One night in college, Tony Marren had grabbed a quick meal after leaving a home football game at Brigham Young University in Utah. As he walked with his food, he suddenly came upon adults dumpster-diving with their children nearby.
“I was standing there with my politically correct Diet Coke and my onion rings and my big Whopper,” Marren remembers. “I was stunned.”
He had heard statistics about hunger before then, he says, but that night made the numbers hit home.
Today Mr. Marren, who lives in Provo, Utah, is the founder of Operation Just One Can, a movement that encourages businesses, places of worship, and schools to start food drives in which people donate a single can of food – any brand, any kind of food, any size.
Marren says he thinks being asked to donate a single can makes people more likely to give.
“If you make it a workable, realistic item, you get people to listen,” he says.
Marren already had experience with food drives and charitable donations after organizing his first canned food drive his junior year in college, which yielded 3,000 cans. In 2006, he organized an effort to send soccer balls and blankets to orphans in Kabul, Afghanistan.
He had e-mailed a friend in the military promising soccer balls and blankets for 1,000 children, which Marren said he initially found to be an intimidating goal.
“I sent it and said, ‘Whoa, what did I get myself into?’” he recalls. He ended up with 3,500 soccer balls and 3,500 blankets.
The idea for Operation Just One Can came to Marren when he was driving by a Brigham Young University football game one night in January 2009. Marren suddenly thought of the amount of food that could be collected if every person attending the game to brought a single can of food.
He sent the idea to the university, but staff said they never received the proposal. Marren had to put the project on the back burner while he had his hip replaced in January 2010 – he's been declared officially disabled by Social Security Administration – and he didn’t get back to the project until the fall of that year.
“I just made up my mind, I'm going to make a go of it!” Marren says.
He worked with Lance Olsen, who put together the website for the movement. Marren now runs the operation through phones, laptops, and interviews, he says, contacting people from his home in Provo, Utah. He says he’s had people from all over the country tell him they’ve set up Operation Just One Can drives.
“I've been learning about the power of the Internet,” Marren says, noting how quickly word has spread.
He estimates he’s participated in more than 50 interviews about the movement, from local radio stations to outlets in Texas, California, and Canada. Several radio stations have agree to air public service announcements describing the initiative and publicizing Marren’s website.
Marren has also submitted a proposal to the Oakland Raiders football team asking it to get involved, he says. He expects to hear from the team by the end of October.
He spends two to three hours a day studying hunger statistics, Marren says, so he can have the most current information available.
With the success of Operation Just One Can, he's thinking about starting other initiatives, such as encouraging gyms to donate their lost-and-found items to homeless shelters and setting up baskets in dollar stores for donations that would go to homeless shelters and food pantries.
His future plans for Operation Just One Can are simple.
“Our goal is we're not going to stop,” he says.
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