One Man's Waste is Another Man's Food

April 17, 2009

food runnersThe market is beginning to slow down after a busy spring Saturday and Food Runners volunteers Keith Goldstein and Seth Acharya are pushing their cart through the back plaza. In a low, deep voice Keith bellows his now-famous refrain: “Food-run-ners! Bring out your food.” First on the cart are two full boxes of citrus from Tory Farms, then a bag of pastries from Downtown Bakery, a few loaves of bread from Acme, and two bags of tomatoes from Bruins Farm. It’s a slow start in a sparse time of year, but Keith isn’t discouraged.

“When I first started, I’d get a box of mushrooms and a bag of wilted greens,” he says. Now, after 15 years, he’s established relationships with many market sellers, most of whom are happy to hand over any perishables they can’t sell. In the summer, that can mean as much as a thousand pounds of fruit and vegetables. Before Seth came on board, Keith says he’d often find himself literally running to get all the food before the market shut down. (He used to pack his pick up truck so high with food, he says he had to stick to the flat streets on his delivery routes for fear something would fall out.)

Founded over two decades ago by chef Mary Risley of Tante Marie’s Cooking School, Food Runners is a city-wide network of over 200 volunteers who pick up perishable food from more than 250 restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, farmers’ markets and catered events and deliver it to those in need. Between gathering the food and dropping it off at soup kitchens and shelters, Keith and Seth volunteer for around 3-4 hours, nearly every Saturday. They bring the bulk of their food to the Martin De Porres House, which runs a soup kitchen, and Rafael House, a residence for homeless families. On especially bountiful days, they also make drop offs at several city-run shelters.

Nancy Hahn, Director of Operations at Food Runners, says the commitments that volunteers like Keith and Seth make are becoming more and more crucial as many San Francisco residents feel the crunch. Hotels are seeing their business shrink and the percentage of corporate catered events has also decreased, meaning there’s simply less food to go around.

“We’re getting more calls from the directors of shelters reporting greater demand; with their own budget cuts they’re getting less and it’s not like our donations are increasing,” says Hahn. “One food pantry that we’ve served for a number of years…when we first started helping them out there would be 150-200 people in line, and now they’re reporting lines as long as 600. And that’s just in a few years.”

Today’s sustainability model involves reducing waste — a strategy that, if done right, can also go a long way toward reducing hunger. Many Ferry Plaza farmers don’t expect to sell 100% of their perishable product every week. So it only makes sense that the what’s left should be eaten rather than composted. And the fact that most soup kitchens immediately cook the food they receive makes them prime candidates for produce that may not last on most customers’ countertops. “The stuff that we deliver is generally eaten within 24 hours of delivery,” says Keith.

mt_zionUnlike fruit in supermarkets that’s picked green to prevent damage during long-distance transit, food at the farmers’ market is sold at its freshest. “I bring my produce so ripe that I end up losing some of what I don’t sell,” says Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun. “It gets bruised from customer handling. I dehydrate it when I can, or donate it to Food Runners.”

Fresh produce is often the first thing sacrificed when a family’s budget shrinks. Ounce for ounce, fruits and vegetables are more expensive than carbohydrates or protein. And according to the SF Food Bank, around 150,000 San Franciscans have some kind of gap in their nutritional needs. 

“I’m amazed how often I’m told by the shelters, ‘Oh we don’t have the money for vegetables, we have to concentrate on protein,’ says Keith. “so what Food Runners does is such a great supplement.” 



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