Why Volunteer for Community Plates?

This is my story.  I plan on sharing my experiences of volunteering for Community Plates, but the real question is:  Why did I sign up to volunteer?

Years ago, I became very interested in 2 local non-profit organizations and wanted to help.  I was welcomed by each organization and asked to sit on their boards.  I have to admit I was a bit flattered because I thought my voice and efforts could have a direct impact on the organization.  I sat on the finance and fundraising committees and as I became more and more involved with the officers of the board, I became angry.  I volunteered for the cause, but quickly learned others didn’t.  Major board members volunteered to meet certain individuals who’d assist them in gaining a coveted country club membership.  It sickened me and I finished my term and was turned off from the concept of volunteering.

Since then, I’ve held jobs that required a lot of travel or a long commute leaving me precious spare time to accomplish my personal errands.  I admit, the sting of other people’s bad behavior still had me closed off to volunteering again.  I guess you’d say I became a ‘volunteer snob’.

Recently, I went to a lecture and after the talk was waiting in line when I struck a conversation with Kevin Mullins.  Kevin is the Executive Director of Community Plates (CP).  His passion for Community Plates was so infectious that he converted this ‘volunteer snob’.  I wanted to help, but thought it more important to focus on my job search than volunteer.  However, I soon realized I was talking about Community Plates to friends and family, blogged and tweeted about CP on a continuous basis.

Why had my random conversation with Kevin had such a great impact on me?  Other than Kevin being a great conversationalist, he conveyed CP’s simple mission:  Rescue food and bring it to those who need it.  I love that my direct action could have such a positive reaction.  Kevin is looking for volunteers to pick up food from restaurants or grocery stores CP has relationships with, and drop it off at shelters or food pantries.  I loved the idea, but fearful that I’d lose time focusing on my job search, I asked Kevin if my husband and I could volunteer for one run a month.  He said yes.

CP would love if people could volunteer for 1 run a week, but as Kevin told me he is grateful for all the help he can get.  In my case, I really wanted to do this with my husband, but he works multiple jobs and has very little time to spare.  CP was very accommodating about my request because they haven’t lost sight of their mission and only want to rescue as much food as possible and distribute it to those who need it.

As I continue to volunteer for CP, I will write about my experiences about making a food rescue run (my first one is this Saturday), meeting the people behind Community Plates, meeting other volunteers and how you can make a difference through volunteering or word-of-mouth.

If you want to volunteer, please click http://communityplate.wpengine.com/getinvolved or click the ‘Get Involved’ link at the top of the blog.

If you do decide to help, I hope to meet you and would love to share your story with others of why you signed up.  Hope to hear from you — Joan….


What We Value

Our inbox is buzzing! Local volunteers want to know about the Community Plate food-rescue platform.  Sunday’s Norwalk Hour had a great article that caused some of this interest and there is excitement here in Lower Fairfield County where we first launched our attack on American food-insecurity.   People are calling, emailing and trying to find out what makes this thing tick.

We didn’t have a big “corporate values” meeting before we began, but since very early on there have been four things that have organically emerged as core to who we are.  If you’re considering whether or not Community Plates is the right place for you to serve and invest your time, maybe these will provide you some direction.

We Value:

1.  Yes- Nice confusing way to begin right?  An affirmative response however is core to who we are.  When we’re talking to a potential donor (all of who have very different contexts and business parameters) it’s important that every time we can, we say yes to their requests.  ”Can you pick-up food between 2:45 and 3:15 on Tuesday and Thursday?”  ”When you come for your pickup can you please not interfere with our normal business operation?” “Can you respond to late night catering opportunities?”  This same desire to accommodate is important when we are coordinating with the busy schedules of our volunteers.  Our answer, whenever it can be, is yes- It is “yes” that allows us to grow.

2.  Simplicity– One thing I’ve heard several times this week as potential volunteers are checking us out is, “I really like this idea because it’s very simple.”   This is the truth.  All we do is transfer healthy, surplus food from where it is being discarded to where it can used in the fight against hunger among our friends and neighbors.  Simple doesn’t mean easy but one of our regular evaluations as we move forward will be to examine whether or not we are staying true to this value.  It should be simple to donate and volunteer.  It is “simplicity” that will sustain us.

3.  Creativity–   This is tied to the value of yes but being a young company we don’t have to approach either food-rescue or non-profit work like anyone else.  Our best ideas will come from people who are actually rescuing food and in responding to those ideas.  How we rescue food in six months might look very different than how it works today since we are committed to learning from our volunteers.  It is “creativity” that renews our energy and keeps our passion alive.

