`I think SOS is the greatest thing since sliced bread,'' says Noel Cunningham, owner of the Strings restaurant in Denver, a member of the Share Our Strength network of 1,400 restaurants across the country that have organized on behalf of hunger relief. ``The comradeship that is evolving among chefs and restaurateurs toward the issue of people less fortunate than ourselves is really great,'' he says. ``This is not a quick fix, like Band Aid or Live Aid,'' Mr. Cunningham adds. ``This is a long-term commitment that each year is becoming bigger and bigger.''
In addition to raising money, SOS raises awareness of the problem of hunger and what can be done - like taking food to shelters instead of throwing it out.
``In the past, when a company had a big dinner, I don't really know what happened to the extra 50 dinners,'' says Cunningham. ``But now there's a program. People are much more aware of the options. When they have food left over, they bring it down to the shelters themselves.''
SOS was founded in 1984 by Bill Shore, a former Senate legislative aide, in response to the famine in Ethiopia. Based in Washington, the nonprofit group is run by a staff of five.
Today the network reaches into more than 60 cities across the United States, tapping resources from restaurants and helping distribute them to more than 120 hunger programs - community food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens. Some money is also given to overseas relief groups, like Oxfam America, based in Boston, and Grassroots International in the Philippines. The most recent SOS program, ``Fight Food Waste,'' provides funds for groups that salvage leftovers from restaurants, caterers, and institutions.
What's unique about SOS is the way they raise money by ``creative donating.''
``What we've discovered,'' says Mr. Shore, ``is people would rather do anything than write a check, even if it's more expensive.''
Such contributions include:
Fine dishes from the best restaurants, which are served at an annual fund-raising banquet.
Pictures from food photographers, which are made into a benefit calendar.
Short fiction from 22 of America's best writers (Anne Tyler, Louise Erdrich, Mona Simpson, Tobias Wolff, Ethan Canin, for example), which has been collected into an anthology, ``Louder Than Words,'' on sale this month. (So far the book has already earned several thousand dollars for SOS from the sale of first serial rights to magazines.)
The way Shore has organized the restaurant industry is not typical of most groups. ``They (SOS)know how to mobilize communities quickly and to carry off big events,'' says Westy Egmont, executive director of the Boston Food Bank. ``In that sense they come with a very different contribution to the cause.''
Shore credits his organizing success to the ``theory of concentric circles,'' which he learned working on Gary Hart's presidential campaign in 1984.
``When you organize,'' Shore says, ``there are some people at the core who are opinion leaders. If you organize them, they will go out and organize the next level or circle, ... and so on and so on.''
Why rely on restaurants rather than big corporate donors? Not only because it's a logical connection, says Shore, but also because of their local base. ``Restaurateurs are, at least at a certain level, pretty active - community involved, civic minded,'' says Shore. ``They're more involved in their communities on a grass-roots level, almost at a neighborhood level.'' And they make their living selling food. ``One of the premises of our organization is people want to - if they can understand a way in which they can be helpful - they want to do the right thing.... Most restaurateurs really feel very uncomfortable about how much food they throw away.''
In its new program, SOS gives funds to groups that redistribute perishable foods to the needy. This is just beginning to catch on: Food banks and transfer programs salvage throwaways from restaurants and institutions and move them quickly to distribution centers (soup kitchens and homeless shelters). So far SOS provides money for transportation and refrigeration, and is active in 32 cities where transfer programs are already operating.
Although SOS currently works with upscale, ``white linen'' restaurants, Shore expects to extend the network over the next 10 years into smaller communities across the country. ``It's going to take time,'' he says.
Not everyone agrees with the approach. In Providence, R.I., for example, restaurant owner Guy Abelson says waste in restaurants is sporadic and usually too little to bother saving.
Further, those with the most to offer - institutions like schools and hospitals - are worried about liability. Though there are Good Samaritan laws that protect food donors from liability in every state, ``they're not really enforced in Rhode Island,'' says Mr. Abelson.
The picture is different in the Boston area, where two perishable-food programs are operating around the city. ``Second Helping,'' a branch of the Boston Food Bank, makes daily trips to collect food from corporate kitchens and deliver it to shelters like Project Place in the South End section of the city.
A smaller group, Food For Free in Cambridge, Mass., received $2,200 from SOS after the ``Taste of the Nation'' event last spring. This money was used to buy food at the Food Bank and help operate the van that picks up perishable produce from city food co-ops and grocery stores. These supplies are delivered to neighborhood food pantries, where needy families can ``shop'' for free. Some foods are delivered directly to homes and shelters.
``Our priority is to be able to serve people so they can stay in their homes and not have to go to shelters,'' says coordinator Suzanne Motheral. Most clients are families. ``By enabling people to come to the pantry and then go home and eat (helps) maintain their integrity as a family.''
Hunger relief on such a community level, says Ms. Motheral, ``is people helping people instead of letting them get drawn into welfare or falling over the edge. It keeps people on the edge ..., which isn't great, but it's a lot harder to climb out (if) you're homeless.''
Tufts professor J. Larry Brown, who chaired the Physician Task Force on Hunger In America, cautions that emergency relief efforts shouldn't be viewed as the ultimate solution. ``They're very necessary and very helpful. But they have a job that shouldn't exist.''
What's needed, says Dr. Brown, is political action. ``These feeding facilities, if they want to be responsible, have to put pressure on Congress to provide a lasting solution to hunger rather than rely on the interim solution of handouts.''