July 22, 2011

Edible Boston, Spring 2011

The Bridge from Abundance to Need
By Rosie DeQuattro
Edible Boston
Spring 2011

WARNING: Do not follow Ashley Stanley on her daily food rescue rounds on an empty stomach—you may not be able to resist all that delicious fresh food!

Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a food rescue program Ashley started a little over a year ago, does not traffic in cans of tuna and bags of Uncle Ben’s, the nonperishable items routinely collected for food pantries and homeless shelters. On the day I rode shotgun in the white Lovin’ Spoonfuls refrigerated van, we stopped in at Flour Bakery + Café and “rescued” some homemade rolls; lugged away crates of fresh, organic apples, juicy citrus, organic squash and potatoes from Enterprise Farm in Whately, Massachusetts; and then, at The Fireplace in Brookline, in addition to accepting a donation of house-made apple and pumpkin pies, we made off with the goose, literally. Chef/owner Jim Solomon handed us a box of the restaurant’s prepared goose breasts, unsold and frozen, that would later grace the dinner table at The Pine Street Inn, which serves the homeless.

Not too shabby for food that would otherwise have fattened a dumpster.

Lovin’ Spoonfuls is Boston’s first fresh-food rescue program. It recovers unserved, surplus or less-than-perfect fruits, vegetables, proteins and prepared foods from grocery stores, caterers, restaurants, farms, farmers markets, produce wholesalers and bakeries. The collected food is delivered by Ashley and her cousin, Benjamin Delfiner, to greater Boston’s homeless shelters, food pantries and crisis centers.

There are similar programs in other parts of the country, like the decades old D.C. Central Kitchen in Washington, and City Harvest in New York. Both of those inspiring programs have become part of the hunger-relief fabric in their respective communities.

Ashley plans the same for Lovin’ Spoonfuls. “Folks in shelters and soup kitchens don’t often have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. Her mantra is, “There’s enough food out there—let’s go get it!” In 2010, Lovin’ Spoonfuls collected and distributed 60,000 pounds of fresh food.

It is not a food bank and there is no storage facility. Perishable food is rescued and delivered the same day. Lovin’ Spoonfuls has a regularly traveled route through the city. Ashley has become familiar with what her beneficiaries need, and matches their needs to what she picks up that day.

So, what’s an attractive, young, athletic blonde like Ashley doing driving a truck and hanging out at soup kitchens?

Ashley grew up in a family that placed a high value on good food, and sharing it was a joyful experience. Her parents raised her to be aware of what a privilege it was to have easy access to an abundance of good food. She recalls one of her family’s practices of wrapping up leftovers after dining in restaurants and then leaving the food outside where hopefully someone who really needed it would find it.

Once when she was 7 or 8, and having just attempted to eat an enormous signature sandwich at Carnegie Deli in New York, she and her dad boxed up the hardly eaten sandwich and left it on the ground outside the deli next to a trash container. Walking away she looked back and saw a homeless man pick up the package and eat the sandwich. That left an impression.

Volunteering at The Pine Street Inn as a kid left an impression, too.

But it wasn’t until decades later, again in a restaurant having lunch with her mom, and again not being able to finish their meals, that Ashley’s ideas about food rescue began to take shape, in particular, how to get all the potentially wasted food to places that needed it. She realized that, “Hunger is a global problem of distribution.”

She began to research what happens to wasted food in our country. She started asking questions in supermarkets: What did they do with food they couldn’t sell? She met Jonathan Bloom (of American Wasteland fame) whose blog contributed a lot to her growing knowledge of our national waste stream, the cycle of food waste and its potential to relieve hunger. She began to see some possibilities.

The numbers are staggering. According to Bloom’s research and an article in the Wall Street Journal*, the United States produces about 591 billion pounds of food a year—and up to half of it goes to waste.

Getting rid of that waste costs billions of dollars which we all pay for. For example, at the farm level, crops that aren’t perfect are left in the field to rot. A head of lettuce may have spots or a cucumber may be too curved to fit properly in the crate. We’ve all heard that most of our supermarket produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to store. That transport creates more opportunities for food waste as food is damaged or spoils along the way. Then at the supermarket level, 30 million pounds of food is thrown away every day—produce that doesn’t look perfect, product that may have expired, boxes that may be dented, etc. Most of it ends up in landfills.

