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Second Servings

Charity saves leftover food

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Ylonda Deyo, Viestra Jackson, Amber Phifer, Barbara Bronstein

WASTE NOT Barbara Bronstein (far right), founder of Second Servings, delivers uneaten food from a gala to the Salvation Army Sally's House shelter. Resident Ylonda Deyo and Sally's House staff members Viestra Jackson and Amber Phifer (from left) happily accept the delivery. (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

Houstonians are consistently ranked among the most philanthropic populace in the country. Charitable giving is a big part of who we are, and our city’s many non-profit organizations thrive because of that.

But there was one facet of philanthropy sorely missing in the eyes of retired marketing executive Barbara Bronstein.

“I got so tired of seeing no-shows at charitable banquets,” she says. “I knew their food was paid for and sitting in the kitchen. When I asked, I was horrified to find out that the food was being thrown away.”

That’s when Barbara, a go-getter who is passionate about righting injustices, dove deep into researching how to make use of all the wasted food at Houston’s many charity galas. In 2013, she developed a pilot program to pick up uneaten, prepared meals and deliver them to organizations feeding Houston’s hungry. That pilot grew into what is now Second Servings Houston, the city’s “food rescue” nonprofit.

“It boggles my mind, but one in five people in Houston is food insecure,” Barbara says, citing her extensive research into hunger. “One in seven is the national rate. And it’s even worse for children: One in four is food insecure here. Nationally, it vacillates between one in seven and one in eight.

“I had no idea we were so bad off. But with that, I learned about what’s called ‘food rescue’ or ‘food recovery.’ It was happening all over the world, from big cities to small in different ways.”

Just not in Houston.

So Barbara began working with experts in social services and food service. She sought advice from the Houston Health Department and consulted with lawyers. “I learned that it’s not only legal to rescue food, but it’s encouraged by the government. Donors are protected from liability by the Good Samaritan laws.”

To begin, she says, “I used a lot of Rice University interns, retired professionals and friends and associates who had different skills. We’ve also had interns from UT’s Graduate School of Public Health. When you start a nonprofit, you’re on a shoestring, so I was looking for assistance wherever I could find it.”

Now, Second Servings rescues food from over 150 donors via a refrigerated truck that delivers to more than 30 sites. “If someone has leftover food from a big event, they call us, and we pick it up and deliver it to a soup kitchen or shelter.” That food might be paella or bacon-wrapped tenderloin, or it might be sandwiches.

Every week, some 10,000 people benefit from the leftover meals. “We’re killing two birds with one stone,” Barbara likes to point out, “by feeding people and preventing food waste from going into landfills.”

Three years ago, retired teacher Jeanette Valore returned from a stint in Kazakhstan for her husband Tom’s job at ConocoPhillips. “It was the life of an ex-pat wife,” Jeanette says. “I didn’t have a work visa, so I got involved in the community. The ex-pat wives would have teas to collect money and buy groceries to give to families. We also had a soup kitchen. We’d make huge pots of soup with whatever we had and fill people’s containers to bring home to their families. I realized how much waste we have in our country and how far that could go to feeding some hungry families.”

When she returned to Houston, Jeanette signed on as a “second seat” with Second Servings. “I’m not the driver [of the refrigerated truck], and there’s just one other seat. That’s where I sit. I go along to the places we visit to collect food, and I help load it and keep track of how much we collect and where it goes. Sometimes it’s heavy work – maybe a 30-pound box of apples. But we’re happy to get them.”

Jeanette is part of the Food Rescue Squad, a core group of volunteers who show up to Second Servings each week. Barbara says it’s gratifying work. “You immediately see the fruits of your labor,” she says. “You see the food that would otherwise be thrown away, and you see people waiting in line for that free meal.”

Sysco Corporation, a food distributor, recently provided funding for a second refrigerated truck. “We’re in an expansion mode,” Barbara says. “We’ll be hiring drivers and will be looking to fund them as well. And we’re always looking for more donors who have surplus food.”

Editor’s note: Want to donate or volunteer? Go to secondservingshouston.org.

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