4.  Gratitude– We must say thank you!  Repeatedly and sincerely.  It is with thankfulness that we remind each other that there is another reality that was possible. That reality is one where people don’t care for each other and throw food away that could be used to help another.  We reject that reality and replace with a thankful, more optimistic one of our own.  It is “gratitude” that keeps us grounded and humble.

There are 50 million plus Americans that are counting on us.  American food-insecurity is a problem that doesn’t have to be.

We need your help!  Please join us.


Don’t Make It Difficult To Be Generous (Food-Rescue Objection #3)

“We do throw food away, but we can’t donate if it causes a hiccup in our smooth-running operation.”

This was a direct quote from a restaurant general-manager I met with last week.  He voiced something we’ve heard over and over the last few months as we’ve started reaching out to people about the technology-fueled/volunteer-driven food-rescue platform that we’ve launched here in Lower Fairfield County.

This “don’t get in the way of our business operation” phrase is repeated by grocers, bakers and caterers alike.  They raise similar questions like:

  • “What happens if my food-rescue opportunity is late at night after an eventends or early in the morning after I get done stocking my shelves?”
  • “How will the food be packaged for transport?”
  • “Our place of business has a lot going on.  What if rescuing foods gets in the way?”

Just to name a few.

But imagine if…

1.  Volunteers showed up when you asked them to, every time.
2.  Donors had an web and mobile application that allowed them to communicate quickly and precisely what those times were.
2.  There was thought given to the exact kind of trasport supplies necessary.
3.  The volunteers were trained on where to stand (and not to stand) when they arrived for a food-rescue.
4.  The volunteer’s primary concern was in allowing a donor’s business to function effectively and on not getting  in the way.

And what if along the way you could feed a portion of the 50 million Americans who don’t always know where their next meal is coming from?

This is what we are committed to.  We need your help.  Join us.

A Plate Replaces the Pyramid

The USDA announced yesterday that the traditional food-pyramid has been replace by “My Plate.”

“The US government has ditched its two-decade old pyramid model for healthy eating and introduced a new plate symbol half filled with fruits and vegetables to urge better eating habits.

The colorful design, called MyPlate, was unveiled by first lady Michelle Obama.

The plate icon is sectioned into four parts, with fruits and vegetables making up one half and grains and proteins filling the other half. A dairy drink is included alongside.”


I guess it’s not surprising that at Community Plates we love this idea.  Because….well:

1.  We have a particular fondness for plates!
2.  This makes a whole lot more sense.  We don’t eat off of pyramids, we eat off of plates!
3.  This is actually a very helpful graphic for explaining how we pursue potential food-donors.  The community organizations that we provide food to, who in turn serve the food-insecure are in need of all of these food groups, roughly in the percentages this plate-icon demonstrates.

So way to go USDA and Michelle Obama!

What To Do With Food Waste (EPA Report)

Earlier this week I went to the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago.  It was overwhelming in size and since I went with my eyes focused on food-rescue, I was also overwhelmed by the opportunities there.

Sometime on Monday I ran into some fellow food-insecurity advocates who made me aware of a recent report by the U.S. EPA whose recent report “Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the Hungry and Reducing Solid Waste Through Food Recovery (PDF)” confirms many of the things we’ve been saying about food waste and the opportunity that lies within it for the cause of hunger in America.

I found this little graphic from the report especially helpful:

EPA Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy

food hierarchy represented by inverted triangle with source reduction at the top, followed by feed people, feed animals, industrial uses, composting, and last landfill/inceration

This inverted recommendation-pyramid points out that our most common solution for food-waste (dumpsters to landfills) should actually be our last resort and maybe even more helpfully places “feeding hungry people” all the way at the top.

The report makes it clear…DISPOSAL SHOULD BE OUR LAST OPTION.

WhenToManage Launches Non-Profit Focused on Ending Food-Insecurity Through Food Rescue

Restaurant Software Company gives back with technology

Quote startOur impetus for starting Community Plates was the realization that food-insecurity in the United States is not a problem of insufficient resources, but rather a problem of logistics.Quote end

Norwalk, CT (PRWEB) May 19, 2011

In response to the rising number of Americans currently struggling to afford adequate food supplies, WhenToManage Restaurant Solutions, a restaurant software provider, recently founded Community Plates Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization committed to ending American food-insecurity through food rescue.

The Community Plates food-rescue platform launched in Norwalk, Connecticut in January 2011 and is now regularly transferring surplus foods from restaurants, grocers and other food-service organizations to local community organizations that serve the area’s food-insecure population. Norwalk is the launch site for Community Plates, which will be expanding to other parts of the United States as early as the fall of 2011. In coordination with WhenToManage, web and mobile apps are currently in production to help increase the safety, efficiency and productivity of Community Plates’ donors and volunteers.

