Rotting lettuce finally made the news. Media coverage of food waste generated several headlines this summer, with European advocates making progress on laws forbidding stores from destroying food that has past its sell by date. (We featured this video from the PBS NewsHour on our Friday Flicks). According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report, close to forty percent of America’s food goes to waste.
Students, designers and policymakers puzzle through the means to make the most of our shrinking resources through circular models. While some food businesses move toward a circular economy, most are far from it. Food rescue bridges the gap between a closed-loop food business design (our businesses are not there, yet) and ongoing waste.
In Contra Costa County, White Pony Express, an all volunteer food rescue organization, closes the loop one delivery at a time. Seven days a week. I met with Erica Brooks and Vincent d’Assis to learn more about the inspiration, values and structure behind the organization. Since its inception in September 2013, White Pony Express has delivered more than 1.7 million pounds of fresh quality food. It calculates the discounted value of that food at $2.8 million. Its volunteer base has grown from 100 to 400. It partners with more than 100 donors to reach more than 50 organizations countywide.
How did you get involved?
Vincent: I was in DC finishing my masters in special education, and Dr. Conner (of Sufism Reoriented) contacted me. Gary and Lorraine were going out and canvassing our potential recipients to see what their greatest needs were to see how we might build the structure of the organization and the operations. I knew very little about food rescue or an organization like this. But I said yes, this is what I wanted to do in addition to teaching.
Dr. Conner had heard about an organization called Food Runners in San Francisco. So I looked into it and found, wow, all this stuff is going to go in the trash. I learned how much food ends up in the waste stream one way or another and at different points in food production, and I was shocked. She presented this to me as she wanted to create something where we take this abundance around us and give it to people in need. That touched me the most, because we see all these programs making new products, but so much is going in the trash. It’s not “perfectly good” food, it’s great food. It made sense for me, I was looking to go into education administration and this was a management, board level position. This is going to be a wonderful experience for me.
Erica: I grew up here, then I was living in the East Coast, in New York for years. My background was in international development, working for a place called charity: water which provided water solutions all over the world through different implementing partners on the ground. I was really interested in how we use social media and digital marketing to spread the word. We got a lot of people involved at a grassroots level, with energy behind it.
I really like the idea of, instead of creating another charity to go into Africa how we could create collaborations. How we could create partnerships and share resources. That was something charity: water did well and I loved that model. Dr. Conner asked me if I would join this team and it was doing what I had been interested in doing on a global level but right here in Contra Costa County … how can we help the nonprofits that already exists work better together? What can we do to help them build their capacity? We can bring them food, then toys and clothes. I was actually less interested in the food rescue than in the model. If you have a church that has a free lunch but an empty hall every week, then you have a group that needs the lunch, why not link the two together? So we started thinking long term of how we could build a consortium.
How do your convince people to join? How do you overcome the resistance to partner?
Vincent: We try to show people how different groups have different pieces of the puzzle. We work with Loaves and Fishes (of Contra Costa County) and bring them food, and they notice that we need a refrigerator and they say, hey, we have a commercial refrigerator and freezer we could give you. Now we – White Pony Express – can deliver extra food to these other places that you’re serving. And we show them that they have (food) donors in their area. [See our post on Loaves and Fishes CCC]
Our contacting team, Gary, Lorraine, Erica and I went out talked to a whole bunch of grocery stores and restaurants. (Erica: We stared with sandwich shops). And we talked to the donor and said, you have a place right down the street that needs food, how do you feel about linking with them? It’s creating a community of partnerships.
Erica: We went to all the nonprofits in the area and asked “what do you need?” and we designed a program around that. And the resounding response was, we need fresh food. It’s hard to come by and they need people to bring it to them. People just do not have the resources to travel. So we said, okay, we need to figure out how to make a model delivery service. And that’s really what we do, and that’s what works. We bring these items to them. They need someone to stay there and run the shelter, they can’t drive to Trader Joe’s even if they know there’s food there. So, what we kept hearing was we were doing the job that no one else wanted to do. Driving.
Vincent: And doing the cold call. Walking into Whole Foods and asking for the team leader and asking can we have extra food. And going into Safeway and going through the different offices and going to Costco. And once we created a donor base there and proved to them that we were reliable… and that was big thing. We show up. We make a commitment to showing up an hour from being called. And deliver it to the recipient within an hour of that.
Costco gives us two and a half thousand pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, and it’s sitting there in their receiving area and they can’t move it out and so for us to show up within an hour and to get it out of there for them… They don’t have to pay to get it hauled off, they don’t have to pay for trash and landfill services.
The employees at those stores love the program. We were reliable, we were prompt, we gave them the service they needed, and they could see how they could help their community, We see the idea of giving starting to grow. One barbeque shop would actually go out and buy more meat for us. And, there’s a lot of turn over and transfer in these places so someone from Costco Concord moved to Costco Antioch and convinced their whole store, we want to give to White Pony Express. Someone from Sprouts Walnut Creek went to Sprouts Dublin and did the same.
And it happened among the recipients, too. These places started to see they are getting quality food and the food they want (we call them every morning and ask what do you need today?). They go beyond the basic needs, they get to choose. That’s something we take for granted.
How have you been able to grow so quickly?
Erica: We talk about our three pillars: love, flexibility and responsiveness. As far as flexibility, we realized that in addition to food rescue, people needed all of these other items, like clothes and toys. (It also means managing our schedule around their service times). One of the things we’re big on is saying yes. So if a donor says can you come at seven in the morning, we say yes. And this is a huge part of why our growth is so accelerated. People said, we want to give you flowers, we didn’t have a flower program, but we said yes and now we bring flowers to these places.
And love, obviously, we always say, the most important thing we bring is love. We don’t just drop the food off on a doorstep. The attitude that our volunteers bring. Every volunteer training that he (Vince) does we talk about that. Smiling, uplifting spirit.
Vincent: I think of Brookside shelter in Richmond, it’s a homeless shelter for about 100 people. Before we came, they were getting extra prison meals. And, once a month a church group was coming in to give food. So that’s clearly not enough food. When we came, they were rushing the cars. There was a real feeling of scarcity. So, our runners were going in there with love and a smile. We went in with three to four hundred pounds of ready-to-eat sandwiches and deli food every day and after a couple of weeks, instead of rushing the cars, the fear dissipated and the residents would say “Pony Man’s here! How are you?” And they would pull the coolers from the cars and help bring them indoors. We’re part of the family now.
We have one volunteer who goes to the women’s shelter and he knows just what they want and he pulls that food. He’s created a relationship with them, he talks with them. He remembers. A form of love is to remember.
Erica: For me it’s the coincidences that show me that we are doing the right thing with love. There was one day when many of our groups were all asking us on the same day for milk. I don’t know why or what must have happened that there was a sudden shortage and a demand. But on that same morning we had a call from Nob Hill saying, we have 80 or so gallons of milk, can you come by and get it? We all jump in our cars (this was before we had our vehicles) and this whole fleet of us descended on the store at the same time. That’s just one story of how things fall into place when you need them most.
[This is the first in a two-part profile. In our next post we cover the operational air traffic control that links donors with recipients, scaling the model, the resources needed to run the runners and their cargo, and more about the General Store and its mobile boutiques.]