Food rescuers race to battle waste, hunger

Bob Ventresca (right), of Bucks County Food Runners, gathers beef lasagna and sides from chef David Demko at the Delaware Valley College Farm Market in Doylestown for delivery to a women’s shelter.

The kitchen was in pre-lunch frenzy at the Delaware Valley University Farm Market in Doylestown, the kind of upscale spot you’d expect to find on a leafy Bucks County road, all high-end marmalades and country gentility.

In the midst of the salad-chopping chaos, executive chef David Demko, 40, took a timeout to hand over trays of unsold beef lasagna and roasted vegetables to Bob Ventresca of Bucks County Food Runners.

Ventresca, a muscular real-estate developer with a social conscience and a fast 2010 Nissan Altima Coupe, stuffed the food into insulated bags and hustled it to a women’s shelter, in time for a midday meal.

Two big-time American problems got addressed in one afternoon: food waste and hunger.

Born of a Bible-study group brainstorm, Food Runners is one of a growing number of outfits that pick up uneaten items from restaurants, caterers, and other spots where food is served. Someone with extra food calls the Runners, and one of 25 volunteers picks it up and delivers it to a shelter or cupboard.

Other such services, such as Food Connect in Philadelphia, have an app that donors can download to get their food ferried to a charitable organization. Throughout the region, there’s an increasing number of people who see both the food surplus and the deficit among people in need, and cannot abide the imbalance. They’re working to do something about it.

“Are we going to solve the problem of hunger?” Ventresca, 60, of Doylestown, asked. “No.

“But can we help? Yup.”

Tons wasted

About 30 percent to 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States is wasted, experts say.

That is 52 million tons of food a year thrown out by individual households, restaurants, groceries, and other places where consumers buy food; 10 million more tons never harvested from farms; and one million more tons lost in food processing, according to Zhengxia Dou, a professor of agricultural systems at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. All that waste costs $218 billion annually, according to ReFed, a nonprofit committed to reducing food waste.

In Philadelphia alone, Dou said, 650 tons of food are wasted every day.

Aside from the loss of nutrition, the discarded food adds to climate change, because it sits in landfills and becomes greenhouse gas — “a huge problem,” she added.

In fact, said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a global nonprofit dedicated to food issues, if “food waste” were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world, behind China and the U.S.

As food spoils, one in five Philadelphians and one in 11 Bucks County residents go hungry, according to data from Feeding America, the largest anti-hunger charity in America, headquartered in Chicago. Throughout America, the figure is one in eight.

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For Ventresca, the waste/hunger disparity came into sharp relief one day in Jenkintown three years ago when he saw workers at a chain Italian restaurant wheeling endless cartloads of uneaten cooked food into a Dumpster. They were one block away from a food cupboard.

“That drove me crazy,” said Ventresca, who brought it up with buddies Jim Dodaro and Kevin McPoyle. The three are Christians who meet with other men on Friday mornings to understand their faith better and to figure out how they can help people.

The odd thing is, both Dodaro and McPoyle had had similar “gnawing” thoughts about waste and hunger. “We individually had the same calling to help,” said Dodaro, 56, of Furlong, who works in IT. Last year, the men collected and distributed 21 tons of food.

The trio discovered that restaurant owners themselves disdain throwing out good food, but are fearful that if someone were to eat something they donated and get sick, the restaurant would be liable.

But a nonprofit such as Bucks County Food Runners eliminates the worry because any food given to it is protected by the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, a federal statute that says both donors and organizations that receive and serve donated food are blameless if someone gets ill.

‘I can’t do nothing’

In the region, supermarkets contribute tons of food yearly to the hungry. And Philabundance, the giant hunger-relief agency that’s part of Feeding America, has been rescuing food since its founding in 1984. The group gathers it from grocery stores, the Port of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, and other places. About 17 million of the 25 million pounds of food Philabundance distributes in nine counties is rescued food, an agency spokeswoman said.

Camera icon Megha Kulshreshtha
Megha Kulshreshtha, 30, founder of Food Connect, which rescues uneaten food from restaurants and delivers it to hungry people in shelters and other places.

None of it is restaurant food, however, which is where Megha Kulshreshtha comes in. The founder and executive director of Food Connect, Kulshreshtha, 30, collects about 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of food a month, much of it from restaurants and caterers. The group schedules pickups through a mobile app.

Kulshreshtha got her start in 2014. She had help from a collaboration among Philabundance, Share Food Program, the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, and the city. Food Connect helped donate uneaten food from the 2016 Democratic National Convention and last year’s NFL Draft.

An immigrant from India, Kulshreshtha said her parents inspired her to help others. “Giving back was always part of the equation,” said Kulshreshtha, who worked in finance until she noticed food overabundance coexisting with abject hunger. “That never sat right with me,” she said. “I can’t do nothing.”

The work she does with roughly 50 volunteers is lauded. “Oh, my God, Food Connect is amazing,” said Margaux Murphy, director of the Sunday Love Project, a nonprofit that feeds the homeless in Rittenhouse Square and in Kensington. “They are good about food safety, and get it to us in minutes. It’s like the best thing ever.”

Although food rescue garners more attention lately, it isn’t a panacea for waste and hunger.

Dou of Penn estimates that the difference rescuers make on overall waste is “negligible,” adding, “The amount we rescue is less than 2 percent of the amount wasted.”

Similarly, Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Coalition Against Hunger, said that although reducing food waste “is a win-win” in terms of battling waste and meeting short-term hunger relief, it doesn’t address income inequality, low wages, and other issues that lie at the root cause of poverty.

Still, Dou said, on any given day in any given soup kitchen or shelter, if a person who normally would not have eaten has a meal because a rescuer delivered one, “to that individual in that moment, it makes a big difference.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow @BrokeInPhilly.