On a recent cold, rainy Wednesday, David Schoen left his corporate office, walked in his wingtips past ground zero, and stopped at a Starbucks a few blocks away. After filling two bags with the morning's leftover croissants and bagels, he walked to the Coalition for the Homeless and dropped them off.
"It's rather touching when you see some of the people there, who, when they see the food come in, tell you they haven't had anything to eat all day," he says.
Mr. Schoen is one foot soldier in the fight against hunger. As a volunteer for City Harvest, he takes time out of every workday to ensure those few leftovers don't go to waste. Now, he feels even more committed to his work as the economy slows down and demand for emergency food donations goes up.
Indeed, lines at food pantries and soup kitchens have been steadily growing in the past year, according to the Bread for the World Institute, a hunger think tank in Washington. Those emergency food programs, in turn, are finding it difficult to keep their shelves fully stocked. While much of the evidence from around the country so far is anecdotal, the story of longer lines and scarcer supplies is being repeated from Los Angeles to New York.
"The demand is really increasing, and shelves are increasingly bare in the emergency feeding programs around the city," says Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest, a nonprofit that retrieves and donates leftover food.
Rising food and fuel prices are contributing factors, but so, too, is the subprime mortgage crisis, which has hit hardest in low-income areas.
"Families that are already struggling to pay their mortgage costs now are seeing them shoot up 30 and 40 percent," says Todd Post, senior editor at the Bread for the World Institute. "They're stressed in every which way, and some are forgoing food."
To meet this increasing need, emergency food organizations are getting creative – perhaps none more so than City Harvest. It was started in the early 1980s, when a group of friends noticed a lot of hungry people in the city and a lot of restaurants that were throwing out perfectly good food. So they decided to put the two together in 1982. Today, the nonprofit rescues more 20 million pounds of food annually. But in the past few months, they've seen that is still not enough.
"So we committed to find an additional million pounds of food through November and December [of this year]," Ms. Stephens says.
Usually, large trucks drive around the city and pick up cases of fruit and vegetables from supermarkets like D'Agostino and restaurants and bakeries like Amy's Bread. But sometimes, restaurants have only 10 or 15 pounds to donate, and it doesn't make much sense to send a big truck to pick it up, Stephens says.
So, several years ago, City Harvest started its "Street Fleet" operation, which taps corporate volunteers like Schoen. Each enlistee walks 10 to 15 pounds of food that could have gone to waste to a nearby soup kitchen or food pantry.
Currently, 30 corporations in Manhattan participate with about 300 volunteers. City Harvest plans to expand to other boroughs.
"There isn't a pound of food that should go to waste in the city," says Stephens, "because somewhere in the city there's someone who needs it."
One such person is Victoria Watkins. First, she lost her apartment last summer after her boyfriend moved out and she couldn't afford the rent alone. Then, she lost her job because it was difficult keeping a work routine while moving from one shelter to another, she says. Ms. Watkins now drops by the Coalition for the Homeless several times a week looking for help finding a permanent home and a job. And she always looks forward to Schoen's arrival.
"Being the way that it is, a lot of us can't afford breakfast, so the little doughnuts and cupcakes and bagels he brings really help out," she says. "They're a staple in our diet."
That kind of appreciation keeps Schoen, a director at BearingPoint Consultants, ready to help. And he encourages others as well by leading a team of eight Street Fleet volunteers at BearingPoint. Each day, one of them is tasked with picking up the croissants and pastries at two Starbucks near their office and bringing them to the Coalition for the Homeless, which is also just a few blocks away. Schoen likes to do the route himself two or three times a week.
"Particularly if the weather's bad, I'll do it," he said during his walk, the rain stopping long enough for him to close his umbrella. He stopped and looked over at the large construction site on his right. It's ground zero, where the World Trade Center once stood – a constant reminder of why he started volunteering regularly for City Harvest soon after 9/11.
"You never want to forget," he says.