How Excess Food From The Olympics Makes It To Georgia's Hungry

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Carl Jaffar backs his large, white refrigerated van into one of the concession loading docks at Centennial Park. But while other drivers are dropping off late-night deliveries for tomorrow's menu, Mr. Jaffar is making a pickup.

Jaffar is a driver for Atlanta's Table, and his van is one of a modest fleet of five vehicles used to rescue surplus food from the bulging Olympics' tables.

Tonight he will pick up almost 400 pounds of Southern specialties such as barbeque pork, honey-baked ham, and fried chicken left over from a sponsor's buffet. He will then head to the World Congress Center, two blocks away, where he will pick up about 400 extra box lunches.

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Jaffar is part of a first-time effort coordinated by the Atlanta Community Food Bank and Atlanta's Table to retrieve a half-million pounds of Olympic food for the poor in 43 counties around the state.

Janice Reece, the assistant director of Atlanta's Table, hopes the program will provide 300,000 meals for the 570 community agencies that shop at the food bank. "This [program] is a simple way to impact people like the elderly poor, the kids in day shelters, and the homeless who are usually left out at all the Olympic activities," she says.

Though many look at the Centennial Games as the world's biggest party, Ms. Reece and other coordinators look at the event as an opportunity to fill more stomachs than usual and change the way people think about surplus food. "Even though we live in the land of plenty, we can't take basic necessities for granted," she says.

For Donald Daughtery, director of Atlanta's Shepherd's Inn, a shelter and provider of over 1,000 meals a day for the homeless, the Olympic fare, which is free, is "a real blessing." "It allows us to feed the increasing number of homeless ... without straining an already strained budget," he explains.

But moving 500,000 pounds of food during the three-week period involved is something of a nightmare, in part because of the strict security surrounding the Games.

Coordinators for the food bank and Atlanta's Table have been meeting with Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG); Aramak, the official food service manager for the Games; and food vendors for almost two years to work out the logistics.

Working in a room covered with charts, daily plan sheets, schedules, and maps, Rob Johnson, project director of Atlanta's Table, says, "We didn't want people wondering what to do with trays of leftovers when they broke down buffet lines at 10 p.m."

Working around the clock six days a week are the regular food bank and Atlanta's Table staff of 38, along with a handful of volunteers from food banks across the country, AmeriCorps, and the Congressional Hunger Fellows in Washington.

Coordinators have also tapped close to 30 local volunteers who were willing to work long hours on the grueling graveyard shift.

Since most volunteers don't have credentials to get into the Village and venues, they work in the 125,000 square-foot warehouse, putting perishables in huge coolers and freezers. They also make early morning calls and send faxes to agencies to let them know what's available each day.

Bill Bolling, executive director, explains, "Since we get lots of fruit, we can't keep most of the food more than 24 hours. We've got to keep it moving."

But getting to the food bank can be difficult for agencies located in and around the Olympic Ring when so many of Atlanta's streets are closed and blocked off for the Games. So food banks in other cities, as well as several neighboring states, are ready to send more trucks to help with food distribution.

While the rescue effort will cost the food bank about $100,000, Mr. Johnson sees it as a win-win situation for everyone involved.

"If we can make it work with a large-scale event like the Olympics, we can make it work almost anywhere," he says.

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