Sharing the Bounty

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
November 18, 2011

sites/default/files/foodrunners_keith.jpg“I do it for a very selfish reason,” says Food Runner Keith Goldstein. “To feel good.” Each Saturday, he faithfully gathers leftover produce from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, diverting thousands of pounds of potential waste from the compost pile or landfill. “I could have had a lousy week at work, and by the time I finish doing Food Runners, I feel great.”

Founded in 1987 by chef Mary Risley of Tante Marie’s Cooking School, Food Runners consists of more than 200 volunteers who pick up the surplus from 250 restaurants, markets, bakeries, and other food businesses in the city. Delivering produce as well as prepared items to soup kitchens and pantries that feed the hungry, the network moves enough food to serve an estimated 2,000 meals a day.

Food Runners helps close the loop between the city’s food producers and people in need. The San Francisco Food Bank estimates that 197,000 adults (more than one in five) are at risk for hunger, meaning that they consistently lack access to enough food to meet basic nutritional requirements. Entering the holiday season, service agencies face greater demand for food, and for volunteers to help distribute and prepare it. “Thanksgiving is the busiest time of year for us,” said Food Runners Director of Operations Nancy Hahn. “We get an enormous amount of donations, especially from the grocery stores we pick up from.”

Every Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday, volunteers from Food Runners make the rounds at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to pick up perishables and deliver them to shelters such as Next Door Episcopal Community Services, Raphael House Shelter, and Mary Elizabeth Inn, a residence for homeless and low-income women.

A dedicated Food Runner for 17 years, Goldstein started collecting the excess bounty at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market the first year it opened. “I was shopping at the market, and it suddenly occurred to me that food was probably being left over,” he says. “So I just started showing up there with my pickup truck.” Goldstein now gleans as much as 2,000 pounds each week in the summer, and 500 pounds in the winter months. He says that many farmers are grateful not to have to truck the leftovers home, and some deliberately bring extra for him to pick up.

A Home-Cooked Meal
sites/default/files/foodrunners_keith2.jpgSince the usual donations that soup kitchens receive are canned and processed goods, many chefs simply didn’t know what to do with fresh produce when Goldstein started delivering. “I remember seeing crates of beautiful baby vegetables that I brought the week before going moldy, while the chef opened large cans of government-issued beans.” But nowadays, he’s noticed that many chefs have become more produce-savvy. “I can walk into a shelter, and the chef will say, ‘Far out! Dandelion greens.’ They know what to do with them. Nothing gets wasted.”

A frequent stop on Goldstein’s route is Martin de Porres House of Hospitality in Potrero Hill, a longstanding collaborator with Food Runners. Described as a “free restaurant,” the volunteer-operated soup kitchen serves 300 to 400 meals a day to the needy, offering breakfast and a lunch of freshly made soup and salad to anyone who shows up on their doorstep.

While food banks and pantries have seen a dramatic surge in recipients since the 2008 economic downturn, soup kitchens are often a last stop for the city’s hungry due to the social stigmas associated, says Charlie Engelstein, who is part of the volunteer community that helps keep Martin de Porres going. Offering hand-prepared meals is part of the house’s mission to serve guests with love, kindness, and dignity. “In many ways, the safe environment we try to create and the connections we make with people are more important than food,” he says. “But the food is still important, which is why we try to serve meals that are 99 percent from scratch.”

Martin de Porres runs entirely on donations of food, time, and money, which is used to buy raw ingredients like oatmeal, beans, and grains. Some of the produce must also be purchased, particularly in the slow winter months, but the fresh produce they receive from the farmers market is always a special treat. “It’s just so wonderful when we get the organic stuff donated,” says Engelstein. “It makes us feel better about what we’re serving.”

On Thanksgiving, the number of guests at Martin de Porres remains the same, but the number of volunteers, usually about 30 to 40 a given day, swells to 120 or more to prepare for the turkey feast and celebration. Volunteers serve as wait staff, and they deck out the dining hall and host a live band. “It’s such a great way to connect, through the relationship you have with serving and feeding people,” says Engelstein. “For a lot of people who come here, it’s the closest thing to a family they’ve got. It’s really like a tribe in many ways.”

To learn more and find out how you can get involved, visit Food Runners, Martin de Porres, or San Francisco Food Bank.

Photos courtesy of Food Runners.

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