“As we interacted with our restaurant clients we became aware of the tremendous opportunity that existed in transferring healthy foods that might have otherwise been thrown away to the places where that food was desperately needed,” said Jeff Schacher, WhenToManage’s Founder and CEO. “Because of high unemployment numbers and rising food costs, according to recent USDA reports more than 50 million Americans and 1 in 5 children under the age of 5 are now classified as food-insecure. Our impetus for starting Community Plates was the realization that food-insecurity in the United States is not a problem of insufficient resources, but rather a problem of logistics.”

Community Plates is currently developing donor relationships with local and national restaurants, grocers and other food-service related organizations, with the goals of increasing their partner soup-kitchen’s and food-pantries serving capacity and reducing the amount of money currently committed to their food-budgets. “There are already great organizations in our communities serving the hungry people we are focused on helping,” said Kevin Mullins, Executive Director at Community Plates. “Our goal then is to rescue enough food so they can serve everyone in need and in the process free up the money they would have been spending on food so that it can be re-appropriated to other needs, such as job-training and housing services.”

About WhenToManage Restaurant Solutions
WhenToManage Restaurant Solutions is a leading provider of back-office software for the restaurant industry. WhenToManage offers scalable solutions that simplify point-of-sale reporting, inventory management, and employee scheduling, with an emphasis on connecting the people and the data in an organization. WhenToManage helps operators by giving them real-time, online reporting, monitoring, and alerts of their sales and labor data from their POS, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. WhenToManage is passionate about helping their clients solve their problems, improve their operations, and increase their profitability. For more information, visit http://www.whentomanage.com.

About Community Plates Inc.
Community Plates Inc., headquartered in Norwalk CT, is a 501(c)(3) national-nonprofit focused on ending American food-insecurity through food-rescue. Food-insecurity, the type of hunger most typical in the U.S., is the inability to provide adequate amounts of food for oneself or one’s family. Food-rescue is accomplished through a platform comprised of passionate, generous donors and volunteers and the best technology available to maximize and simplify their efforts. Community Plates initial launch-site is in Norwalk, CT with plans for expansion to other U.S. cities in the fall of 2011. For more information, visit http://www.foodrescueus.wpengine.com.


The New Face of Hunger

In a recent USA Today article on “suburban hunger” and the recent economic downturn’s lingering effect on many American families, Christie Garton writes:

“After job losses, home foreclosures, mounting debt and bills some can no longer afford to pay, families such as theirs have become part of the new face of hunger in America.

Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America says there is a growing problem with suburban poverty, “where new clients are individuals who have never needed to rely on the charitable food system.”

Hunger has been a challenge in the U.S., even when the economy is running on all cylinders.

At the end of the economic boom in 2007, 13 million people or about 11% of all households were considered “food insecure,” the official term used by the government to define one’s inability to access an adequate amount of nutritious food at times during the year.

“Not everyone who is food insecure is literally going hungry,” says Mark Nord, sociologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. “Some are able to head off hunger by reducing the quality and variety of their diets. But if food insecurity is severe or prolonged, it is likely to result in hunger.”

Reposted from http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/2011-05-10-new-face-of-hunger-food-assistance_n.htm

This confirms an observation one of our local community-organization’s Executive Director shared with me.  She had noticed that a good amount of the soup-kitchen/food-for-work program’s current clients were formally people who had themselves volunteered to feed hungry people previously.  She described it as a “changing of the guard.”

It’s also helpful for people with an eye on ending American food-insecurity to note that not everyone we are trying to serve right now (people we classify as “food-insecure”) is going hungry everyday or even every week.  All of them however have missed meals as a result of being financially able to provide it for themselves and their families and more importantly, “food-insecurity” is what comes right before going hungry. In this regard our food-rescue work is about cutting hunger off at the pass.

You can help.

Please Don’t Sue Me For Doing Good (Food-Rescue Objection #2)

Just a few minutes ago, when I finished talking to a potential donor about the problem of food-insecurity in the US and our chance to bring it to an end through food rescue, he asked the the question that is one of the big three; “If we donate food, what is our liability?”

It made sense that the “sue” question would be top of mind for him because Americans sue Americans over everything.  His concern is even more valid as it regards food since there’s so much that can go wrong with keeping food healthy for people to eat.  We take the liability issue especially seriously since many of the food-insecure people our platform serves are labeled as “high-risk”; specifically the elderly and young children.

Now a post for another day will be to explain what I mean by “we take the liability issue seriously.”  In that post I can talk a little bit about our efforts to become educated on food-safety, including getting the proper certifications etc.

But for now, let me be really clear in answering this question:

If you donate food in good faith to organizations who serve the food-insecure there is no liability to you or your company!

