Transformation in hunger relief Professional kitchens gleaning unserved foods take a fresh approach

December 27, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A fleet of six refrigerated trucks pulled up behind the D.C. Central Kitchen one day this month and #F unloaded a treasure trove:

Seven kinds of rice from a Capitol Hill reception. Curried vegetables from the Bombay Club. Chicken breasts from a catering company. Green beans from the Marriott.

Within hours, the kitchen staff performed its daily miracle, turning the food into 3,000 meals for the needy. And then the drivers returned to the streets to deliver it.

The calculations that moved that fresh food into those trucks, through Central Kitchen and onto the tables of shelters are part of a revolution in hunger relief that could help feed 10 million people.

Spurred by a decline in the flow of food from traditional sources, relief programs are pioneering innovative techniques to get meals to the hungry, with striking results. The keys to success have been the use of unusual sources of food, professional cooks and federal initiatives.

Ruth Newman, for one, is delighted. So far, the changes mean fresh vegetables and salads every day for the 80-year-old woman, who eats lunch at Sarah's Circle senior center in Washington.

"I don't know what they done, but it sure has changed," she said, slicing a carrot on her plate. "We used to get some of the sorriest food you couldn't eat."

The new food operations reflect a radical shift. Traditionally, food pantries have been stocked with a drab assortment of canned goods, day-old bread and cereal. Soup kitchens and shelters -- which tend to be generally small, makeshift operations and inexperienced cooks -- have done what they could to turn those items into meals. Now, a more efficient approach is taking root.

The potential for capturing a greater portion of the food that would otherwise go to waste can hardly be disputed. The Agriculture Department estimates that 25 percent of the 380 billion tons of food produced in the United States every year -- about 96 billion tons -- is wasted. Only about 1.5 billion tons of that is salvaged.

And there is no question that the wasted food is urgently needed. Even in an age of affluence, studies show, 4 million children often go to bed hungry. Millions of elderly Americans, faced with soaring medical bills and other expenses, often lack money for food.

A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that most of the hungry are members of working families, often people who have moved off welfare but are in low-paying jobs that keep them below the poverty line. This month, the Council of Mayors reported a 14 percent rise this year in requests for emergency food aid nationwide.

But capturing the surplus food to meet that need has long been elusive. For one thing, checkout scanners have made supermarkets more efficient, reducing waste through better -Z inventory control. Manufacturers, in turn, are producing less surplus food.

That efficiency has translated into sharp drops in food bank supplies of traditional staples such as cereal and canned soup -- a decline of 10 percent in three years.

Mindful of that trend, food banks began exploring a new frontier -- the use of refrigerated trucks to capture millions of pounds of fresh, never-served food: chickens from Boston Market, pizzas from Pizza Hut, lasagna and stuffed peppers from convention centers, colleges and hotels.

That sort of food has never been tapped for the needy on a large scale. But fueled in part by Americans' growing propensity for dining out, it is now a resource of enormous potential.

"Right now, we're catch as catch can, but in the future we'll be able to provide a full, balanced meal," said William G. Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank. "This means absolutely more food for people."

Such donations were too small to be measured in 1996. This year, food banks nationwide collected 15 million pounds of fresh produce and 2.2 million pounds of prepared and perishable food, according to Second Harvest, a nonprofit group that represents food banks.

The government is propelling changes, too. A 1996 good Samaritan law protects food donors from liability claims in case of illness -- a concern that had inhibited some donors in the past. And President Clinton set a national goal last year to increase the amount of food rescued by one-third by the year 2000. That would equal an extra 500 million pounds of food a year for the hungry.

Though considered unrealistic, that goal spurred efforts that helped recover 61 million pounds of additional food this year.

The need for food might seem surprising in the midst of a robust economy. But even with unemployment at historic lows and welfare rolls shrinking, pressures on working Americans in low-wage jobs remain severe.

"You have a significant group of Americans who remain quite poor and have not benefited from the good economy in a substantial way," said Doug O'Brien, director of public policy and research for Second Harvest, whose programs were forced to turn away 700,000 hungry people last year.

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