Volunteer Drivers for Food Rescue US Reroute D.C.’s Excess Food to the Homeless

“In the three or four runs that I’ve done so far, they say I’ve already rescued 650 meals.”

Alysha Groghan and Jaime Rothbard. All photos Laura Hayes.Alysha Groghan and Jaime Rothbard. All photos Laura Hayes.“I don’t care if we have to put them in my kid’s car seat, we’re taking these meals,” Jaime Rothbard says as she navigates the Tetris-like task of loading plastic containers holding everything from chicken sandwiches and lasagna to snack packs of crackers and carrot sticks.

She furrows her brow as she packs 547 meals into the back of her Audi wagon with the determination of a boxer entering the ring. Only instead of another gloved-up opponent, Rothbard is fighting food waste.

Every Tuesday morning, the Takoma Park mom who hosts the “Food Warriors” podcast drives to Revolution Foods in Hyattsville, Maryland, to pick up excess food. The provider of school meals doesn’t always nail the moving target of how much the schools need per day because it employs a better-safe-than-sorry model.

“Because we serve pretty much millions of meals a day, there’s going to be excess,” says the company’s Alysha Groghan. “We want to make sure that if something gets lost in the mix that we have extra to replenish.”

Having a surfeit of food is far from uncommon. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 40 percent of all food in the U.S. goes uneaten each year, which amounts to $162 billion in wasted food annually. More tangibly, the average family of four spends $1,500 a year on food they never eat, and each American wastes approximately 290 pounds of food annually.

Jaime RothbardJaime RothbardRothbard to the rescue. Literally. She’s a volunteer driver with an organization new to D.C. called Food Rescue US that redirects food bound for the landfill to those in need. “It’s incredible, the volume,” Rothbard says. “In the three or four runs that I’ve done so far, they say I’ve already rescued 650 meals.”

Formerly known as Community Plates, Food Rescue US got its start in Connecticut. That’s where Georgetown graduate and former WETA employee Kate Urbank first encountered the organization. She was working on political campaigns there and thought she’d stay in politics once she moved back to D.C. But she noticed something was missing.

“I wanted to do food running because I love that so much and found there really wasn’t a program like this down here,” Urbank explains. She linked up with the DC Food Recovery Working Group headed by community garden evangelist Josh Singer and determined that D.C. needed a volunteer-based food rescue initiative. She pushed political aspirations aside and pitched the launch of a Food Rescue US chapter in the District.

It worked. As the D.C. site director, and lone paid local employee, Urbank rescued her first batch of food from the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in October 2016.

Since its inception, the group has saved 33,850 meals in the D.C. area and delivered to more than 25 community organizations. That’s 50,775 pounds of food. “The thing about this is you can come to it from an anti-food waste perspective if that’s what makes you crazy, or hunger, or both,” Urbank says.

Volunteer drivers like Rothbard claim their routes through the group’s app. It’s not just behemoth food service providers in industrial parks that donate, though Revolution Foods is the largest contributor to date. Many D.C. area restaurants also participate, including Bread Furst.

“We rescue there three days a week,” Urbank says. “Usually two very heavy bags filled with beautiful beet salads, couscous, and sometimes portobello mushroom sandwiches. All this glorious food, plus buckets of bread.” The Bread Furst haul is enough to feed 20 to 40 people at either the Georgetown Ministry Center or Friendship Place, which serve the homeless.

Additional food donors include Columbia Heights’ corner market Odd Provisions, Bruegger’s Bagels, area farmers markets, law firms with cafeterias, and other businesses such as National Geographic, whose food is provided by Sodexo.

“I’ll pick up from National Geographic and the food will still be warm within the 10 minutes it takes to deliver it to So Others Might Eat,” Urbank says. The interfaith, community-based organization in Truxton Circle provides food, clothing, and health care to the city’s poor and homeless.

Chef Spike Mendelsohn, who chairs the DC Food Policy Council, completed a similar run from National Geographic to the Latin American Youth Center. He not only occasionally claims food runs, but he also donates donates leftover pizza, calzones, and garlic knots from his Capitol Hill restaurant We, The Pizza to the drop-in homeless center Shirley’s Place.

Mendelsohn says the goal is to run out of food by the end of the night, but that doesn’t always happen. His restaurant has made food donations in the past, but Mendelsohn says they sometimes went to places where they weren’t consumed. “It’s nice to know there’s a platform that takes it where there’s need,” he says of Food Rescue US. “That’s the significant difference. It’s organized.”

The chef hopes that other restaurants will follow. “I want to figure out what’s keeping other restaurants and businesses from doing it,” Mendelsohn says. “Is there a piece of legislation that needs to be passed regarding food donation? Because we have wards in D.C. where people don’t have food available. It’s really simple. We have to fix it.”

Food Rescue US volunteers transport food directly from point A to point B. “We like to say food is only in the car as long as it takes to go from the grocery store to your home,” Urbank says. But the fear of being held liable for foodborne illness holds some donors back until they learn of the federal protections in place.

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 protects good-faith food donors from civil and criminal liability.

Locally, pending D.C. legislation would sweeten the deal for donors even more. The “Save Good Food Act of 2017,” introduced by Councilmember Mary M. Cheh, would expand liability protections and also grant tax credits to grocery stores, restaurants, and urban farms that donate healthy food to charitable organizations.

Jaime Rothbard and Adam BrunellJaime Rothbard and Adam BrunellNot even a year old in D.C., Food Rescue US is already being approached to take on mammoth food donations. For example, D.C. Public Schools asked Urbank to find out if she could rescue food from about 100 schools. “The possibilities are endless,” she says.

But before the organization can reach its full potential, Urbank needs more volunteer drivers. While 85 people have signed up to help through the app, many are only available on nights and weekends, while the majority of food runs occur on weekdays. Others don’t have cars. “That’s one thing the D.C. model is stressed by,” Urbank explains, noting that she’s in early talks with Zipcar to see if there’s partnership potential.

“I need a groundswell of people,” she says. “It’s a time when people want to do a little good. Pick up a food run that takes less than an hour once a week and see the difference that it makes.”

Rothbard’s adopted route involves picking up meals from Revolution Foods and delivering them to N Street Village—a nonprofit on 14th Street NW dedicated to helping homeless and low-income women.

When she pulls up, N Street Village’s Adam Brunell wheels out two shopping carts to fill with the meals. But two carts aren’t enough for the bounty that makes its way down to kitchen manager Laurie Williams, who has been with the organization for 18 years.

Williams explains that her kitchen provides breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack to the women of N Street Village, plus additional meals to those living in the affiliated shelter across the street. Williams feeds anywhere from 80 to 120 people per day, depending on the time of the month. “Most get checks at the beginning of the month,” she says. “Some of them get the money and they go.”

Without N Street Village, Brunell says some of his clients, ranging from their twenties to the elderly, would be on the streets. Others would fail in their efforts to beat addiction because they’d still be living with people who are using. Then there are the women who could still be living with abusive partners. “Some people society won’t give a second chance, so we try to provide whatever that means,” he says. Another percentage of women at N Street Village are emerging from the criminal justice system.

“The scope is so far-reaching at this place,” says Rothbard.

She hopes that as Food Rescue US expands locally, she’ll be able to “adopt” more runs a little closer to home. “It’s part of that big-picture change,” she says.

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