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How to give food: Lessons learned after the Pope’s visit dried up Philly restaurants

Instead of “soup kitchens,” Chosen 300 Ministries’ Brian Jenkins refers to his centers as “fine dining establishments for those who are impoverished.”

Ask Brian Jenkins how many people Chosen 300 Ministries feeds each day, and he doesn’t hesitate before answering: Zero. The charitable organization — which he and his wife Shandai founded in 1996, and which has grown to encompass 22 locations around the world — does not “feed” hungry people, he insists. It serves them.

“Can you imagine going to a restaurant,” he says, “where the hostess goes, ‘So, what are we feeding you tonight?’”

Oh. Right.

Usually, the several hundred meals Chosen 300’s two Philadelphia centers serves each night are prepared by one of the 105 churches in the organization’s alliance, then delivered, reheated and enjoyed at nicely-set tables. (Instead of “soup kitchens,” Jenkins refers to his centers as “fine dining establishments for those who are impoverished.”)

Occasionally, though, the sustenance comes from another source: Restaurants and delis that for some reason — say, an unexpectedly slow weekend thanks to streets shut-down to welcome an extra-special foreign head of state — end up with a lot of unsold food.

After Pope Francis’ visit, Chosen 300 accepted a hundred cases of hoagie rolls from Wawa, and also served a separate meal of hundreds of pre-made sandwiches that were donated. (Jenkins doesn’t remember the exact source, but it seems likely they were a portion of the donation made by Brulée Catering, which dropped off 3000 sandwiches at Mt. Tabor AME Church on Fifth and Girard.)

Papal over-preparation also provided fodder for special weekday food distributions by the Sunday LOVE Project, where founder Margaux Murphy gave out corn soup and chicken salad from Le Chéri, muffins from the Local 215 food truck and hot dogs from the Bishop’s Collar. Extra food from meals destined for the National Guard landed at East Kensington’s St. Francis Inn. And pilgrims apparently missed the hype about the Federal Donuts chicken sandwich, so a few hundred par-cooked chicken breasts made a solid dinner for the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission instead.

Unusual circumstances

Leftover Federal Donuts chicken sandwiches were donated to hungry Philadelphians
Danya Henninger

About that FedNuts chicken: It almost ended up in the trash.

After trying for more than 24 hours to find an organization with the time and resources to pick up the meat and put it to use, the Federal Donuts chef and manager were about to give up on finding it a good home — fresh, partly-cooked chicken doesn’t last forever. It was thanks to a bit of luck and the somewhat cliché “power of social media” (it was a tweet that connected them) that Sunday Breakfast was able to swoop in and snag it in the nick of time.

Though it can be done (see the end of this article for a list of tips and resources), it’s not all that easy for restaurants to donate excess food to shelters and food banks — logistics are complicated and there aren’t many pre-existing pathways to tap into. In part, that’s because restaurants don’t often find themselves in that kind of situation.

“Well-run restaurants with thoughtful menus and consistent forecasting really don’t have a lot of waste,” says Jonathan Deutsch, professor of culinary arts and director of Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management. “Plus, there is already repurposing of food — every staff meal in this city is made with stuff that’s a surplus in some way.”

Most of the waste in the industry happens before ingredients even get to a restaurant. In a recent interview with NPR’s The Salt, federal Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack estimated the U.S. wastes 133 billion pounds of food annually — most of it at the farm and distribution level.

“By the time food gets to restaurants, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg,” Deutsch explains. He describes practices like wholesalers refusing to buy produce that doesn’t conform to arbitrary physical specs and supermarkets being unable to sell wholly-edible but bruised fruit as hot points. Then there are occasions like a big storm coming through that might keep container ships from docking for a couple extra days, which could end up invalidating shipments of tons and tons of perishable goods because of health code regulations and wholesalers’ fear of liability.

Safety first

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As it turns out, restaurant liability is not an issue when it comes to donations. In 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which established that donors of “apparently wholesome food” could not be held liable if the people who ate it became sick.

The act was designed to encourage more donations, and, in general, it has. It has also essentially transferred the burden of making sure it’s safe to eat to the nonprofits who serve it.

Before accepting any prepared product, Chosen 300’s Jenkins subjects prospective donors to a gauntlet of questioning, including grilling them on cook date and whether the food sat out on a buffet line for an extended period of time. At Philabundance, the area’s major food bank, prepared foods are subject to stringent guidelines regarding date and packaging, and are accepted very infrequently.

Not by bread alone

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Even though most restaurants don’t regularly end up with donation-ready foodstuff, bakeries are an exception to the rule. It’s impossible to exactly predict demand for daily-made cakes and pastries, but is easy to tell if they’re still good to eat.

Because of this, shelters often find themselves deluged with baked goods. When the Sunday Breakfast folks heard Federal Donuts was looking for a place to take leftovers, for example, they nearly declined — “We don’t really need more donuts” — before discovering it was poultry waiting to be gifted. The St. Francis Inn, which hasn’t missed a single night of free food service since 1979, does regular pickups from Stock’s in Port Richmond, and used to score regular loads of Tastykakes from the Hunting Park factory before it closed.

Supplementing the sweets with nutritious food is the harder part, but it’s crucial.

“You or I might eat a piece of birthday cake once a month,” Deutsch says. “At shelters, they get leftover sheet cakes from Shoprite all the time — they’re basically eating birthday cake every day.”

The Philly Food Finder

phillyfoodfindermap

Providing access to healthy food is one of the focuses of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council, of which Deutsch is a member. Formed in 2011, the council brings together people at various city agencies with a diverse group of folks involved in all facets of the local food system, from farming and production to advocacy and academia.

In September 2014, the council’s anti-hunger subcommittee unveiled a valuable tool connected to that goal. PhillyFoodFinder.org is an interactive map that lists details about various food resources around the city. Users can search for food pantries, soup kitchens, senior meals, farmers’ markets and SHARE host sites (which trade community service for discounts on food), and sort by criteria like whether a photo ID is required, or if SNAP vouchers are accepted.

The website is not only useful for hungry Philadelphians — many people who take advantage of discounts and giveaways are often online, a council study found — but also for restaurants or producers searching for resources on the occasion that they do in fact have something to donate. It’s how several of those connections that happened after the papal visit were made.

Of course, Pope Francis isn’t coming back any time soon, and backlash has made it unlikely the city would treat a similar situation with a comparable lockdown again, anyway. But there’s always the possibility of other circumstances that could leave a restaurant with surprise excess — a snowstorm, perhaps — so we’ve complied the list below as a helpful guide.

Tips and resources for donating food

If you run a restaurant, know that:

  • You will not be held liable for donated food
  • That said, use common sense when determining what to offer
  • Don’t donate food that has been sitting at bacteria-friendly temperatures
  • If prepared food is leftover and hasn’t already been frozen, freeze it — most soup kitchens will gladly reheat
  • It’s better to donate a whole bunch of one thing instead of little bits of several dishes
  • Bread and pastries are sometimes welcome, but often already donated in surplus

Philly Food Finder website

Local organizations that do regular food pickups from businesses (or will work to coordinate one):

Additional resources that can help cut down on food waste at the restaurant level:

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