Ashley Stanley's jaw dropped the first time she walked into the back room of a supermarket. All around her, mountains of eggplants, potatoes, and onions littered the concrete floors.
None of the produce was spoiled, yet the staff told her that it had already taken its turn on the produce department shelves and would soon be tossed in the dumpster.
Without hesitating, she asked if she could have the produce. Then she loaded up her car and drove her bounty to the Pine Street Inn, one of Boston's largest homeless shelters, which serves 1,600 meals to homeless people every day.
That was in December 2009. Since then, Ms. Stanley has diverted 900,000 pounds of fresh food that otherwise would have been tossed out to Boston-area food pantries, homeless shelters, and domestic violence safe houses.
What began as a single act of charity has blossomed into Lovin' Spoonfuls, a nonprofit food rescue that strives to remove a glaring kink in the food chain and bridge the gap between waste and want. "This is the most preventable problem that we've got in this country," Stanley says.
The idea first solidified for Stanley when she was at lunch with her mother. The holiday season was approaching and with it had come the usual push from local and national charities for year-end donations.
"Everything you hear around the holidays is such a concentrated message around hunger," she says. " 'There's not enough.' 'Give what you can.' You're being inundated with it."
At the end of their meal she and her mother looked at their plates and realized that whatever they did not finish would wind up in a dumpster. At that moment, she says, she realized that while charities begged and pleaded for financial donations to supply food to the hungry, millions of people were tossing perfectly good food into the trash.
"Maybe the message of 'there's not enough' isn't the right message," she recalls thinking.
In 2012 Americans threw away 40 percent of the food produced in the United States, according to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). That's 20 pounds of food per person every month.
During the same year, 49 million Americans spent at least part of the year wondering where their food was going to come from, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
"Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables," the NRDC says.
Growing up in Wellesley, a wealthy suburb of Boston, Stanley never experienced hunger firsthand. And food played a central role in her family culture.
"It was the best part about vacations," she says, "and at home food was an incredible source of joy and celebration."
As she grew older she became aware that many other families were not as fortunate as hers. "There are so many issues that we're sort of desperate to solve in the world, and they require incredible amounts of money and research," she says. With food, "all the resources are right in front of us, and it just takes [making] connections."
After college, Stanley found an entry-level job at Ralph Lauren, where she worked her way up from sweeping the floors to designing displays. She enjoyed her work, but she didn't want to make fashion a long-term career.
When Stanley got the idea for Lovin' Spoonfuls, she quit her job, started living off her savings, and began delivering food. Today, she spends more time fundraising and advocating than driving a food truck herself. As her company has grown, she has been able to draw a salary and support six full-time employees.
Every week Lovin' Spoonfuls's three drivers climb aboard their refrigerated trucks and head to grocery stores, farmers' markets, and produce wholesalers in the Boston area to collect and redistribute an average of 15,000 pounds of food. The majority of that food, Stanley says, is fresh produce and whole grains.
Recently, she partnered with a food pantry at Boston Medical Center. Doctors at the hospital write "prescriptions" that their mostly low-income patients can exchange for healthier fresh food at the pantry.
"You've got an incredible population of young people now who either grew up on social services or with Social Security, and the only food that they've got available to them is canned, bagged, preservative-laden food," she says.
Stanley has established relationships with stores that offer high-quality food, such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market.
Recently Meg Kiley, Lovin' Spoonfuls's haul manager, headed to the Whole Foods in Charles-town, Mass., on her daily visit. The store provides a special trolley cart labeled "Food Bank Donations Only" for Ms. Kiley.
After backing her retrofitted Ford truck into the loading dock on a recent brisk but sunny afternoon, she finds the cart piled high with boxes of apples, bananas, pineapples, and grapefruits, as well as several boxes with prepared salads, fresh sandwiches, and store-made soups, breads, pies, and fresh fruit cups.
As she scans the boxes to make sure the contents meet high-quality standards, she picks up a particularly succulent bunch of grapes and shakes her head. "These are perfectly fine and super expensive," she says. In most cases, the sell-by date stamped on the package is still several days away.
Stanley is certainly not the first to attempt to capture wasted food and give it to the hungry. Lovin' Spoonfuls and other food rescue organizations around the country are tapping into a tradition of field gleaning and food rescue that dates back to biblical times, when farmers routinely left part of their harvest in the fields for the poor to collect.
While the amount of food being saved by food rescue groups like Lovin' Spoonfuls is impressive, USDA and NRDC statistics suggest that food rescue efforts are only scratching the surface. In the past 10 years, the percentage of households reporting insufficient food has increased from 11.2 percent in 2003 to 14.5 percent in 2012.
Those statistics are borne out by many families at the Elizabeth Peabody House, a nonprofit preschool and community center in Somerville, Mass., a Boston suburb. With the help of Lovin' Spoonfuls, The Greater Boston Food Bank, and Food For Free, another area food rescue organization, EPH provides emergency food supplies for 200 to 300 families each month.
"Lovin' Spoonfuls makes a difference in people's lives by providing them with products of better quality than they can access through either food stamps or through The Greater Boston Food Bank," says Elizabeth Rucker, the food pantry manager. "That, I think, lends to the sense of dignity in the experience [of these families] that is just so hard to come by.
"Lovin' Spoonfuls seems to be able to get salad greens and leafy greens more frequently than anybody else," Ms. Rucker adds.
Many of EPH's families come from cultures in which greens are an important part of the diet. Stanley is proud of being able to help families maintain those cultural traditions.
"Just because you might need a little extra help preparing your food doesn't mean that your heritage and your tradition and the things that you love have to go away," she says.
Each family is permitted to "shop" the EPH pantry just once a month, she says. For many that means they have to seek out other food pantries to keep food on the table.
Despite the seemingly endless need, there is enough fresh food to go around, Stanley says. What's needed are better ways to share it.
"Success for me," she says, "is to one day walk into work and have everybody say, 'Go home. We're good. We don't need you anymore.' "
• For more, visit www.lovinspoonfulsinc.org.
Help the hungry
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Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help feed people worldwide:
• Nepal Orphans Home helps children in Nepal who have been abandoned or are not supported by their parents. Project: Provide fresh fruit to the orphaned children of Papa’s House.