How yogurt from NFL draft became breakfast for Philly families

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Paul LaFreniere, left, and Rachel Leider, right, volunteers for the Share Food Program, pickup some of the thousands of unsold yogurt cups and yogurt drinks donated by Oikos after the NFL Draft on Sunday night, April 30, 2017.

Homeless families sitting for breakfast this week at the Salvation Army’s Red Shield shelter on North Broad Street might notice a menu item that usually is a bit too pricey for a charity’s budget: Oikos Greek yogurt.

But how that high-protein yogurt, left over from the NFL draft, got to the families
involved a complex, sometimes chaotic, choreography that included Oikos, the
NFL, and a group of hard-working, very persistent food-rescue workers who
linked up with each other through a mobile phone app called Food Connect.

And it involved daunting logistics: How could they get through the epic traffic jams around the NFL draft site in time to pick up the highly perishable product? Then, where could they store thousands of containers of yogurt and keep them all cold enough so they wouldn’t spoil? Just from Oikos, the Salvation Army picked up 496 cases of Greek yogurt and yogurt drinks, totaling 5,962 individual cups and bottles.

The story of how that yogurt traveled from the NFL draft to families in need shows why a goal that seems so logical — getting nourishing food to people who need it — requires so much coordination and dedication.

Saturday afternoon

Megha Kulshreshtha, 29, was at home in Philadelphia, in front of her computer. The Food Connect app is her brainchild, and it is central to how the city distributes leftover food from big events, working with partners such as Philabundance and Coalition Against Hunger.

The city realized during the papal visit that it had to deal with the prospect of wasting huge amounts of food that still were nutritious and healthful, but could not be resold for legal reasons, said Eric Munson of the Mayor’s Community Empowerment and Opportunity Office.  It launched a partnership with Food Connect at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and collected 11,000 pounds of food.

“Megha coordinates the technical side of the things on the app. Groups like  Philabundance manage the donors and recipients. We’ve been sort of plugging the holes on as we go along,” Munson said.

On days such as Saturday, Kulshreshtha is the human hole-plugger, working to dispatch food as vendors broke down their setups and used the app to indicate whether they had food available for pickup.  

At 4:07 p.m., someone from Oikos, owned by Dannon, indicated there would be three pallets of yogurt and yogurt drinks to donate between 4 and 6 p.m. Sunday, a gift that would require big refrigerators. Kulshreshtha contacted the Salvation Army.

Sunday afternoon

The Salvation Army sent driver Emmari Frank, who was at 22nd Street and the Parkway  promptly at  4 p.m., but could not find anyone from Oikos. He frantically started making calls — with so many workers dismantling massive draft structures, traffic was too blocked for him to drive around searching.

“They had some trouble connecting,” said Bob Myers, director of disaster services for the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. Still, Frank managed to find the yogurt and started loading his truck. Next problem: There were two extra pallets — more than the Salvation Army could take.

Kulshreshtha rushed to find another taker.

Sunday evening

She tracked down Beth Broady of the Share Food Program on Hunting Park Avenue. “We really hadn’t planned on a large delivery,” Broady said. Still, she located two volunteers to help fetch the pallets — and they, too, had to get through massive traffic snarls to pick up the perishable cargo. And yet again, there was more food there than they had expected. Still, Broady said, the yogurt was loaded and stored in Share Food’s large commercial refrigerators by about 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

Some was quickly distributed, but by Monday there still were 1,600 yogurt drinks and 220 yogurt containers to be distributed.  Some will end up in senior lunches or food pantries.

Michael Neuwirth, an Oikos spokesman, said that if not for the work of the food donation programs, all that yogurt might have gone to waste, as it can’t legally be resold. “It’s a great thing,” he said of the food rescue efforts.

The kind of waste Neuwirth was so pleased to avoid is exactly what gave Kulshreshtha the idea for the app in 2014, when she was commuting into Suburban Station and saw restaurants throwing out food. Born in India, she and her family moved to Burlington County when she was young. They didn’t have a lot, but her parents always taught the importance of giving back.

“It was baffling to me,” Kulshreshtha, a Villanova University graduate and partner in Konark Development LLC, said of the waste she saw.  “There are so many wonderful food organizations doing food rescue. Why not incorporate technology into this distribution to make it easier for donors to donate and recipients to receive food?”

The Salvation Army will use the yogurt “a couple of different ways,” said Myers, director of disaster services for the Salvation Army Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. “We’ve got some we’re refrigerating for any emergency responses. The bulk of it will be pushed out to our community center locations and our shelter locations.”

One of those was the Red Shield Family Residence on North Broad Street, a shelter for homeless families with children.

“We delivered 50 cases to them [Sunday] night,” Myers said. “They have a capacity of 40 families. They’re always at capacity.”

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