Ira Kaplan can’t stand to see even one loaf of bread go to waste.
About eight years ago, the longtime Austinite was eating dinner at Mandola’s Italian Market at the Triangle and saw an employee bagging up dozens of loaves of bread in a trash bag.
Earlier that evening, he’d been volunteering at University Baptist Church’s weekly God’s Family Dinner. The church served bread from an outlet bakery, but that night, the woman who usually delivered the bread didn’t show up, and the more than 200 people at the dinner went without.
At the restaurant, Kaplan asked the worker if he could have the bread to give away. “She talked to her manager, who said, ‘Come any night you want and get everything we have that’s left over.’ He said, ‘That would actually help us because it costs every time we have to have the Dumpster dumped.’
“I got the bread almost every night thereafter,” Kaplan says.
Soon, Kaplan was picking up so much bread that he had to start finding places other than the church dinner to take it.
At a birthday party a few years later, Kaplan met another food rescuer, Randy Rosens, who’d started his own personal mission to redistribute excess food after a fancy fundraiser at Laguna Gloria.
With Rosens’ vision to expand their single-person efforts into a wider organization that could do even more good, they formed Keep Austin Fed, a recently minted nonprofit that keeps thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food every year from going in the trash by donating it to dozens of community groups that serve Austinites who are food insecure. Their group is part of a growing anti-hunger effort in the area.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between 30 and 40 percent of food in America ends up in a landfill, while 15 percent of the population doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Hunger “is a solvable problem in our lifetime,” Kaplan says. “There’s so much food in this town going to waste every night of the week. Restaurants run a tight ship, but there are many sources of food,” including bakeries and grocery stores.
Some excess food can be donated to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, which last year accepted more than 13 million pounds of rescued food, including 4.5 million pounds of fresh produce. Because of food safety concerns and logistical issues, such as storage and transportation, the food bank can’t take smaller donations and certain kinds of foods at certain times, including prepared foods.
“Due to customer expectations, retailers turn over food that is perfectly good to eat but isn’t sellable,” says Sara Peralta, communications manager at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. For instance, Vital Farms donates eggs that are too small for retail sale, and Walmart, a major partner in the food bank’s food rescue efforts, donates large quantities of day-old bread and fresh fruits and vegetables that might not look pristine enough for store shelves.
“We have very strict guidelines on what we will and won’t accept,” Peralta says. Meat, for example, has to be frozen and distributed before its expiration date, and if it doesn’t meet those guidelines, the food bank donates it to the Austin Zoo. “Food safety is our No. 1 priority,” she says.
Even with those millions of pounds being saved from the landfill, millions more continue to go to waste, Kaplan says.
“We’re not instead of the food bank, we’re in addition to,” he says. “They do such a great job pulling large quantities of food, but they can’t get everything. We’re trying to bridge that gap to rescue even more food.”
On the weekends, for example, when the food bank isn’t picking up produce from area grocery stores, Keep Austin Fed collects fresh produce from Trader Joe’s to take across town to one of their partners.
Keep Austin Fed doesn’t have a storage facility to keep food, so volunteers pick up food from one place, either a business or an event site, and take it directly to clients at one of more than a dozen partner agencies they serve, which include Casa Marianella; Helping the Aging, Needy and Disabled; SafePlace; Casa Posada Esperanza; Foundation Communities; Caritas; Easter Seals; Foundation for the Homeless; Austin Restoration Ministries; and Lifeworks.
Susan H. Nahkunst first saw exactly how much edible food went into the trash when she was married to a man who worked in the corporate restaurant world. “Having been a starving single mom, I realized the waste was horrible,” she says, but it was from her then-husband’s business that she learned the finer points of food safety and transportation, as well as how to manage food in the first place so it doesn’t have to end up in the trash.
She reached out to Keep Austin Fed through its Facebook page a few years ago and is now the group’s executive director, helping it make the big leap from serious side project to a higher profile nonprofit. (Earlier this month, they hosted their first fundraiser with Whole Foods Market Gateway during the store’s reopening, and last weekend they were the beneficiaries of a tournament sponsored by a local food company, Hot Dang, at the Mueller Farmers Market.)
Nahkunst says they’d like to branch out to even more businesses, including hotels, but chances are good that if you frequent large-scale events and parties around the city, Keep Austin Fed has been there, too.
They’ve rescued food from Circuit of the Americas and the MS150. During South by Southwest, they accepted a donation of several hundred pounds of cheese left over from a party hosted by the Cheeses of Europe, a marketing board based in France.
At the Mueller Farmers Markets on Sundays, Keep Austin Fed, which has a booth at the market, delivers excess food to Austinites who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The deliveries include whole produce and prepared foods, such as bread from Texas French Bread or doughnuts from Red Rabbit Bakery.
