Large-Scale Efforts to Stop Food Waste

Mom's Pumpkin PieHow much food goes to waste each year? One source gives the global figure as 200,000 tons, another source claims the same amount is wasted each year in the United Kingdom alone. Obviously, we’re dealing with a lot of educated guesses. In the United States, a somewhere from 30 to 40 percent is wasted, depending on which authority is speaking. Allegedly, 30 million tons of food wind up in American landfills each year.

Komal Ahmad asks us to imagine a football stadium filled to the top like a gigantic bowl—because that’s how much food goes to waste in America in a single day. While a student at UC Berkeley in California, she forged a connection between the school’s dining halls and local homeless shelters, initiating a program that, within three years, spread to 140 colleges across the country.

Now, Ahmad is CEO of Feeding Forward, a nonprofit organization that uses a website and a mobile app to connect all kinds of businesses with shelters in their area. When a company hosts a big event, it can summon volunteers to come and package the leftovers, and deliver them to food banks and venues that feed people experiencing homelessness. Since its inception in 2013, Feeding Forward has recovered more than 600,000 pounds of food and provided almost that number of meals.

A similar program was started by Jean-François Archambault in Montreal, Canada back in 2005, and has spread to other Canadian cities and even taken a leap down to Mexico City. As a hotel management student, Archambault was appalled by the waste his classes generated, and told reporter Karon Liu:

We were preparing so much food and they threw away a lot of it because there were only 20 students, but we were practicing to cook for 80 to 100 people.

Later, working in major hotels, he observed that between a quarter and a third of the food prepared for banquets and buffets would be thrown away. Now, La Tablée Des Chefs matches the places that have food with the places that need it, and provides aluminum and plastic containers and bags. When the Montreal Canadiens play at the city’s Bell Centre, between 700 and 900 homeless people are fed the following day.

From one major hotel alone, as many as 10,000 meals can be recovered in a year. With more than 60 food distribution organizations and 50 hospitality establishments involved, La Tablée Des Chefs has been responsible for serving a total of about half a million meals.

Plan Zheroes, which feeds thousands of people experiencing homelessness in the United Kingdom, aims to expand into Wales and Portugal. Volunteers remember how it was in the old days, before Plan Zheroes was founded in 2009. Each potential donation triggered a confusing flurry of phone calls to discover the place where food was needed most and to gather people and vehicles to move it from Point A to Point B.

Determined to make better use of time, food, and all other resources, a consulting firm called Keytree developed the new social network as a pro bono project. In this case, the donors are not hotels but retail grocery outlets whose products have reached their mandated “sell-by” date.

Often, change is met with resistance, because people who are used to doing things a certain way rarely welcome change. But continuing advances in technology promise that such compassionate sharing systems will continue to improve and spread.

Source: “Surplus food for the homeless is just an app away.” CNET.com, 06/21/15
Source: “Your Uneaten Hotel Breakfast Is Now Feeding the Homeless,” vice.com, 05/12/15
Source: “This Homeless Charity Got Smart And Built Own Social Network,” forbes.com, 05/22/15
Image by Kurman Communications, Inc.



The “Functional Zero” Fallacy

Maher min wageBob Erlenbusch is Executive Director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness and, like House the Homeless founder Richard R. Troxell, he sits on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Currently, in a paper called Homelessness & “Functional Zero:” a Critique, Erlenbusch challenges the validity of the bedrock principles of homelessness policy. (We received the piece from Erlenbusch; it is not, as far as we know, available online.) It appears that some underlying notions seriously need to be re-thought.

The author points out that, lamentably, ten-year plans that started so boldly are now “in their second decade or abandoned altogether.” Strategies that were originally mapped out might need remodeling. For example, when authorities set the triage standards, and prioritized the various arbitrarily-named subgroups, it was decided that the chronically homeless would be dealt with first, then veterans, families, and youth. Of course, any person could belong to more than one of those groups. Anyway, the idea was to eliminate homelessness among one group, then move on to the next. By and large, that plan is not working out as advertised.

Why have things gone so wrong? For one thing, there’s the minimum wage, which Erlenbusch says “keeps people shackled to poverty.” What does poverty do? The stress of it makes people sick. A chronic shortage of money tempts them to a criminal path. Financial distress breaks up families. Grownups wind up in a hospitals, jails and prisons. Kids wind up in foster homes.

