Categorized | Featured, Health & Food

Unlikely partners connect through food recycling

Posted on 03 January 2010 by Laura Dodd

View Photo Slideshow of Food Recycling Programs

New York City, NY—Miriam Pensac and Frank Gaddy have never met. It’s likely they never will.

Ms. Pensac is a freshman at Columbia University pursuing a double major in theatre and philosophy. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and was on a competitive ski team until she was 14 years old.

Mr. Gaddy is a recovered crack addict who was once homeless and served 20 years in jail for a litany of crimes, including selling drugs and a gang-related homicide.

But on a recent grey day in Morningside Heights, about a mile apart, these two people share something fundamental: their food.

What allows this logistical marvel to happen is a food-recycling program that gathers leftovers from the main dining hall on Columbia’s campus and serves them to homeless people at a nearby soup kitchen.

Every Friday, City Harvest, a non-profit organization that distributes donated food throughout the city, picks up, on average, more than 300 pounds of excess food from the University cafeteria where Pensac usually eats and delivers it around the neighborhood. The majority of the University’s leftovers go to Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem, where it becomes part of Mr. Gaddy’s Saturday meal.

With the economic downturn settling in for the winter and the brunt of the cold weather approaching, food pantries and soup kitchens across the city are struggling to meet demand. City Harvest reports 15% longer lines, according to Erin Hoover, senior manager of communications.

And at Metropolitan Baptist Church, which runs a soup kitchen on 138th and 7th Ave. that receives the Ivy League leftovers, it’s standing room only. “The economy is bringing more people out on the street—new faces, young faces, mothers with children. You can’t sit down in here,” Mr. Gaddy said. “The joint is packed.”

In a city where homelessness is part of the landscape, each neighborhood must fend for itself. On the Upper West Side, this operation between such unlikely partners—an Ivy-League University and a homeless shelter—is helping to feed the Harlem locals.

The man who brokered the odd-couple team wasn’t a university administrator or a non-profit executive. Rather, it was a man who knew both worlds.

Don Weems, a chef the university’s main dining hall, used to be on the receiving end of a free meal. After losing his job for «doing a lot of things I wasn’t supposed to,»

Mr. Weems lived in the streets for a year, visiting soup kitchens for the warm company and the hot food.

“I was sleeping on the train every night, and going to soup kitchens,” he said, his jolly demeanor belying his rough past. He’s a youthful 62-years-old and proudly wears a Kelly-green apron and matching chef’s hat—part of a colorful show-off wardrobe that his staff loves to tease him about.

During Christmas holidays they call him «Reindeer Don». In late October, the nickname is «Halloween Don.» Chef Weems doesn’t mind the extra attention—he keeps a yellowed copy of a school neighborhood newsletter write-up with this picture taped to the main office window.

Once back on his feet and employed at the school, he couldn’t help but notice a lost opportunity. “A lot of the food would be disposed of and it really bothered me,» he said. «It took me back to standing in line for hours.» He took the initiative to contact City Harvest and arrange for the leftover food to be picked up once a week. The kitchen staff was supportive, but not so inclined to take on the extra work that saving food requires—packing, labeling, storing. “No one wanted to pack the food because they were doing their job, so I took on that responsibility.”

The additional chores add about 30 minutes to Mr. Weems’ already hectic schedule of helping to prepare over 2000 meals per day. The kitchen staff of 40 cooks two meals—a brunch/lunch combo and dinner—seven days a week, constantly utilizing hundreds of pots and pans and six ovens. Forming part of the perimeter around the kitchen area are designated rooms for practically every variety of ingredient: produce, canned-goods, meat, dairy.

Students like Ms. Penzac, of course, rarely get to glimpse what’s behind the curtain. They file directly into the dining hall—a cavernous room with dark-oak paneling, floor-to-ceiling windows, and chandeliers—and then eat.

The former competitive skier called it quits once the 4 a.m. wake-up calls for practice became too much. “For any competitive sport you have to be a competitive person, and I’m not,” she said, resembling more of a pink-cheeked cherub than a chiseled downhill racer. She traded the skis lessons for singing lessons and is now studying acting—in the classroom and on the silver screen. To prepare for her thespian career, she has seen the classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, «about a million times.»

