring the growth in these programs, some donors contribute with a caveat.

"Lots of these people ask me to put down a smaller amount on their receipt because they don't want their bosses to know how much they're giving," Hyman said.

It is a problem inherent to the system, says Janet E. Poppendieck, author of "Sweet Charity," a recent book on strategies for feeding the needy.

"The growth of donations serves as a warning signal for the donor that something is wrong," she said. "Industry does not produce to give stuff away. Overproduction serves to alert the industry to where the problems are."

Even so, a certain amount of waste in the food industry will always exist, and professionals are becoming more aware of the new opportunities for charity. The National Restaurant Association recently produced a handbook for its members rTC explaining these options, and it has become among the group's most popular publications.

Next year the momentum for more food production is expected to rise. Congress plans to consider a bill that would spur more food donations by giving donors better tax credits.

Federal money has been committed to help nonprofit groups and the food industry find solutions to their transportation problems.

And, using many of the existing programs as a springboard, leaders of nonprofit groups will meet with consultants in Washington next month to draft a broad national strategy for fighting hunger.

"We don't want to be doing this 10 years from now," said Doug O'Brien of Second Harvest. "We want to have a significant national movement akin to the way the March of Dimes led the fight against polio, so we can get past this."

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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