Every year, those institutions discharge thousands of people into homelessness—people who are vulnerable because of poor health, youth who are at risk in many ways, and men and women who are perhaps perfectly capable of supporting themselves, except for being unemployable because of their criminal records. All too often, those jackets are acquired in the first place through crimes directly connected with being homeless—sitting on the wrong bench, panhandling, public urination, and so forth. The vicious cycle that connects prison and the streets (and the foster care system) creates a revolving door that rotates so fast it would make your head spin.

Going farther back, the Reagan administration set the stage for all this in 1980 by making three-quarters of the federal affordable housing budget disappear. Also at some point the mental health system took a dive, which can be blamed on either Reagan or the ACLU, depending on who tells the story. (It might have been both.) All these factors, and more, add up to what Erlenbusch describes as:

…systems and policies that have created three decades of mass homelessness.. Prisons and jails have become the housing for people experiencing homelessness, especially people of color and those with mental health issues.

So now, how do we handle the fallout? For starters, we try to “arrest our way out of homelessness,” and one of the results has been the de facto criminalization of mental illness. (It would be a cliché to invoke the name of a certain World War II military dictator, but his thoughts were on the same wavelength.)

Something else happened, too— what Erlenbusch calls “defining our way out of homelessness.” This trick has been used extensively by bureaucracies full of number-massagers with statistics degrees and flexible principles when discussing, for instance, the unemployment rate. Even when well-intentioned (but ill-advised) people set to work on the definition of homelessness, things can really get ugly.

The Fatal Flaw in Functional Zero

The big fallacy is a concept called “functional zero” and Erlenbusch hopes to inspire a major shift in the thinking behind it. Here is the gist of his argument:

Basically, a community can still have 10,000 homeless people, for example, but if that community can say the number of people entering homelessness is equal to the number exiting, they have reached “functional zero”—forget the 10,000 languishing on the streets and in shelters…

An analogy: say a person weighs 800 pounds. If he ingests 2,000 calories worth of food per day, and moves around enough to burn 2,000 calories in a day, you could say his intake/output ratio is at “functional zero.” Yeah, but he still weighs 800 pounds! This falls under no one’s definition of health. Erlenbusch goes on to say:

It is harmful because when politicians and community members hear “zero”—they hear we have ended homelessness… Then when it is time to allocate scarce public resources it would not be unreasonable for the public and/or elected officials to argue we don’t need as many resources for homelessness because we have solved it! Yet we know nothing could be further from the truth.

Philosophical Background

One excellent point made by the author is that, just like “no means no,” zero should mean zero. In order to grasp the insidious damage done by the “functional zero” doctrine, we relate one of Erlenbusch’s statements to a few other quotations and ideas. He says that because of this convention, “…hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness have remained invisible to our leaders at all levels.” He quotes Marc Uhry:

When people are invisible, you can’t find a solution because you don’t see them.

In The Transformation, George B. Leonard wrote:

One of the most powerful taboo mechanisms is simply not providing a vocabulary for the experience to be tabooed.

The venerable Illuminatus! Trilogy gave us the word “fnord,” which has to do with things that are apparent but indefinite; and the ability to see truths that most people can’t; and being forcibly conditioned to fear that seeing. It might even bear some relationship to what Obi Wan Kenobi famously said: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” It’s about mental judo. Community Solutions defines functional zero like this:

At any point in time, the number of people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness will be no greater than the current monthly housing placement rate for people experiencing homelessness.

Our minds can be clouded to think that makes sense. But it doesn’t. That definition merely describes homeostasis, or maintenance of the status quo. In any case, those things are not necessarily good, and in this case, they are definitely bad. The definition is, at best, meaningless jargon, and at worse an evil gimmick. It signifies no more than treading water, or running in a hamster wheel—with the appearance of activity but no real progress.

Of course, that’s not entirely fair either. Even when the math is from Alice in Wonderland, every time an individual or family receives help from any agency, it’s a step in the right direction. As in the oft-repeated starfish story, “It made a difference for that one.”

Source: “Topic: Reagan kicked people out of institutions,” Snopes.com, 02/05/06
Image by Bill Maher



The Individual Versus Hunger

Jacques-Imo's- Food StampsPeople often wonder, “What can one person do?” House the Homeless is in the process of saluting a number of one-person operations that have collectively fed thousands of hungry people in many places.

