By Siobhan Crise
7:50 AM EST, November 7, 2012
Shawn Russell achieved a lifelong ambition when he opened his gourmet prepared-food store, Cinch, in Fairfield last fall. Before long, however, the chef was facing a dilemma. Every Saturday he would close his store and have to toss the food that wouldn't be saleable when the shop reopened on Tuesday.
"It was killing me to have to get rid of the food," said Russell. He searched for an agency that would take the perishable items — everything from vegetable side dishes to a full turkey dinner — and get it to the people in the area who struggled to put food on their tables every day.
Community Plates, a Fairfield County nonprofit, is doing exactly that, with an innovative system that turns the food-rescue business on its head. It has saved more than half a million pounds of food in the county since its launch in early 2011, with plans to start a New Haven operation soon.
The organization is addressing a significant hunger problem locally that can often go unnoticed. One in nine people in Fairfield County struggle to get nutritious food every day, according to Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap project; in New Haven County, the figure is one in seven.
Nationally, 49 million people can't consistently get the right food to lead a healthy life, according to Map the Meal Gap, even as supermarkets, restaurants and homes toss out billions of dollars worth of food every year. According to one research paper, about 40 percent of the available food supply in America ends up being wasted.
The disconnect between the local hunger problem and food waste in the restaurant business, in particular, struck a chord with technology company boss Jeff Schacher. So he decided to harness his firm's expertise in making online management systems for restaurants to create a way to get viable food — that would otherwise be wasted — to hungry people.
Over a game of ping pong in early 2010 Schacher raised the idea with friend Kevin Mullins, and less than a year later Community Plates was launched, with Mullins at the helm. On May 16, 2011, the two made their first rescue, saving 12 pans of food from Match restaurant in South Norwalk.
Days later, the two friends did their first collection from a supermarket. That's when they realized the scale of the food rescue they had initiated: they collected 330 pounds of food from Trader Joe's in Darien and took it to a shelter in Norwalk.
Community Plates works like this: volunteer drivers log in to a website that allows them to view the upcoming schedule of food pickups and deliveries. With the click of a mouse, the food runner, as volunteers are called, selects a "run'' and shows up at a supermarket or restaurant at the appointed day and time and takes bags and crates of food to the designated food pantry or homeless shelter. (The author is a food runner for Community Plates.)
"It's a no-brainer solution to a problem," says Mullins, executive director of the organization. The key to Community Plates' operation is the willingness of a band of volunteers to commit to "running" the food in their own vehicles. As such, the nonprofit doesn't require warehouse space, like more traditional food banks.
Community Plates began operating in Albuquerque, N.M., and Columbus, Ohio in May 2012, and it will launch food rescues in New Haven County by January 2013. To date it has rescued about a million pounds of food at its three existing sites — the equivalent of 750,000 meals.
For supermarkets it's a win-win. By donating food they help out the local community, they save on the costs of disposing of the waste, and they get tax benefits by donating to a nonprofit. "There are tremendous benefits," says Mullins, a professional musician and former church leader.
At the receiving end, Debbie Stokes says fresh produce benefits families who struggle between paying the bills and buying food. "We have a large clientele of diabetics," said Stokes, coordinator of the St. Stephen's food pantry at the Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport. "They're really happy about getting the fresh produce here because they can't afford it. A lot of them tell me it's made a difference in their diets."
The pantry receives about 15 to 20 large crates of Trader Joe's products twice a week from Community Plates, benefiting 40 or so families.
As for chef Shawn Russell, he's a more contented businessman. "We finally found Community Plates," he says. Since spring this year, Cinch has been donating four to five large crates of prepared food every Saturday to the Gillespie Center, the homeless shelter in Westport.
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