What food rescue group Keep Austin Fed really wants for Christmas this year

Keep Austin Fed has been preventing food waste and reducing hunger in Austin since 2004, but it wasn’t until last year that they could hire their first employee.

Lisa Barden, program director for Keep Austin Fed, left, hands Melissa McClure prepackaged food from Snap Kitchen as Anne Hebert, a volunteer from Keep Austin Fed, sorts through a cooler. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Thanks to winning the Austin Food & Wine Alliance’s top grant of $10,000, the organization was able give more hours to Executive Director Lisa Barden, who became the organization’s first full-time employee a little more than a year ago.

RELATED: Keep Austin Fed keeps food out of the trash, gives it to Austinites in need

Melissa McClure, 36, bakes leftover bread she turned into croutons. She says she avoids wasting food by making juice from bruised fruit and turning extra bread into breadcrumbs or croutons. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

For more than a decade, Keep Austin Fed operated entirely on volunteer effort. Founder Ira Kaplan gathered the first volunteers in 2004, and the nonprofit became official in 2014. It wasn’t until 2015 that Barden started volunteering.

“I’d watched a movie called ‘Just Eat It’ and was overwhelmed by the amount of food waste, but I was a little incredulous that that much food waste actually exists,” she says. After picking up excess food as a volunteer, she saw what the statistics tell us: Forty percent of food doesn’t actually get eaten.

Lisa Barden, program director for Keep Austin Fed, collects apples and other food donations from Austin Achieve Public Schools to donate on Dec. 1. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The quantity of food surprised her, but Barden says she was most shocked by just how many people needed it. “That blew me away even more than the waste,” she says. “I got hooked. The warm fuzzies when you deliver the food is a powerful thing.”

Every month, about 20 to 25 businesses donate about 56,000 pounds of food — that’s almost 50,000 meals — that Keep Austin Fed volunteers pick up and deliver to more than a dozen partner agencies, including Foundation Communities, Caritas, Salvation Army, refugee communities, day habilitation programs and church food pantries.

Anne Hebert, a Keep Austin Fed volunteer, puts donated food from Snap Kitchen into a cooler before dropping prepackaged meals to La Reunion in Austin on Dec. 1, 2017. La Reunion received about 30 pounds of food from Snap Kitchen that day. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The highest-volume donors, including Snap Kitchen, Trader Joe’s, Eddie V’s and the Westin Hotel, have scheduled pickups every week, but many donations come in by phone.

After they learn of a donation, Barden puts out the call to volunteers to see if someone is available to transport the food. The organization hasn’t been able to buy trucks or a van to move food, so volunteers, who have been trained in food safety and handling, use their own vehicles. They deliver hot food hot, and most organizations distribute it that way.

Keep Austin Fed relies on a small pool of about 70 volunteers, so they do have to turn away food sometimes, especially on the weekends. “We could rescue so much more food if we had volunteers with flexible schedules,” Barden says. “There’s so much more to be done. We’re hamstrung” by a lack of volunteers. (Interested in volunteering? Go to keepaustinfed.org to find out more.)

At some point, she’d like them to have their own trucks and cold storage, so they could keep donations cool overnight. For now, Keep Austin Fed’s lean machine will keep moving as much food as it can to fight hunger.

Keep Austin Fed accepts donations from anyone, but the food must prepared in a commercial kitchen and can’t have been served on a buffet or to an individual. Barden reminds potential donors that, thanks to laws passed in the 1990s, there are federal protections for people who donate food, so there’s no liability.

In 2016, Snap Kitchen donated more than 200,000 individually packed meals to Keep Austin Fed, and they are on pace to meet that this year. With such high volume, a Keep Austin Fed volunteer comes every day to the Northwest Austin store, where meals from all the area stores are consolidated.

Shaady Ghadessy, brand director for Snap Kitchen, says that the company has similar partnerships with food rescue organizations in Plano, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

Ghadessy says Snap Kitchen employees become invested in the donation as they get to know the volunteers and learn more about where the food is going. “There’s an immediacy. You know they are headed to this place and this is what’s for dinner tonight.”

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