The day’s mission is about to begin. Abid Choudhury checks an iPad for his itinerary, then looks under the hood of the refrigerated truck he relies on to carry out the mission. All looks safe and sound. He heads east from Seattle across Lake Washington. It’s 7 a.m. and he’s right on schedule. The humming kitchens of a software giant, startup, restaurants, and hotels are waiting for him.
His first stop is a Hyatt Regency in Bellevue, Wash. He pulls into the service area and takes a freight elevator to Daniel’s Broiler. Restaurant staff haven’t arrived but Choudhury knows what to do. He’s been here before. He opens the freezer. And there, in a corner, is the first prize of the day: fresh frozen salmon. Lots of it. 40 pounds. The day is starting out well. He signs a form, puts the salmon in a cold storage box, and heads back to the freight elevator. Hyatt Regency kitchen staff spot him in the elevator and ask him to wait for a tray of pizzas and desserts.
What’s this all about? Choudhury’s mission is food rescue. Some call it “food in motion,” rescuing perfectly good food before it ends up in the landfill where it emits dangerous-to-the-planet methane gas; and instead taking it to community kitchens where it’s turned into meals for those who often go without. (Each methane molecule traps 100 percent more heat than carbon).
In Washington state, more than 915,000 people are food insecure, meaning they don’t have access to affordable, nourishing food. In King County, the food insecurity rate is close to 13 percent. Choudhury, who has an electrical engineering degree, prefers the fast-moving lanes of food rescue. He’s one of four food rescue drivers employed by Operation Sack Lunch, or OSL Serves. For a non-profit that prides itself on making nutritionally dense hot meals – entree, salad, high protein juice or milk – the name is a misnomer.
From January through August of this year OSL served more than 700,000 meals at shelters and mobile kitchens, up by some 200,000 meals from last year. Nearly 78 percent of the ingredients came from rescuing food the non-profit otherwise couldn’t afford. It’s a strategy that requires food safety know-how, reliable refrigerated trucks, quick-thinking staff, savvy chefs, and the generosity of donors like Microsoft, Starbucks, Google, Munchery, City Catering, Amazon, Daniel’s Broiler, Odwalla Juice, Charlie’s Produce and numerous others.
Up next are stops at three Microsoft kitchens. Here the biggest stash of the day will be collected. Choudhury is greeted by staff. They know each other and call each other by first names. But there’s no time to chat. They’re as busy as he is. Donating large quantities of food requires planning and coordination.
“Everything on the rack?” asks Choudhury. A staff member nods and heads to the cooler where he wheels out crates that could fill a small grocery store. Second score for the day. There are crates of small containers of dairy and almond milk; boxes of apples, pears, bananas, grapes, tomatoes, and greens; prepared tuna and chicken salads; cold cuts and cheeses; and a bakery-size donation of breads. Some have already been made into box lunches.
Frequently, a kitchen will order too much of an item or employees will bring their own lunch, even for a catered event, explains Choudhury. Chefs are required to make new items daily and often yesterday’s menu can’t be used. “As long as it wasn’t on the serving line where people had access to it and was stored properly, we’ll take it.”
Mid-morning and the refrigerated truck is almost full. There’s more food to rescue so Choudhury expertly repacks to make room for the final rescue of the day – a farmer’s market palette of fresh produce, arugula, bok choi, kale, leeks, baby fingerling potatoes, spinach, chard along with homemade bulgur salad and lentil salad. All are from the Meydenbauer Center’s catering department.
“We’re delighted there’s a source that will come out and take it and utilize it with such joy and pleasure,” says Meydenbauer Center’s Toni Williams. Before finding OSL, she says, it was a challenge to find anyone who would consistently come and get the food they otherwise had nowhere to go with except the landfill or compost.
