Beyond the Soup Kitchen

How to Help America’s Hungry

written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Bitterly ironic though it may be, given the nation’s obesity statistics, many Americans are going hungry. Vicki Escarra, president and C.E.O. of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief charity, predicts that given a sluggish employment scenario, “incredible strain on the nation’s charitable food assistance network is not likely to dissipate any time in the foreseeable future.”

So, how can you, a well-intentioned individual, help alleviate hunger, right in your own community or across the nation?

Volunteer to Recycle Food and Other “Stuff” from Concerts, Sporting Events Imagine the mounds of left-over food after a Red Sox game or a huge concert at Madison Square Garden. Where do all those soft pretzels, hotdogs, rolls, burgers, pizza, and sausages go?

Nearly two decades ago, in an inspired insight, scientist Syd Mandelbaum of Long Island asked just that question and realized that all this uneaten, destined-for-the-dumpster food could be retrieved and used to stock soup kitchens and social service agencies that help feed the hungry.

Today, his $400,000 non-profit organization called Rock and Wrap It Up! does just that. Working with a network of about 5,000 volunteers, the organization arranges for pick-ups of reusable food and non-food items from concert venues of over 150 touring bands. Some of the biggest names in the business have signed on. Rock and Wrap It Up! has also recruited to its cause eighteen major sports teams including the Yankees and Red Sox.

On the collection side, Rock and Wrap It Up “recover” (they prefer to talk about “recovering” rather than “recycling”) craft services food from film shoots, half-used shampoo and toilet paper rolls from hotel chains such as the Marriott, and food and non-food items from public schools and colleges, too.

On the distribution side, Mandelbaum and his merry band of six employees partner with anti-hunger, anti-poverty agencies like the US. Environmental Protection Agency, Feeding America, and Rainbow Push Coalition.

Help Grow Food for the Local Community
For a different approach to combating the hunger crisis, consider replicating the model that’s taken root in New York’s inner city neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. “We serve both people who are in need of emergency food, and also those who have money but want to buy healthier food,” said Robert Ennis Jackson, cofounder of Brooklyn Rescue Mission Food Pantry.

On a 100×50-foot plot behind the building that houses the Mission, volunteers – including many youth who “barely knew the difference between an apple and a tomato,” jokes Jackson- have created a wildly productive urban garden. They’ve grown as much as 14,000 pounds of food in a growing season that begins in May and stretches through early November. A small miracle, that’s seven tons of beets, tomatoes, zucchini, beans and leafy greens, grown in the midst of densely populated New York City. This urban farm is located on an otherwise unused lot in a large, low-income neighborhood where supermarkets are few and far between, and community gardens are still relatively rare.

The produce from the Bedford Stuyvesant farm is distributed through two channels. Some is given free of charge to Brooklyn Rescue Mission food pantry participants. Some is sold at Malcolm X Blvd. Community Farmer’s Market, also located in the heart of Bedford Stuyvesant.

Lobby for Change
Federal and state food policy can make a huge difference in the hunger crisis. The organization Feeding America has an online activist campaign, called the Hunger Action Center. Their goal is to “advocate on behalf of 35 million hungry Americans by supporting federal, state, and local legislation that addresses the many factors that contribute to food insecurity in our nation.” They focus on four issue areas: child hunger, hunger in rural America, hunger among the working poor, and among senior citizens.

No matter how you slice it, fighting hunger is a noble way to spend your volunteer hours. Whether you’re ladling out soup, helping collect unused foods from the city stadium or a chain hotel, or lobbying for better state and federal laws, dealing with the food scarcity issue in America is important work. And, these days, unfortunately, there’s a lot of it.

To Learn More or to Get Involved:
Feeding America
Rock and Wrap It Up!
Brooklyn Rescue Mission