At the consumer level, restaurant diners leave an average of 17% of their meals uneaten because the portion was too large or the side dishes were unwanted. And most leftovers are not taken home. As you might deduce, food scraps are one of the largest components of our national waste stream. Looking at it another way, 2% of all United States energy consumption goes into producing food that is ultimately thrown out.

But Ashley needed some concrete examples, to see if all the numbers she had been reading online were really true. She persuaded Trader Joe’s to let her see what they regularly threw away, and they let her take away eight crates of fresh produce—potatoes, onions and bananas—all earmarked for the dumpster. She took it to The Pine Street Inn. “They [the Inn] were so grateful to have fresh produce,” Ashley recalls. Most food businesses want to see folks get fed; they just need a seamless way to solve the wasted food problem without compromising their core business. Ashley was working on it.

She wrote a letter to the CEO of Stop & Shop—who lives in Wellesley, her hometown—and asked the same questions. Almost everywhere she inquired she met with success. “Everyone at Stop & Shop was excited to put me in touch with the right people.” Whole Foods in Brighton signed on, too. She was building a community of like-minded businesses and individuals, all searching for a solution to food waste.

Then, fired-up and passionate about eliminating hunger in Boston, Ashley launched Lovin’ Spoonfuls. “There is enough food out there—let’s go get it!”

As a former Division 1 soccer player, Ashley views hunger relief as a team sport. The players are the employees at places like Stop & Shop, where team leader Richard Natale enthusiastically takes the time to cull and pick through produce and grocery items in the cavernous back rooms and walk-ins in order to set aside items for the Lovin’ Spoonfuls pickup.

There’s the staff at Trader Joe’s, or the chefs at restaurants such as Lineage, Eastern Standard, Myers + Chang and others, that regularly donate and have even held fund-raisers for Lovin’ Spoonfuls. “After all, chefs love to feed people,” Ashley says. Mayor Menino has publicly recognized Lovin’ Spoonfuls’ mission and gives his full support. “The food community has been so free. It has been a community effort.”

Ashley maneuvers the van through the labyrinth of Boston’s inner city neighborhoods like she’s playing defense. And, despite the schedule, she has the flexibility to respond to last-minute calls for food, like on the day I rode in the van. We were on our way to The Pine Street Inn with our bounty in back, when Ashley answered a call on her cell phone from People’s Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, the site of a community supper and food pantry. This would require a quick detour, so she whipped out a GPS, grappling with the wires and positioning the thing on the dashboard (gulp). But, not to worry—she pulled over at a stoplight to punch in the coordinates of the church. A smiling woman named Joan came out of the church office to meet Ashley and accept the armload of breads from Panera and rolls from Flour Bakery + Café. “I always wanted to go to Flour,” Joan remarked wistfully when she learned where the rolls had come from, and very gratefully accepted the offering.

Over the next few months Stop & Shop Supermarkets will donate a half million pounds of fresh produce, lean proteins and whole grains. As of this writing, Lovin’ Spoonfuls is working with the Dedham store only, but will soon be adding the Walpole branch and, in time, eight more Stop & Shop branches.

With a sustained effort and a lot more funding, Lovin’ Spoonfuls will be able to hire employees and put a few more trucks on the road. In an email Ashley wrote, “Three–five trucks on the road in the next three years will allow us to serve a much broader area, reach more farms and help soup kitchens all over.”

Lovin’ Spoonfuls has been asked to set up in Connecticut, New Hampshire and a few other states, but right now, Ashley writes, “our focus is doing our part to help feed hungry folks in Massachusetts and give Boston a platform to participate in the national conversation about food waste. It’s all about re-assigning a value to wasted food, getting access to it and building that bridge from abundance to need.”

*According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 16, 2010, “Throwing Away Our Food”), and to American Wasteland, by Jonathan Bloom (Da Capo Press, 2010).

Rosie DeQuattro lives in Acton and Charlestown and is a frequent contributor to Edible Boston. You can reach her at rosie@edibleboston.net, at her blog, www.rosiedequattro.com, or follow her on Twitter #rosiedequattro and on Facebook.

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