Seattle’s Table turns excess food into essential meals
BY ASHLEY GARTLAND
PHOTOS BY LARA FERRONI
Efren Torres plays a small but essential role at WashingtonState‘s largest hungry relief agency, Food Lifeline. Every weekday morning, he arrives at the organization’s quiet Shoreline warehouse at , when the ground is still covered in dew and the sun is just starting its upward climb.
He grabs his morning coffee from the break room and hops into the driver’s seat of a delivery truck to rev its engine to life. Then, he sets out on the route that forms the core of Food Lifeline’s Seattle‘s Table program. His task is to rescue otherwise-wasted prepared food from local restaurants, caterers, corporate dining rooms, and food service providers, and then deliver it to meal programs for immediate consumption.
Making certain no food goes wasted is the focus of the Seattle‘s Table program, one that requires a great deal of organization and effort on Food Lifeline’s part. “We want to be the logistical link between people who have food and people who need food,” says Food Lifeline President and CEO Linda Nageotte. “Any time that circumstance arises, there is a different set of things that need to happen for each donor to facilitate the donation of that food. Whether that is providing containers for them, visiting at the right times for that business, or making sure we have the right kind and size of truck to transport the food, all of those things are really important.”
Equally important are the roles filled by drivers like Torres. They are the public face of the program, and responsible for transporting the donated foods to people in need. At his first pickup location, today an Albertsons, Torres hops out of the truck and—looking like a delivery man working in reverse—wheels his empty hand truck to the back room of the produce section. Here, he finds two boxes filled with a mess of mushrooms, green beans, and plastic shells of pre-washed salad mix to load onto his cart and into the truck bed.
After stopping at the truck, Torres strides back through the store to collect leftover eggs, orange juice, and tubs of omega-3 enriched butter from the dairy department. In the meat section, he discovers a small crate filled with strip bacon and split chicken breasts; at the bakery, the staff points to a cart filled with rolls, slices of chocolate layer cake, and leftover hot cross buns that they’ve readied for donation.
Back in the driver’s seat, Torres explains that this is a lighter pick-up than he’d hoped for (there are always more hungry mouths to feed than food available) but that it is still an important one. Unlike typical meal program donations of canned food and non-perishables, the foods Torres picks up on his route are fresh and nutritious, and in high demand. “It’s a good day when you bring a little of everything,” says Torres. “You have fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat so the [meal program] cooks can make things.”
The recipients aren’t the only individuals benefiting from the Seattle‘s Table program; donors are also pleased with the arrangement. From a restaurant’s perspective, says Daniel’s Broiler Executive Chef Mike Hillyer, it allows companies to reduce their waste output, and give back to their communities without creating extra work for his kitchen staff.
“It’s a feel-good thing to help someone who might not be so fortunate as to get a meal. It can be someone out of work or someone living on the street,” says Hillyer, whose kitchen contributes leftover seafood, meats, and potato dishes to the program. “We are taking food that is still edible—that doesn’t have anything wrong with it—and donating it, which is a great thing and a no-brainer.”
Larger organizations like food service providers and grocers partner with Seattle‘s Table for similar reasons. “Our team members feel really good about the fact that our food gets used. You hate to ever see good food go to waste and…it is wonderful to know that our food is being utilized in so many different venues throughout the community, from feeding programs to pantry programs. And, organizations throughout the state utilize the program to get access to high quality food and use it to benefit so many people,” says Whole Foods Market merchandising coordinator Denise Breyley, who set up the market’s partnership with Seattle’s Table in 1999.
But the real beneficiaries of this charitable program are the hungry souls it feeds. This year, the Seattle‘s Table staff expects to donate close to 2 million pounds of fresh food to more than 40 local meal programs and organizations. Among those organizations is Genesis House, a residential drug treatment program in Madrona.
At Genesis House, Torres makes his first delivery of the day. Minutes after he pulls into the driveway and rolls up the truck bed door, the residents line up to take boxes of peppers, strawberries, desserts, and dinner rolls back inside. These foods will help keep the residents fed for the week, but they also do more. Donations like these remind the residents that someone cares about their well-being and, as the bumper sticker on the back of Torres’ truck reads, they feed hope.