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Fixing the Logistics To End Hunger

Community Plates, a new non-profit organization based in Norwalk, is aiming high to connect the resources with the need in Fairfield County and across the US.

In August, Community Plates team of volunteer food runners rescued 23,225 pounds of food destined for the trash can.

“There shouldn’t be anyone hungry in America. We don’t have a problem with food, we have a problem with logistics,” Kevin Mullins, executive director of Community Plates, told Patch.

This idea is at the heart of what Community Plates understands — the resources are there, the missing link is the volunteer stepping up to shuttle excess food from restaurants, supermarkets, and catered functions to the people who need it in food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters. This concept isn't new, organizations like New York City's City Harvest have honed the art of doing food rescue on a large-scale, but Community Plates is taking it local and rescuing smaller amounts of food to fill the gap.

"I go into a restaurant and say "Do you have food you're throwing away?" and they say "Yes,"" Mullins said. "We got our start in January (2011) and began rescuing food in May."

The idea for Community Plates began back in May 2010 when founder Jeff Schacher and Mullins, two friends who met at church in Norwalk, began to talk about food rescue.

Schacher had previously started a web-based software company to help restaurants manage their labor, inventory, and reporting. Along the way, he became aware of the large amounts of food that were going to waste. Mullins had lived in Norwalk for four years and served as pastor of Northeast Community Church. Although he and his family were considering a move back to the southwest, new opportunities — including the chance to launch a non-profit — convinced them to stay in Fairfield County.

It is estimated that 100,000 people in Fairfield County are designated as “food insecure.” The spectrum includes homeless hunger, the type that most people tend to think of when they think of a food pantry or soup kitchen, but also includes many in a rapidly expanding category.  These are people who either are recently unemployed and struggling, or holding down one or more jobs but still unable to make ends meet at the end of the month.

“Hunger is hunger," Mullins said. "The bottom line is if you have families who have to send their kids to bed hungry, for that night, it’s no different.”

Due to tough economic times coupled with increasing food costs, more and more families are finding themselves struggling with food insecurity and it’s happening right here in Fairfield County.

“For me, it comes down to people who cannot regularly provide themselves and their families with the quantity and quality of food for a healthy life,” Mullins explained. “It’s a lot closer to us than we think. I live in East Norwalk and there are probably people in my neighborhood who are food insecure.”

In Stamford, Community Plates works with New Covenant House and the Wilson Food Pantry, and will soon begin to serve . In Norwalk, they serve locations including the Open Door Shelter and Christian Community Action’s food pantry. Person to Person in Darien is another recipient of rescued food.

“Our goal is for the process to go as smoothly as possible, we want it to be so easy that restaurants can’t say no, that volunteers want to keep doing it,” Mullins said. “In some cases the food runner walks right into the freezer, puts the trays in bags, and the bags in their car.”

Community Plates follows the grocery-to-home rule — a volunteer will never be asked to travel further with their food rescue than they would to take their groceries home. The organization provides volunteers with every bit of information they will need, down to which door to enter and who they can speak with when they get there.

Still, rescuing food is not without its share of adventures.

“I showed up at Trader Joe’s the other week and they had 75 watermelons — what do you do with 75 watermelons? — but I loaded them into my car and we found places for them,” Mullins laughed.

The profile of Community Plates' volunteers is varied — from recent retirees with free time to help out, to stay-at-home parents who have some time during the day to volunteer, to people with full time jobs that can do food rescues on weekends or when there’s a need in the evening.

As they grow, Mullins anticipates more last-minute food missions, like one that recently took him to in Stamford one evening to rescue a huge amount of leftovers from a special event.

“I was able to take another volunteer along and pick up a lot of really high quality food,” Mullins said. "I think corporate catering will be another huge source for us."

New restaurants and supermarkets are joining up with Community Plates every day, just came on board last week.

In addition to continuing to expand through Norwalk, Stamford, Greenwich, and Bridgeport — Community Plates has a lot of exciting things on the horizon. In the next couple weeks, they will launch a smart phone application that will help to connect restaurants, volunteers, and organizations that distribute food to the hungry, continuing to build a seamless system to get food where it needs to be. With this technology in place, Community Plates hopes to expand to nine locations across the US in 2012.

“Community Plates was founded to be a national organization… unemployment is not going away, the escalation of food insecurity is not going away, and increased food costs aren’t going away — I don’t feel like we can afford to be casual, we have to be just as urgent as the problem,” Mullins said. “A year ago I didn’t know I’d be doing this, but the opportunity is now.”

The expansion has happened organically, with friends, relatives, and similar organizations looking at what Community Plates has gotten right — from the technology to the use of volunteers — and said “We can do this here.”

In Fairfield County, new volunteers can sign up on their website and get on board with a dynamic and growing organization poised to change the way we think about hunger in America. There is no upfront obligation, food runners can sign up to do a single food rescue and sign on for more once they decide it's a good fit for them.

“It’s an exciting time. We’ll make some mistakes along the way and we’ll probably be a lot smarter a year from now,” Mullins said. “But along the way a lot of hungry people will be fed.”

Community Plates will hold their first fundraiser — a gala at Norwalk's Stepping Stones Museum on October 4. Visit their website to purchase tickets or find out how you can get involved.

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