A Meal Is A Terrible Thing to Waste

Food Runners battles Bay Area hunger by serving leftover food from startup parties and catered events to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and people in need.

Food Runners volunteers pick up donated leftovers. (Image: Joe Kukura)

Anyone who’s ever worked at a high-end catering event or exclusive restaurant knows that ungodly amounts of perfectly good, untouched, gourmet food regularly get thrown straight into the trash. This is particularly infuriating in San Francisco, where homelessness is rampant and one in five residents can’t afford to eat adequately every day.

You’d think someone would find a way to get that good, unused gourmet food into the bellies of S.F.’s hungriest. Good news: Someone has, and they’ve been doing it relentlessly and as frequently as possible for the last 30 years.

Food Runners is a primarily volunteer-run organization that has been making lemonade from the lemons of Bay Area income inequality since 1987. Begun as a one-woman project in founder Mary Risley’s living room, Food Runners now delivers 3,000 meals a day to San Franciscans in need.

Distributing 15 tons of food every week to at-risk kids, seniors, and homeless residents sounds like an enterprise requiring a warehouse, fleets of trucks, and armies of paid staff. But Food Runners has none of these things and coordinates all this food delivery with just two employees.

“We do not have a warehouse,” Food Runners operations manager Nancy Hahn tells SF Weekly. “Volunteers pick up the food from the donor and deliver it directly to the recipient.”

The organization is the saintly iteration of Silicon Valley’s “We’re just a platform” ethic, using a light footprint to deliver gargantuan amounts of food to those in need. Hahn says Food Runners has been able to thrive for 30 years “through the generosity of our donors, both financial and those donating food.”

But the special magic that makes Food Runners run is a legion of car- and truck-owning volunteers willing to respond to delivery requests on random afternoons, evenings, and weekends.

“Not enough can be said about our volunteers,” Hahn adds.

Having done this for 30 years, Food Runners has noticed that the behavior of food donors has changed in recent years. Hahn insists there is “increased awareness of food waste and food recovery,” but also that “the tech boom has created a whole new source of food donations that didn’t exist even five to seven years ago.”

Wealthy food donors have come and gone over the years, but Food Runners counts among its most generous contributors companies like Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, and Zynga. Grocery stores Mollie Stone’s, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods donate perishable goods regularly, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel has long donated perfectly good leftovers from its events.

This food gets delivered to notable local soup kitchens and homeless shelters at Glide Memorial Church or Martin de Porres House of Hospitality, drop-in centers like Larkin Street Youth Services, low-income senior facilities including Canon Kip Senior Center, and afterschool programs like San Francisco Back on Track.

Rarely does a day go by when you don’t see another galling example of the “best of times, worst of times” income-inequality phenomenon between San Francisco’s richest and poorest residents, but Food Runners has personified the City of Saint Francis spirit for which San Francisco was named, finding excess among those well-off and delivering it to those in need.

“Along with preventing waste and helping to alleviate hunger, the mission of Food Runners is to create community,” Hahn says. “Food Runners means so much to all who get involved.”

Food Runners has been making miracles happen on the daily for San Francisco’s homeless and hungry people for than 30 years, but the constant shift in Bay Area economic trends requires constant recalibration and new blood.

“We need more food and especially more volunteers,” Hahn says.

To donate food or volunteer with Food Runners, visit foodrunners.org or call 415-929-1866. Larger donors or organizations who wish to make a tax-deductible donation can visit foodrunners.org/donate-money/.

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