A balancing act

Silicon Valley Food Rescue delivers excess meals to those in need

A La Carte Director Robin Martin hands Joyce Genevro, food coordinator at Project WeHOPE, prepared vegetables outside the East Palo Alto homeless shelter. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

There's a food truck in Silicon Valley that resembles one of the Bay Area's many trendy mobile restaurants: a vibrant logo on its side, a giant window that opens into the kitchen and people standing outside, eagerly waiting to be served.

This particular truck, however, offers all its food for free, and it's trying to tackle two of the region's most critical issues: food waste and hunger.

Instead of small cardboard plates loaded with fusion food, stacks of big aluminum trays labeled candied rice, lentils and green beans came out of the truck's side window on a recent afternoon, so packed with food that some of them leaked from the sides.

Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a San Jose-based nonprofit striving to address the region's quality of life and economic issues, launched this truck to collect leftovers from universities and companies to distribute to those in need. It's part of a new initiative called Silicon Valley Food Rescue, a system the organization created in response to studies that pointed to high rates of poverty and waste in Santa Clara County.

The mobile food sector of the initiative, A La Carte, has already donated over 60,000 pounds of food to elementary schools, low-income apartments, senior centers and other locations in cities from East Palo Alto to Sunnyvale.

"We're going directly to the drop-off locations, directly to families," said Robin Martin, the executive director of Silicon Valley Food Rescue and A La Carte, after a long day of distributing food in Sunnyvale in December. "Once we get there, we don't ask a lot of questions. ... We open up a food truck and people come get what they like."

This week, A La Carte made its way to Project WeHope, a homeless shelter in East Palo Alto, to distribute dozens of trays of food that would be served as dinner for 55 people.

"You don't know how much you're helping me," Project WeHope food coordinator Joyce Genevro said to Martin as she unloaded trays from the truck.

The other two parts of the system include one focused on grocery stores and a communications

team to provide education for volunteers and distributors. But for now, the food truck has been Joint Venture's primary focus.

An Ohio native, Martin moved to Menlo Park with her husband and quickly observed a unique situation in the area.

"We see a very large scale of prepared foods from corporate campuses, huge university campuses ... more prepared food than is typical for the number of people that we have here," she said. "So much effort goes into preparing it, and it gets thrown away."

More than 700,000 people living in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties are at risk for hunger, according to 2017 income level data from the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Understanding that there are low-income families in need throughout Santa Clara County, Joint Venture Silicon Valley saw an opportunity to simultaneously reduce food waste in the community while combating hunger, Martin said.

While college campuses and large companies create conditions for food waste, Martin said the plus-side is that since catered and prepared foods are made in massive amounts, excess foods are fresh when distributed. Food is delivered on the same day it's picked up.

Since November, the truck has been picking up leftover food from Stanford University's dining halls and cafes -- 29 kitchens in total -- and delivering it five days a week with the help of Stanford student volunteers. Martin said A La Carte worked with organizations including city community services and food banks to carefully select locations in Santa Clara County where there are gaps in resources, such as a community that is less frequently serviced by local food banks or where donation facilities are overwhelmed.

"We fill in where we know there is a need," she said. "Maybe they are serving a portion of the need but we can make a difference."

Alicia Garcia, associate director of Project WeHope, said A La Carte's partnership has been particularly helpful due to the convenience of prepared food and direct delivery. In the past, Project WeHope had to coordinate with other nonprofits to pick up the food.

"Coming directly in a truck, this program is more focused and organized," Garcia said. "It just saves us a lot of time and resources."

The program focuses heavily on ensuring the safety of the food, and all workers go through food safety training and protocols with Stanford. Martin's team also measures the temperature of all stored food and the truck is refrigerated.

The program's seed funding for research first came from the county through its Recycling and Waste Reduction Technical Advisory Committee, which addresses waste management and makes policy recommendations to the county's Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission. Then, Sobrato Philanthropies, a family-owned foundation, helped launch the program with a $150,000 donation. California Climate Investments, a statewide initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, will provide funding through reimbursements every quarter until May 2020.

A La Carte is still is its beginning stages. Martin plans to sign more contracts for food sources beyond Stanford throughout the spring. In March, she hopes to add a second truck operating in San Jose and nearby areas, for which she already has funding. With more donated food, she hopes to add more delivery locations. With another driver, the program can also run on Saturdays.

"You're giving people food they don't have the luxury of getting," said Lisa Allen, a San Carlos resident who volunteers at Project WeHope every week. "The prepared food is exciting because every week you don't know what's going to be here."

For more information about A La Carte's weekly schedule, contact Robin Martin at robin@joinventure.org.

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