Zero Waste: Food Runners Feeds the Community through Food Waste
By Savannah Kuang, CUESA Staff
“We never really know what we’re going to get at the market,” says Food Runners volunteer Keith Goldstein. Every Saturday, Keith and a few other dedicated volunteers visit the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to rescue unsold produce from the compost pile. Toward the end of the market, you’ll hear Keith calling out through the stalls, as farmers gather some of the region’s best and ripest sustainably grown fruits and vegetables to donate to families in need.
“It’s always been a highlight of my week,” says Keith. “I do this with my son and six-year-old grandson who has been a Food Runner for two years now. It always makes me feel really good afterward.”
From Waste to Shelters
Food Runners was founded in 1987 by Chef Mary Risley, who started San Francisco’s famed Tante Marie’s Cooking School over 35 years ago. Food Runners currently has more than 250 volunteers who pick up leftover perishable food from upwards of 450 restaurants, caterers, farmers markets, and companies in the city. Each week, they deliver over 17 tons of food that would otherwise be thrown away to local shelters and food programs.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, roughly 40 percent of the food produced in the United States for consumer consumption is lost or wasted along the food chain. Meanwhile, 227,000 San Franciscans, or 1 in 4, live below the federal poverty line and are at risk of food insecurity, according to a 2018 report from the San Francisco Food Security Task Force. Being food insecure means facing uncertainty or lack access to obtaining and preparing nutritious food. People who are food insecure may only be able to afford one or two meals a day, and sometimes skip meals to feed their children.
To combat hunger, Food Runners helps to close the loop by bringing food donations to people in need. The excess food rescued by volunteers goes to local shelters serving homeless and low-income families, such as Raphael House Shelter and Hamilton Families.
“I’ve seen a lot of restaurants, grocery stores, and vendors throw away lots of food,” says Seth Acharya, another Food Runner. “It just hurts witnessing that food going directly into dumpsters, instead of calling volunteers to help take the food.”
Preparing Rescued Produce
Because most donations that local shelters and food programs receive are canned and processed goods, many chefs may not be familiar with preparing fresh produce. While this sometimes poses a challenge for Food Runners deliveries, Keith and Seth see it as an opportunity.
“I remember shelters just having processed meat on the side, and that was the type of food they were serving, as well as peanut butter sandwiches served on white bread,” says Keith. “Now, when I go to a shelter, there are volunteers working in the kitchen who learned to appreciate good food. It helps to educate [local shelters and programs] on how to prepare fruits and vegetables they’re not familiar with.”
Seth also recalls seeing many shelters using canned foods without knowing what to do with perishable foods. “Everywhere we go, they always ask, ‘What do we do with all this food?’ We always have to explain what you do with the produce, such as salad greens and cucumbers. They’ve only seen fruits in cans, such as pineapples and peaches.”
He takes pride in educating chefs in how to put all of that nutritious food to use. “There are hundreds and thousands of people who can’t afford a meal or two a day, so when we’re bringing this high-quality food to those in need and showing kitchens how to prepare it, they get excited and I get to see the sparkle in their eyes. That’s what drives me to do this work every week.”
Food Waste Warriors
As a Food Runner for more than 25 years, Keith had been collecting perfectly ripe unsold produce from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market for donation since it first opened. “I remember when I first started doing this, I would receive cases of beautiful, baby vegetables that are perfectly edible, and I was horrified,” says Keith.
Having done this for so many years, Keith is now rarely surprised about the amount of food that Food Runners picks up. “Right now, we get maybe a few hundred pounds of stone fruit and tomatoes from the farmers market. Farmers are more than willing to offer them to us instead of loading their produce back into their trucks because they know that their food is being put to good use.”
Seth, who has been a Food Runner for over 19 years, also agrees. “This is all great quality food,” he says. “These fruits and vegetables aren’t rotten or anything like that. Farmers are giving the food to us so that we can take it to local shelters, and these foods can be cooked on the same day or the next day. We’re saving them from going to waste, and I’m always happy to see all this food go to feeding women and children who need it most.”
Photographs by Anne Hamersky. This blog post is part of a series inspired by The Food Change, a public art project by CUESA, featuring farmers, advocates, and everyday people who are making a positive change in our food system. Learn more.