That’s none as in zero!

This good news comes to the food-insecure of the US as a result of  The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act signed into law into 1992 as well as similar laws in almost all US states (including Connecticut.)  The law is long and verbose but simply it protects good-faith donors from civil and criminal liability should the product donated later cause harm to its recipient.

This means you can donate with your mind at ease.

When the number of people in Fairfield County (the site of Community Plate’s first food-rescue site) have swelled to almost 100 thousand people and nationally the numbers are over 50 millon and growing, we need some good news…and being able to be generous without the risk of a lawsuit later is just part of it.

This restaurant and catering manager immediately got a big smile on his face when I answered his question.

If it makes you smile too then join us!



Fairfield County Food-Insecurity (the numbers)

We’ve been doing a lot of talking with people all over Fairfield County about ending food-insecurity in the US through food-rescue, starting right here and very often people want to know “how many people are we actually talking about?”

Here’s one set of numbers that may help give us all a better idea of what hunger looks like right here and right now.

Recently Feeding America undertook the Map-the-Meal-Gap project (funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and The Nielsen Company) to take a look at the numbers at the local community level.  As a result, we have the chance to learn the specifics about how poverty and hunger effect the people of Fairfield County Connecticut.

Here’s what it says:

1.  11.2% of the county’s population is food-insecure (too many)
2.  That means almost 100,000 people (far too many)
3.  46% of that 100,000 fall below the SNAP threshold of 185% poverty (read more about how poverty levels are measured here, but that just means they are severely food-insecure.)
4.  It would take over 49 million dollars to meet the food needs of our county’s hungry. (This is why we are committed to making sure no good usable food-sources are wasted. There’s more than money that can fix this problem.)

Just for space I’ll keep it bird’s eye view for this post but if you’re interested in digging deeper into the numbers check out Feeding America’s site here.

Yes, we’ve got hunger.  Right here in Norwalk.  Right here in Stamford.  Right here in Bridgeport.  And it’s not just the homeless.  Among that 100,000 are people just like you and me.  People who are working, sometimes more than one job, sometimes multiple-income families.  When it gets bill-paying time however, they are deciding between paying the electric bill, putting gas in the car to go to work and buying food for their family.

This doesn’t have to be.  Join us!

One Bite At A Time (Food-Rescue Objection #1)

Food-Rescue LettuceHave you ever noticed how much easier it is to list all the reasons a new idea won’t work than it is to see why it just might?  I’ve spent half of my adult life in meetings where at some point those gathered are asked to be brilliant on the spot and I’ve realized that it’s just a lot easier to poke multiple holes in other people’s ideas than it is to form one good one of my own.

Now that Community Plates is a few months into our mission of ending American food-insecurity through food-rescue, we’ve already encountered quite a few objections to why this is a good way to attack hunger.  Almost all of them are valid, well thought out and helpful which provides us an opportunity to respond to a few of them so that we can all be better informed and charged-up to help.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Food-Rescue Objection Number 1:  “The small amount of food we discard can’t possibly make that big a difference.”

I’ve heard this several times already as I’ve approached restauranteurs, caterers and grocers here in Norwalk, Connecticut (the location of Community Plates launch site/pilot)and the surrounding Lower Fairfield County area.  I don’t get the impression that anyone is trying to avoid being generous; on the contrary, my experience with those who are hesitant to donate has been finding people that are eager to help but just reluctant to waste our volunteer’s time.  As we consider the numbers however and through some early food-rescue experiences, we are finding that small amounts can indeed make a big difference.

I remember a friend (it really was a friend and not me, I promise) telling me how he got his first credit card as a freshman in college and how he worked himself into a whole load of debt by charging dollar tacos on his new card.  He literally worked his way into financial stress one taco at a time.

So let’s call it the “Taco-on-a-Visa” principle:

We know from multiple studies (read an article referencing one USDA study here) that almost 25% of the food available to Americans is thrown away; over 34 million tons a year.   But when you talk to people who purvey food you’ll find that everyone is trying to do everything they can to conserve and cut their waste.  So how then do we get to that humongous amount of waste every year?  One way it happens is by discarding a little bit here and a little bit there.  I can imagine a chef or catering manager throwing food away and thinking to themselves “this is just too little to worry about.”

In some ways they’re right; unless of course there were people who would concern themselves with the little; this crate of apples here, those two bags of salad there, a few loaves of delicious end-of day bread, etc.

Community Plates is developing a logistical platform that engages those kinds of people. Food and financial donors and volunteers and community agencies who believe that we can end food-insecurity the same way we throw mountains of food away every year;  a little bit at at time.

A small amount here and a small amount there can create something big for someone!

Over 50 million Americans are counting on us.