Ms. Pensac managed to tap into a competitive mode, though, when it came to academics, helping to secure her a spot at the university: she made straight A’s in high school and scored in the 99 percentile of the ACT, a standardized test required by admissions offices.

Now, shuffling between classes and acting lessons, the freshman grabs a bite at the dining hall. Awaiting her and her peers are infamous “Freshman 15” temptations (the extra weight new students put on by “eating with their eyes”): freshly prepared hot food buffet, complete with gluten-free and vegan options; pizza and sandwich bar; make-your-own waffle station; made-to-order burgers and hot dogs; and a dessert area showcasing cakes, cookies and frozen yogurt with all the toppings.

Most students have an idea of where the excess food ends up. “I was aware, to a degree, that they were packaging this food for homeless shelters, but that’s the extent of what I knew,” said Ms. Penzac, snacking on a salad of tofu, beets and spinach.

Dining hall administrators have been well aware of the social responsibilities of food recycling. Recently, they implemented green initiatives as well. Trays were eliminated in 2007 to reduce food waste, which had an immediate affect on resources. “Dining Services is able to save 3,000 gallons of water waste each day and at least 50 lbs of food waste,” according to the Dining Services website.

Students took action, too. Early in the semester student Eco-Reps, an environmentally-minded group of undergraduates, chose to educate the incoming class with a more literal demonstration. Every day for a week, the group stood by the dirty-dish conveyor belt and collected food scraps before they were thrown out. Total weight of wasted food in September? 160 pounds.

To underscore the waste-not message, a large sign hangs over the drop-off station: “What Did You Waste Today? You hold the Power to Prevent Waste!”

Meanwhile, down below in the basement kitchen, the staff noticed a difference, especially Chef Weems since he started in 1996. “They don’t eat like they used to,” he said.

At the end of the week, a City Harvest truck makes the rounds around the Upper West Side. When it eventually pulls up to the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Harlem, about 30 minutes later, disheveled men stream out of the basement and form an assembly line, patiently passing each aluminum tin of food to the next guy. The soup kitchen serves one free meal six days a week to approximately 75-100 people, all from donated food delivered by City Harvest.

Metal fold-up chairs and tables fill this stark-white dining hall. A Proverb’s Bible verse framed on the wall reads “Fathers Save your Sons. Mothers Save your Daughters. God Save Us All.” A few boxes of browning bananas and limes are near the front, which a few people snack on. One woman inhales four bananas under five minutes, then returns to her crouched position, hugging her knees. Piles of bread are stacked on tables and in shopping charts.

Everyone is welcome here; no questions asked. “We serve the homeless, destitute, people just hungry and smell it off the street,” said John Hayes, a volunteer who re-heats the donated food. “We’re just like a family.”

Mr. Gaddy, known as ‘Slim’ around the center, is grateful to be part of that family because for nearly two decades, he was part of an each-man-for-himself type family—jail. “Rounded off, I did about 20 years. I have four felonies and 14 misdemeanors,” he said, including petty larceny, narcotic sales and “one body”—street talk for homicide.

During that time in his life, he’d do just about anything to support his habit. “If I could sell your ass, I’d sell it to get me a bag of dope,” he said curtly.

And when Mr. Gaddy tired of that “hustle,” he was often tempted to commit another crime just so he could get locked-up again where there was food and a place to sleep. “I thought about it plenty of times. I’d think I’d take a garbage can and go down on 34th street and throw it in Macy’s front window and stand there and wait for the police.”

To fill his empty stomach, he’d show-up for a free meal at the soup kitchen. He didn’t know where the food came from, and he didn’t care. “We don’t know nothin’ about where the food comes from or who it’s donated from. Only thing we know it comes here,” he said, “and given out to people who need it.”

Now Mr. Gaddy is clean and has an apartment in the Bronx. Along with the other volunteers, he helps to run the soup kitchen. His official role is distributing numbered tickets to people as they file in. His unofficial role is as proof of hope. He offers a hug and gentle word of encouragement to those who look like they’re having an especially rough morning because he knows he’s just one bad decision away from reverting to that life.

A few subway stops to the south, Ms. Pensac, the student who aspires to become a theatre actress, will most likely never know Mr. Gaddy. She’ll probably never meet Chef Weems either. But in a large city grappling with a large hunger problem, three strangers on the Upper West Side are more connected than they think.

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