Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Feeding It Forward

I spent a painful five hours yesterday at a hunger summit sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. We were bombarded with mind-boggling statistics, we were inspired, and we were often horrified at the appalling lack of interest in the problem of hunger, and especially the hunger of children, on the part of far too many elements of our society. One story in particular sticks in my head: an assistant editor of the Los Angeles Times was invited to a program some time ago and was asked to feature the issue of hunger in his paper. He replied that hunger in L.A. is like traffic: there's always some there. The implications: it's never going to go away and it's not news. Clearly, hungry children are not among the news that's fit to print.

I have been impressed with programs both here and in Israel that attempt to fight hunger by "recycling" the food left over at restaurants, hotels, and catering halls. Organizations visit these facilities, collect the food, repackage it, and deliver it. Table2Table, an Israeli organization, delivers 12,000 meals a week to hungry Israelis (yes, there's hunger in Israel). Tomchei Shabbos, a Los Angeles agency that targets hungry Jews who keep kosher, also attempts to do this, but their efforts are limited because of their limited facility and access to refrigeration.

When I think about the problem, the enormity of the problem, the individuals - the elderly, young families out of work and with little savings to fall back on, and the children - always the children - I find it difficult to breathe. The need is great and growing daily. We learned yesterday of the impact that California budget cuts will have on social services (of course, where else would they cut?), and we began to see the problem growing like an alien emerging from primordial mud: ever more need, ever less money, and, most important, ever less vision. Just when our society needs to demonstrate its compassion, it turns a blind eye and claims fiscal obligation. Right.

The final straw came in this morning's Times, in David Lazarus' column in the Business section:,0,7303187.column. Briefly, he castigates the hospitality industry and in particular the California Restaurant Association, for their refusal to join the movement to recycle unserved food through organizations like the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. According to the director of the Food Bank, it's not the liability the restaurants are worried about, it's the logistics. "Simply put, it's often too much hassle for caterers and hotels to arrange for leftover food to be given to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. So they toss it in the trash."

Too much hassle. 1.3 million children in Los Angeles go to sleep hungry every night - 1.3 million - and the restaurant owners don't want the hassle.

State senator Jenny Oropeza, Long Beach, has tried unsuccessfully to steer two different bills through the legislature, but both times she was shot down by the CRA (a pox on them). She wanted something as simple as imposing the modest requirement that caterers inform clients they have the option of donating uneaten food to charity. That doesn't sound like much. Might a client not bring a truck and cart the food away themselves?

That bill, SB 1443, was shot down by the California Restaurant Assn., which argued that any such requirement would be troublesome for its members.

Troublesome. You have to love that word. Children are hungry and the CRA doesn't want troublesome. If we avoided everything troublesome in this world, we'd never have kids, we might never even fall in love. Troublesome just means challenging. So let's accept the challenge.

Let's find enough food banks to go to the facilities and collect the food, a la Table2Table and Tomchei Shabbos.

That would take a lot of organization, you say? Hey. Organization. That's something the Jewish community does really well.

Here's a thought. Let the synagogues and churches in the Los Angeles area (let's start locally and perhaps provide a model for other cities and counties to replicate) brainstorm ways to coordinate with restaurants and hotels so that volunteers might arrive at the right time to collect food that's heading for the Dumpsters. Bring the food back to a central facility. Repackage it. Deliver it.

You're right, of course. This is an enormous project. Where are there buildings, refrigeration, food packaging, volunteers to do this? I don't know. What I do know is that if we start small, we can grow. And if we don't start, the food will continue to feed the rats while 1.3 million children go to sleep hungry.

Anybody good at PR out there? Here's your challenge. Figure out a way to make recycling cool. I'm imagining publicizing restaurants (there must be some) and caterers (like Someone's in the Kitchen) that do recycle, and making them the go-to places for events. Encourage responsible catering. (Maybe an ad in the LA. Jewish Journal?) The problem is that for too many clients, it's all about the event, and they won't even think of where the left-overs are going unless recycling becomes chic, like being "green." I'm not proud. If it takes making recycling food the next trend, so be it. I personally didn't know that the California legislature removed the potential for liability from caterers if food from their events is donated to an organization and someone then becomes ill. The legislature, while in truth protecting the industry, opened the door for sharing unserved food to the needy. We need to take it to the next stage. Find a way to collect and distribute the food to those who need it.

Call it Feeding It Forward. Call it what you want. Back in the day, we used to say that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Please be part of the solution. Read the Times story. Get as angry as I am. And let's work together to begin to find the answers.