Spare Meals Become Square Meals

Caterers, cafeterias give leftovers to new fighters in war on hunger: prepared food programs. FOR THE HUNGRY

HERE at Lighthouse Community Services soup kitchen and homeless shelter, seafood creole for dinner seems highly unlikely. But today, it's the pi`ece de r'esistance, thanks to ``Extra Helping.'' Started in November by the New Jersey Community FoodBank, the nonprofit food distribution program takes prepared food to the needy. Extra Helping's freezer truck picks up extra food from caterers, restaurants, and corporate and university cafeterias, then takes it to the food bank or delivers it directly to soup kitchens, shelters, day care and senior centers, and other agencies that feed the hungry.

``Good things come to those who wait,'' says Bishop J.W. Parrot, founder of Lighthouse Community Services, which feeds more than 400 people a day, and sometimes as many as 600 at the end of the month when food stamps run out.

The program takes some of the pressure off front-line feeding programs trying to keep pace with emergency food needs, says director Stanlee Stahl. ``We provide a boost to the volunteers and skeleton staffs who have taken on the challenge of planning menus, purchasing food, preparing and serving meals,'' she explains, while taking a reporter along on the delivery rounds.

Technically, Extra Helping is a ``prepared food program'' or PFP. Sometimes referred to as perishable food programs, PFPs are a growing trend. They are a variation on food banking, says Laura Perille, director of Second Helping in Boston, a joint project of the Boston Food Bank and the Boston College Alumni Association. Many PFPs are associated with food banks. But food banks focus on packaged and canned goods.

Extra Helping's catering crusade is unique because ``they - more than any any other transfer program - are concentrating on not just leftovers but on generating extra or additional donations. Hence the name,'' says Ms. Perille.

Most PFPs work with food services to haul away leftover food from kitchens - food that would otherwise be thrown out. However, Stahl prods companies to make extra portions of food from the beginning. ``I'm after hard-core protein entr'ees,'' she says. That way, Extra Helping can deliver complete, nutritious meals - like chicken chow mein or Swedish meat loaf - along with vegetables and other items.

Someone might call up and say ``we have 200 spears of asparagus we can give you.'' But complete meals are so much easier than working in bits and pieces, says Stahl. ``Yes, I want leftovers, but not three chicken wings.''

The program is unique, also, in that it deals with frozen food. This ``allows for greater variety, flexibility,'' says Stahl. Frozen food is easier to transport, safer, keeps better, and is less messy. It can also be stored at the food bank, then combined with other items to make complete meals.

In addition, ``we're targeting corporations,'' says Stahl. Say a company is making 800 portions of vegetable lasagne for a luncheon; they will make an extra 100 and freeze them for the food program, says Stahl, who ensures that everything is in accordance with public health laws.

Mutual Benefit Life in Newark, N.J., for example, donates $1,000 in meals from their Marriott-run cafeteria every month. Today, they are donating 30 gallons of frozen beef stew, double-sized biscuits, and apple pie, enough for 1,200 people. CIBA-GEIGY, a pharmaceutical company, also donates $1,000 worth of food every month.

Another plus is the regularity of the donations: ``I'm getting a set amount of prepared food and a steady stream. By the end of the year we will be getting 15,000 pounds a month,'' says Stahl.

It's helpful to agencies receiving food to know what's coming their way, so they can plan, too: ``It is very hard to put a meal together with shoestrings and gum,'' says Perille. ``Anytime you can round out an entire meal, that's optimal.''

Soliciting food donors isn't always easy. Some companies balk at the idea of spending more time and effort. Yet people involved in PFPs insist the effort and cost to donors aren't great when institutions deal in such high volume.

`IS it hard to do? No. Does it take time? Yes. Is it worth it? Definately,'' says Frank P. Pombo, vice president of Frank Pombo's Bethwood Catering and Restuarant in Totowa, N.J. With 15 to 25 weddings a week, ``we used to throw away 300 dinners a week. Now they go to the needy'' through Extra Helping, he says.

``For production, it really isn't a problem,'' says Mike Williamson, Marriott food service manager at Mutual Benefit Life. Donations are tax-deductible, and New Jersey's ``Good Samaritan Law'' exempts companies from liability, as do similar laws in other states. The public relations boost isn't bad, either.

Funding for Extra Helping and other programs range from individuals, corporations, and foundations, such as the UPS foundation which recently gave 16 PFP programs $5,000 each as implementation grants. UPS is also spearheading a training manual for PFPs due out at the end of the year.

``It's a rather clear-cut thing - we wanted to help feed more people,'' says Suzanne Coyne, assistant director of UPS foundation. The donation made sense, ``since our expertise lies in transportion and logistics,'' she continues. ``Getting food from donors to agencies is really a logistical kind of thing.''

Challenges to such meal programs include money, transportation and logistics, health restrictions, agency and donor cooperation - even being able to reach everyone who wants to be generous. ``The No. 1 challenge is fund-raising and donors,'' says Stahl.

But most important, say those involved, is to realize that such programs are not the answer to hunger, nor should they take the place of government aid. The answer is in ending poverty. ``People are mistaken if they think that food banks and pantries can solve the problem. ``All we're doing is keeping people from going hungry - we're a Band-Aid,'' says Perille. ``We can get bigger and more sophisticated as Band-Aids,'' Perille concludes, ``but we're still Band-Aids.''

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