In London’s fabled East End, the Crisis Cafe teaches culinary skills to people experiencing homelessness, and to recently re-housed people who are getting back on their feet. Of course many dedicated volunteers are behind this project, but the program received some well-deserved publicity when Sophie Thompson, who had a role in one of the Harry Potter movies, stopped by. In addition to cinematic star power, Thompson brought her reputation as the 2014 Celebrity MasterChef winner and her recipe for pumpkin soup.

In Hail, Saudi Arabia, a man set up a commercial-sized, glass-fronted refrigerator outside his home, where he and his neighbors place food for hungry people to come and get. Of course, probably anywhere in America such a gesture would be forbidden by zoning laws, anti-litter ordinances, “eyesore” abatement programs, and health department rules. It is a nice idea, though.

Feeding the Hungry in the U.S.

Every Thursday, a woman who works in Chicago’s business district spends her lunch hour distributing sandwiches purchased from a fast food outlet, whose owner also contributes a few freebies. Kasonja Holley is often accompanied by her friend Darlene Green, and the pair sometimes carry along toiletries and blankets. Holley started a nonprofit called Love in Motion, whose volunteers recently celebrated its third anniversary by serving 300 meals.

Mason Wartman quit his lucrative Wall Street career to make a difference in the city he loves, Philadelphia, by opening a pizza parlor. The restaurant’s unique meal-sharing system is based on sticky notes. A paying customer can choose to give a dollar, write a friendly message, and post it on the wall, and somebody who needs it can take one of those sticky notes and redeem it for a free meal. In a one-year period, Wartman’s business served 14,000 partially subsidized pizza slices.

Moved by a similar sentiment for his home town, Baltimore, restaurant owner Michael Tabrizi is skipping the annual promotional week during which restaurants offer great deals to attract customers who can afford to eat out. Instead, he is setting aside five days to serve three meals a day to the homeless.

In Allan Law’s Minneapolis apartment, 17 freezers run at all times. Over the course of a year, about 800 groups (business, civic and faith-based) take turns stocking them with food. A retired teacher, Law now works nights for free, driving a van through dark streets to distribute the necessities of life. Boyd Huppert reports that in one year, Law handed out “more than 700,000 sandwiches, 7,000 pairs of socks and 75,000 bus tokens.” He also makes the rounds of local businesses to pick up food that would otherwise go to waste.

In Hartford, Conn., Sister Patricia McKeon recently let go of the executive director reins after 50 years of feeding the homeless via Mercy Housing and Shelter. Edible calories are only one of the blessings dispensed by the organization, which also is instrumental in finding homes for around 250 people every year. Sister Pat told a reporter:

This wasn’t just a job, it was a ministry to help people….You know, it’s been a wonderful ride. It really, really has.

Feeding People in The Golden State

California keeps up its reputation as a forerunner in societal improvement, thanks to such caring citizens as Donna Dolgovin, the retired nurse from Pomona who one day gave a cup of soup to a homeless man and went on to found a nonprofit called Helping Hands, Caring Hearts, which feeds as many as 150 people every Sunday.

In Monterey, Sarah Luiz Chandler was homeless for more than a year before receiving a sizeable inheritance that allows her to do things like host community meals. She describes helping others as “the greatest, most satisfying, electric experience you can ever imagine,” and says:

Homelessness doesn’t have to be a lifestyle. It can be just a moment in time.


Source: “Harry Potter star Sophie Thompson weaves her magic to help homeless people,” Mirror.co.uk, 01/31/15
Source: “Saudi Man Finds Innovative Way To Feed Homeless,” Ecorazzi.com, 05/12/14
Source: “Kasonja Holley is feeding the Loop’s homeless on her lunch break,” ChicagoReader.com, 12/09/14
Source: “How to Quit Wall Street and Crowdfund Pizza for the Homeless,” HuffingtonPost.com, 07/02/15
Source: “Baltimore Restaurant Owner Opts Out Of Restaurant Week To Feed The Homeless
Instead,” HuffingtonPost.com, 07/06/15
Source: “700,000 sandwiches later, this man is still helping the homeless,” USAToday.com, 04/20/15
Source: “After 50 years, Sister Pat passing the baton on feeding homeless,” WFSB.com, 03/09/15
Source: “Everyday Heroes: Pomona woman feeds homeless with regular Sunday meals,” DailyBulletin.com, 12/20/13
Source: “Homeless-woman-turned millionaire gives back,” KSBW.com, 07/07/14
Image by Mills Baker



