Unlike many areas of the world, where food is scarce, hunger in the United States is senseless. America is home to a surplus of food, yet, year after year, millions of people in this country go hungry while millions of pounds of food are thrown into the trash.
Saving that food from winding up in the landfill is where the nonprofit Community Plates comes in.
“Hunger in the United States is a logistical issue,” said Alison Sherman, director of communications for Community Plates. “Unlike world hunger, which is social and economical and cultural, we throw away the food that could solve this problem.”
Headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut, and created in 2011, Community Plates exists to save the extra food at restaurants and serve it to the poor. Software developer Jeff Schacher is the man behind Community Plates; a food-industry insider with a heart for helping.
Schacher owned a software company that handled logistics for restaurants. Using what he knew, Schacher developed an application that went right to the heart of the issue: saving ready-to-sell food from the dumpsters. He determined that, instead of ending up in landfills, this food should find its way into the hungry bellies of the working poor, according to the founder’s story at communityplates.org.
Schacher developed an app that easily facilitates volunteers picking up unused food from restaurants and delivering it to soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters. The app was so easy to use, in fact, that people began signing up to pick up and deliver food during their free time.
Sherman, the director of communications, said she started as a volunteer and fell so in love with the company and its vision that she joined the staff.
“I’ve never seen another volunteer opportunity like it,” she said. “It’s so hands-on. Our app allows you to schedule your food runs at your own convenience and make a difference the day that you drive. It’s win, win, win all over the place.”
The app is brilliant in its simplicity. Chefs, restaurants, grocery stores and other food purveyors contact someone at Community Plates saying they have food ready for pickup. A coordinator notes this in the app with all of the appropriate directions for parking, which door to go to and which person to ask for.
Volunteers select those runs for which they have time, then pick up the food and deliver it to the location indicated. All of the details and instructions, down to the amount of food, is right there at the volunteer’s fingertips.
“We are different from any other organization because our app allows us to direct transfer,” Sherman said. “We pick up food within the hour. We have no trucks, we have no warehouses, we don’t pay employees. Our volunteers drive their own cars and the food is free.”
The app also pairs donations with the appropriate receiving agency so that food goes where it’s best used. All of the food is fresh and never-been-served or used.
“We drop off to food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters,” Sherman said. “Each one of those organizations provides food in a different way. Some will serve a hot meal, so they will get prepared food. Some people have a food pantry that allows their clients to ‘shop,’ and they will get all of the fresh foods.”
Another feature of the app is that it tracks the amount of food the nonprofit is giving — and it’s giving a lot. Since Community Plates started in 2011, the organization has delivered 11.4 million meals and diverted 17.4 million pounds of food from landfills. They estimate the value at $30 million of food.
Four full-time staff members in the national office manage and support all of the efforts in the seven sites across the country. Right now, Community Plates operates in Fairfield County and New Haven, Connecticut; Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, New Mexico, and New Orleans. Two separate charities in Manchester, Connecticut, and Cincinnati, Ohio, also use the Community Plates app to coordinate food deliveries and drop-offs.
Beyond Community Plates’ own work, the organization is able to give to others who have been doing similar work for years.
“We have now started giving our software to social service agencies that are already working with these populations,” Sherman said. “We give them our technology for free. We partner with them and train them on our best practices and our national office support team gets them all of the support they need to either create a food-rescue program or enhance the program they’ve already got by employing our technology.”