Wellesley native feeds the hungry with would-be food waste
By Teddy Applebaum
March 11, 2010
The Wellesley Townsman
Her distaste for waste developed early in life. Ashley Stanley, 31, remembers that when her family ate out, they would often pack their leftovers and leave them on a street corner so that somebody might have a good meal. Fast forward to March 3, at 7:50 a.m., in the parking lot behind a Brookline Trader Joe’s, where Stanley and her second cousin, Ben Delfiner, 28, lean against their cars waiting to pack hundreds of pounds of produce into their trunks.
The manager of the store bursts through the double doors of the loading dock with a cart full of 200 pounds of bananas, apples, bread and Virginia spiral hams that have lost their sellable value. These are the doors where the deliveries usually come in, and the trash usually goes out. Not today. Today this food will get a second chance.
“That’s huge,” Ashley says to Delfiner when she sees the hams. Fresh meat is a rare commodity at shelters. “Charles at Boston Rescue Mission is going to be all about the protein.”
Stanley is the founder of Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a budding organization that aims to take food that would have otherwise gone to waste and deliver it to shelters where it can feed the hungry. They even deliver donated dog food to local animal shelters. The organization has a board of directors, a business plan through 2011 and dreams of a refrigerated truck, but here in the frigid morning air, it’s just Stanley and Delfiner packing a Land Rover and a VW Golf with food that’s lost its customer appeal. And that’s kind of the point; the idea is so simple, and yet they believe it has great potential.
“There’s so much food being thrown away, and there are so many people who are hungry, and we need to find a way to bridge that gap,” Stanley says. “We’re just trying to stop what goes into the trash and then repurpose it.”
Her organization is less than two weeks old, but Stanley points out that they’ve already saved more than 1,000 pounds of food from potential waste and countless people from hunger. Just two people, she says, with food from one store.
Imagine, she says, what could be done with produce from every supermarket?
Cars packed, they drive off towards Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter in South Boston that serves around 3,000 meals a day. Donations at the center were down 27 percent in 2009, a trend that makes Lovin’ Spoonful’s donations even more meaningful.
It hasn’t always been like this for Stanley, who was born and raised in Wellesley where her parents still live. In her high school years, she was a star soccer player with Olympic dreams. She attended the University of Rhode Island on an athletic scholarship, but an injury soon threw her life into turmoil.
“As soon as I knew I wasn’t going to be pursuing an athletic career, it was sort of like a switch went off — I was just lost,” Stanley says.
She dropped out of college and took an internship in New York City with Ralph Lauren. Retail ran in her blood, and she quickly moved up the corporate hierarchy. But as she found success in the fast-paced world of fashion, the lifestyle began to take its toll on her. Stanley started using cocaine and smoking “copious” amounts of marijuana.
“In some ways, my life was at the top of the top, and at the same time things were sort of spiraling out of control,” Stanley says.
It took two stints at a rehab facility in Minnesota, but Stanley eventually got the upper hand on her demons. It was during this difficult time in her life that her urge to help others began to flourish.
“When I needed to get clean, so many people came to my rescue, so many people helped me,” she says, a fact that drives her today.
After a number of years in Minnesota working odd jobs, she moved back to the Boston area, returning to the fashion industry. But, she says, her job was chaotic and somehow unfulfilling, so a few months ago, she quit.
It was during this period of unemployment that she began to reflect on her life, on its ups and downs, and all the things she’d done and had yet to do. One day after a holiday dinner with her family, Stanley and her mother pondered how many people could be fed with the leftovers from their meal.
“I woke up thinking about it the next day,” Stanley says. “Literally, I could not shake it for the next couple of weeks.”
She began to research what happens to food waste, particularly at large grocery stores, and what she found out shocked her. In many cases, she says, large amounts of food were just being tossed out. Soon she discovered Food Runners, a California-based organization that picked up this food and delivered it to shelters. She began to correspond with their founder, who took her through the steps needed to start up a similar organization in Boston.
“This was never even on my radar screen, and then when I got the education it was impossible to ignore,” Stanley says. “Twenty-seven percent of all edible wholesome food that’s produced in this country is wasted and thrown away.”
She mentioned her plans to her parents, who have long been her strongest supporters. Her mother, a self- described product of the 1960s music era, even came up with the organization’s name which she says was intended to be both memorable and catchy.
“She’s always had a passion for helping others, whether it was on a school team or working in the service community,” her mother Caren Stanley says. “When she mentioned to us that she was thinking of starting a nonprofit food rescue service, I knew she was determined to make that happen.”
Stanley began to make phone calls and send out countless e-mails to local supermarkets and shelters. The Brookline Trader Joe’s, the Pine Street Inn and the Boston Rescue Mission were the first places to get back to her, ready to donate and accept the food.
“Trader Joe’s donates a majority of our items that are not sellable,” Alison Mochizuri, Trader Joe’s director of national publicity, said in an e-mail. “We consider ourselves the neighborhood store, and feel honored to serve and give back to the communities and surrounding areas where we have locations.”
They asked Stanley when she could start picking up food, and she told them she’d be out there the next morning.
“I’m not sure I had any idea what I was in for,” says Stanley, who was expecting maybe a couple of loaves of bread and a bag of apples. “I showed up at 7:30 a.m., and there was literally 300 pounds of produce waiting for me.”
She enlisted the help of Delfiner, who she says shares much of her passion. He holds another job and comes when he can, she says.
“It went from something that was theoretically exciting when I heard about the idea, to really showing that we can actually make a difference,” Delfiner says. “It’s gratifying, immediate and feels purposeful. We feel effective.”
At Pine Street, an apron-clad chef greets them with little more than a quick hello, leaving Stanley and Delfiner to store their donations. In the shelter’s massive kitchen, workers mix buckets of beans in industrial-sized pots. They don’t have all that much time to chat today with thousands of meals to prepare. Stanley doesn’t take it personally; she understands that what she’s doing is just a part of the war on hunger.
“They’re the ones who are on the front lines of hunger,” Stanley says of the shelters she delivers to. “We’re sort of helping them out with their supplies.”
Jack Nolan, Pine Street’s acquisitions and distribution manager, says organizations like Lovin’ Spoonfuls reduce the shelter’s workload, allowing them remain focused on feeding those in need.
“It just saves us staff, it saves us vehicles, it saves us gas money,” he says. “I think its great and I think if we had more people doing that, I don’t think we’d have such a problem with hunger.”
After a trip to the Boson Rescue Mission, a shelter near downtown Boston, where the cafeteria walls are lined with the Ten Commandments, the day’s deliveries are over. Stanley plans to spend the rest of the day sending e-mails and making phone calls. Bringing merchants aboard is a lot of work, she says.
Stanley says she’s put aside enough money to make sure Lovin’ Spoonfuls runs through the rest of 2010; if all goes as planned, she’ll have raised enough to keep it going beyond this year. Eventually she hopes to expand the operations reach to include other types of food waste pickups.
Food rescue, Stanley says, is what she wants to do. As long as people keep wasting food there will always be a need to repurpose it.
“It will be a great day when somebody says, ‘hey, you know what we don’t need? The food,’ and I have to start looking for another job,” she says. “That will be a great day.”