NEW YORK — A calm has begun to settle over the Jones Beach Theater. The James Taylor concert is winding down and strains of "Carolina in My Mind" resonate softly around the hall.
Backstage, a small group of people emerges from a tunnel door. Their identical black T-shirts look like uniforms, but they're not security, nor are they roadies getting ready to strike the set. They head straight for the kitchen, to gather food left from a pre-concert dinner.
They are volunteers for Rock and Wrap It Up - a group that turns untouched food destined for the garbage into meals for the hungry and homeless. It's a scene being played out each night at concert venues in more than 300 cities in the US.
Founded by Syd Mandelbaum five years ago, Rock and Wrap It Up has fed more than 4 million people - more than 2 million in the last year alone. It has been so successful that the program is now expanding to include food from business lunches and school cafeterias.
At first, Mr. Mandelbaum and his family gathered the food themselves, covering one concert a night, and he got eight bands to participate. But soon he set to work to duplicate his efforts with volunteers. Since then, the
growth has been explosive - there are now more than 110 bands involved, including The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Elton John, No Doubt, and The Three Tenors.
Part of Rock and Wrap It Up's success is that it has a unique draw for volunteers. Not only do they help feed the hungry, but they get to "hang backstage" at performances of some of the most popular bands in the world.
Food best money can buy
"Going backstage is a real perk," says Mandelbaum. "If you've ever tried to get backstage passes, you know it's impossible unless you know someone in the band. It's taboo, something they couldn't get otherwise, and it costs nothing but a little of their time."
Mark Snyder, who runs the catering operation at the Jones Beach Theater and is a member of Rock and Wrap It Up's board of directors, says the food is the best that money can buy, and many of those who receive the leftovers have never eaten anything like it.
"They're eating everything from seafood to mousse cakes," he says.
"They're used to having rice and beans, and you come walking into the shelter with London broil, scallops, or fresh shrimp, and they're like, 'Shrimp, what's a shrimp?' "
Mr. Snyder and other concert caterers always prepare more food than is needed, since there's no way of knowing how many people have been invited. So Mandelbaum never has to worry that there won't be any food left at any of the venues.
And since the concerts are scheduled months, sometimes years, in advance, Mandelbaum knows exactly where the food is going to be and can schedule his food-rescue efforts with a great deal of certainty.
"This takes the whole food-rescue process into the 21st century," he says.
"They've [food-rescue groups] always been called ... when someone has leftover food, usually at the last minute," he adds. "We, on the other hand, can tell them in advance where there's a 90 percent chance of food being available on a given night.
Tonight at Jones Beach, it's James Taylor's turn. Over the music backstage, Ted Kamin, his tour manager, says that although there has always been leftover food at Taylor's concerts, it was logistically impossible for the band to do anything about it.
"I mean we come into a city, we're not familiar with the city, we don't know where the food kitchens are," he says.
"They could be across town and we don't have the transportation and the wherewithal to get across town; and after the concert, we're usually pressed to pack up and push on to the next city anyway."
Mandelbaum runs the entire operation for less than $60,000 out of a 5-by-6-foot office off the kitchen of his home in Cedarhurst, N.Y.
All the information he needs to run the organization is in a battle-tested computer on the desk - and in his head.
With the Internet, his PC and phone, Mandelbaum directs and keeps track of his all-volunteer staff, which includes 75 regional directors and more than 1,000 workers in 300 cities nationwide.
Rob Perry volunteers for Rock and Wrap It Up in New England, serving as regional director for Massachusetts and neighboring Rhode Island.
He says the concept is successful because it has something for everyone.
"The caterers are happy because their food doesn't go to waste," he says.
"The band is glad to see us 'cause they can pay back to the public a bit; you get to hear some great music, and when you walk out of the shelter, you get a sunburn from everybody patting you on the back, thanking you as well. You're keeping a lot of people happy with a little bit of your time."
The morning after the James Taylor concert, Mandelbaum delivers the food to the Claddagh Inn, a soup kitchen in nearby Rockaway, N.Y.
God 'cleaned her up'
The kitchen's executive director, Zandra Meyer, is a former drug addict, who 10 years ago had what she calls a spiritual awakening.
She says that God cleaned her up and told her He had a plan for her, and serving at the soup kitchen, she says, was what He had in mind. Ms. Meyer says the food Rock and Wrap It Up provides makes a huge difference to her clients.
"You have to understand, we give people as many plates as they want,"she says.
"Rock and Wrap It Up has afforded us that extra food so that we can give people as much as they want and no other soup kitchen can say that."
Mandelbaum sees virtually unlimited opportunities for expanding the concept. A couple of years ago, he moved into the film industry with Project It's a Wrap, which collects leftover food from caterers at film shoots. His first effort, on a shoot in New York City, yielded 1,400 pounds of food that fed almost 5,000 people. All from one film.
"Now, if you multiply that by the thousand movies that are shot off lot in the United States , you can just have a feeling for what is another avenue for food capture, as well as all the commercials that are being filmed," he says.
But perhaps the greatest potential lies in Mandelbaum's two latest ideas, Project We Share and the school project.
By contracting with corporations through Project We Share, Mandelbaum says he can access an endless number of business luncheons, convention buffets, and conference dinners.
And the school program, launched just in the last few months, mobilizes students to help organize and deliver leftover food from school cafeterias. The students who participate receive autographed photographs and other personalized memorabilia from stars such as Jewel, The Dave Matthews Band, and Sinbad.
"This program has enormous potential," says Steven Kussin, the principal at Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, N.Y. "Students love to get the chance to help.
There's always extra food, and we get to help teach the next generation the importance of caring for their fellow man."
Student volunteers at Lawrence High School gather food not only at the high school but at the middle and elementary schools, and rescue an average of 350 pounds a week from the school district.
Mandelbaum says Rock and Wrap It Up and its sister programs have unlimited potential to mobilize volunteers and feed the hungry. But to make his dream a reality, Mandelbaum will have to do more than gather food - he needs to find time to raise some money.
Trying to end hunger
Right now all his people are volunteers, but with proper funding and support, he says, his idea has the potential to wipe out hunger in the United States by the year 2000.
"We're not asking for people to run a 2-minute mile, and we're not asking to get to Pluto in our lifetime," says Mandelbaum. "What we're basically asking for is to try to end hunger in our country, in our backyards, just by not squandering food that is being thrown out right now."