Random Acts of Nourishment

St. Michael's CreesloughAmerica is full of people who feel called to feed others, whether sporadically or on a regular basis, and they do it in an astonishing number of ways. Every now and then, a celebrity will perform an impulsive act, as when comedian Russell Brand treated some West Hollywood street people to a café breakfast.

Non-celebrities don’t usually get as much attention. But the world does sometimes find out about people like Mary Younkin, who typically carries around a dozen or so sack lunches in her car, ready to give away. For others who might want to try it, her blog gave a list of items that work well for this purpose, and included the words:

I hate the empty feeling of seeing someone in need and looking the other way…My children get to see that they can help make a difference in someone else’s day and perhaps life.

Another good Samaritan, Kevin Quinn, has set up a GoFundMe page for his project, “Water for the Homeless.” His most recent updates report temperatures in Boise, Idaho, of over 100 degrees. He keeps contributors informed with reports like this:

I spent the last two days handing out iced waters and apples. Needing water bottles, apples and ice has added up. Sadly, a lot of the homeless do not have teeth and apples are not an option. I need to find a softer item for these people, to provide something to eat during the day.

A few years back, the Texas city of Lubbock planned to shut down a meal-sharing event in a city park. Apparently, the problem lay in some ordinance violations that could easily have been overlooked, but were seized upon by authorities who warned the volunteer cooks to end their weekly picnic.

When local business owner Alex Scarborough heard about this, he developed a feisty attitude and invited a bunch of friends to hold a potluck dinner in that same park, with plates for anyone who cared to show up. A couple of city council members supported him in the press, with one calling the ban a “vast overreach of city authority” and another remarking wryly that the city must have “bigger fish to fry,” meaning, of course, civic matters of higher priority. Scarborough told reporter Adam D. Young:

This surprised the living daylights out of me…I’m just wondering when we started regulating people’s kitchens…When you have to ask the officials for permission or a permit to gather and eat in the park—that’s not the country I grew up in.

Around the same time, in Detroit, Brother Al Mascia of St. Aloysius Outreach Ministries made news with the converted bicycle that helped him answer the daily needs of around 300 people experiencing homelessness. Patricia Montemurri wrote:

The food cart fits over the bicycle’s front end…outfitted with foldable countertops, insulation and a battery for lighting. It holds Thermos bottles of coffee and hot chocolate. Some days, Mascia dispenses muffins and cookies. On really good days, he has hot homemade breakfast sandwiches donated by church groups.

Perhaps inspired by Detroit’s Franciscan friar, the satire website GlossyNews.com published a story by Dan Geddes in which the city of Orlando was disturbed by a fellow who showed up at a local park with 12 friends and made a speech about love, forgiveness, and social justice. Of course critics called him “hippie scum walking around stirring up class warfare” and “domestic terrorist.” The fictional piece goes on to say:

After someone in the crowd shouted out “We’re hungry!” Christos reached into a picnic basket containing two loaves of Wonder Bread and a bag of Long John Silver fish filets. Christos instructed his friends to start sharing the food with the crowd.

In what many eyewitnesses described as a “miracle,” the bread and fish did not run out, and appeared to feed all 5,000 homeless people to their satisfaction.


Source: “Russell Brand Treats Homeless Group To Breakfast,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/28/12
Source: “Barefeet In The Kitchen: Sack Lunches for the Homeless,” barefeetinthekitchen.com, 01/23/14
Source: “Local man passes out water, food to homeless,” KTVB.com, 07/02/15
Source: “Lubbockite plans public potluck after officials halt homeless picnic,” LubbockOnline.com, 07/20/11
Source: “Meals on bicycle wheels: Franciscan friar feeds, clothes homeless,” tdn.com, 04/15/11
Source: “Jesus Look-alike Arrested for Feeding 5000 Homeless People,” GlossyNewscom, 06/01/14
Image by Steve Cadman