Keep Austin Fed regularly redistributes food from businesses including Mandola’s, Tacodeli, Contigo, Crave Catering and Upper Crust, and Snap Kitchen is a newer partner that Kaplan says has worked well because Snap Kitchen sells prepackaged meals that are sealed and dated, which makes distribution easier.
Managing volunteers through the Austin-based website GivePulse, the organization has become much more efficient in getting food picked up and delivered in a timely — and often last minute — manner. (Rosens moved to Washington state several years ago, but Kaplan and more than 60 other volunteers pick up and deliver food just about every day of the week.)
“We joke that we’re like a SWAT team,” Kaplan says of the group’s nimbleness. “If Kerbey Lane calls and says they are changing out the menu, the food needs to be gone in two hours, our people show up and get it.” Deliveries don’t usually take more than 10 or 15 minutes.
The turnaround is quick, sometimes so quick that if a program coordinator can’t return the call immediately, Keep Austin Fed will move on to the next nonprofit on the roster to get the food from A to B as fast as possible.
Instead of relying on volunteers’ own transportation, Nahkunst says, their dream is to have a fleet of vehicles to send out so they could handle larger quantities of food in less time.
They’d also love to serve as a model to help similar organizations get started in other cities.
Another local organization that accepts excess food is Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which sends out nine trucks daily in the Austin area to distribute food and basic care items to the homeless.
They work with the Tennessee-based Food Donation Connection (foodtodonate.com) to receive surplus food from retail outlets, such as day-old pastries from Starbucks. Two years ago, Rudy’s BBQ approached them about donating extra meats and sides from its area restaurants, says Blythe Plunkett, who works in the nonprofit’s commissary and with its new master planned housing project, Community First.
“Everything they don’t sell that afternoon, we have volunteers pick up,” Plunkett says. “Everything from racks of ribs to cole slaw and potato salad.”
Last year, Rudy’s donated $75,000 worth of food, which Plunkett says added refreshing variety for the men and women who usually get sandwiches, chips, fruit and hard-boiled eggs.
One of the common misconceptions is that fresh food cannot be donated, especially if it’s already prepared and ready to serve. Nahkunst points to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, a national liability shield law that was passed in 1996 to encourage people and food businesses to give to nonprofits.
“People are still afraid of that liability,” Nahkunst says, but many cities like Austin have zero waste initiatives and want to find ways to make it work within their current rules and regulations. To help further ensure that the food donated is safe to redistribute, Nahkunst says the group will soon require volunteers to go through food handler certification.
Nahkunst knows that there’s a lot of excitement around improving this food waste/hunger imbalance, but she wants to do so carefully. “I don’t want to grow so fast that we stumble,” she says. “I want to strike a balance between what we’re picking up and what the recipients want and need. They know it’s surplus food, but we try to match the food with the appropriate recipients,” with respect to dietary and cultural restrictions and preferences.
Will Hancock, director for Lifeworks’ Street Outreach program, says that the Keep Austin Fed donations have improved the food they are able to give to the homeless young adults they serve.
“Our cooking capacity is kind of limited, and it’s difficult for us to take bulk items, frozen meats or whole vegetables that need to be prepared,” Hancock says, and chips, sodas, canned vegetables, sugary cereals and other shelf-stable donations aren’t the best foods for kids just out of high school who are trying to build healthy habits.
About six months ago, Keep Austin Fed added Street Outreach to the roster of nonprofits they call when they have food to deliver.
“The ready-to-eat food is going straight to kids who need it, and that’s helped out tremendously,” Hancock says.
The community effort, often spearheaded by Keep Austin Fed, to make sure food doesn’t go to waste is impressive, he says.
He recalls a bulk pick-up when Whole Foods Gateway temporarily shuttered earlier this year. Keep Austin Fed “put out a huge call for people to pick up, and like 10 agencies each showed up with trailers. We loaded them up and then it became this caravan of nonprofits distributing food to a whole bunch of other nonprofits,” he says.
Hancock says that the hundreds of young adults he works with have nothing but gratitude for the food donations that from another perspective would be considered “surplus” and destined for the trash.
Making sure the food that is rescued and delivered is safe to eat is a concern for both Keep Austin Fed and the nonprofits it serves, but Hancock says it’s almost always better than the alternatives: no food at all, food that has been fished out of a Dumpster or leftovers that have been scraped from a plate into a box that a customer then hands out to someone on the street.
Within the homeless community, it’s well known which restaurants discreetly put out excess food by the garbage, but other businesses have been known to pour bleach over still edible food to prevent scrounging.
“Talk about an insult,” Hancock says. “If it’s still good food, what’s the harm in helping somebody out who can’t afford to eat?”
Keep Austin Fed
If you’d like to find out more about the group or how you can help, go to keepaustinfed.org. You also can find them Sundays at the Mueller Farmers Market, where they have a booth to reach out to the public and possible partners.