“We have enough food being thrown out to feed every single hungry person on the planet,” contends Choudhury, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Bangladesh. After completing an electrical engineering degree, a field his parents encouraged him to study, he chose to “follow my heart,” as he puts it, and engage in service work. He initially worked with AmeriCorps helping to rebuild communities on the East Coast after Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy, constructing forest trails, and tutoring high school students. Then he found Operation Sack Lunch, which captured his heart six years ago and shows no signs of letting go.
If Choudhury is one of OSL’s turbocharged food-in-motion engines, enabling the non-profit to serve hot meals to the hungry seven days a week, Food Lifeline is the fuel, providing nutritious food for nearly 300 other meal programs, food banks and shelters across Western Washington. Signage in the lobby of their massive warehouse in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood reads: “Rescue food. Feed hungry people. Repeat.”
Food Lifeline is an affiliate of Feeding America, the national leader in hunger relief. Food Lifeline rescues millions of pounds of food from corporate donors, farmers, manufacturers, grocers, and restaurants. The organization also provides services beyond food, says Food Lifeline’s Ellen Winston, including advocating for anti-poverty issues at the state and local levels, as well as obtaining funds through their partnership with Feeding America to supply pass-through grants that support agency operations or capacity.
Starbucks rolled out its FoodShare program in Seattle earlier this month. Every night, food rescue drivers with Food Lifeline pick up food left unsold at the end of the day from 270 stores. Starbucks estimates the company will generate 1.1 million donated meals a year. The program came about as a response to a “call to action” from its employees in communities hit particularly hard by hunger and homelessness, like San Antonio and Houston back in 2015.
In a video, Starbucks employee Tabitha Garcia Whyle explains: “We saw how much food that we had to throw away and it would kill all of us. We would talk about it.” The video then pans to a homeless woman and an image of Starbucks salads and box lunches. “If I could just eat one of those, I’d be good all day,” she says.
“The FoodShare program for partners is that answer they were looking for, for them to do the right thing and to rescue food they were otherwise throwing away,” said Laura Olson, senior manager of global social impact at Starbucks.
The FoodShare program is in 13 other cities including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Employees at Tableau Software also prompted the Seattle-based data visualization company’s food-related philanthropy for Feeding America and network food banks, like Food Lifeline. Seattle and Kirkland employees volunteer on a weekly basis at the Food Lifeline warehouse sorting and packing food. Ashley Monson, Tableau’s social impact coordinator, says employees were polled to find out which of the 17 UN Sustainable Development goals were most important to them and Zero Hunger was in the top five. Working with Food Lifeline was the obvious choice because of the “important work it’s doing to end hunger in Western Washington,” she says.
Tableau provides tools and resources that support Feeding America’s mission to feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks, according to Jason Schumacher, senior programmer for social impact. More on that here. Couple the data with the hands-on volunteer work of packaging food for those who are food insecure “allows me to understand the needs of Seattle in an emotional way that I don’t often get in the course of everyday life,” he says.
The need for food rescue, meal prep and delivery programs like Operation Sack Lunch and Food Lifeline has skyrocketed, says Bev Graham, OSL executive director. Graham began making lunches for the hungry during her singing career when she’d come off a gig at the Top of the Hilton on the waterfront or the 5th Avenue Theater and see people digging out of garbage cans. She’d ask herself, “Why is nobody taking care of them?” Twenty-eight years later and she still wonders why combating hunger isn’t as big a priority as addressing homelessness.
But it’s not stopping Graham or her small staff, who are constantly pulling rabbits out of hats, making sure that food rescue trucks are running and food is picked up in a timely manner from the growing list of food donors.
“We’re still sitting inside of a struggle,” says Graham, after two trucks broke down this year and funds were thin for repairs or replacement. She dreams of OSL having more food trucks and drivers, its own hub to redistribute food, and its own gargantuan community kitchen. Until then, she, like all of her staff, including Abid Choudhury, are committed to rescuing all the “food that’s viable and beautiful and still has life in it.”
[Editor’s Note: Information about volunteering for and donating to OSL is available here.]