WINTHROP — In 2014, Jeffrey Carson heard an NPR piece about how much food was wasted in America despite ongoing hunger. It hit a nerve with Carson, who himself had grown up in a family dependent on food stamps and had just had his first child, and he determined that he wanted to do something about it. “I wanted my daughter to come up in volunteerism that was part of our life,” he added, not just something “we volunteered for once a year.”
So Carson and his wife, Suzanne, both veterans, began to work on creating a nonprofit in Winthrop where they live. The idea for Mi-Amore seemed “so simple,” says Carson: Food was going to waste — in the United States it is estimated that as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of edible food is wasted each year — and yet there were people who went hungry. As military officers, both he and his wife were used to finding solutions to problems, Carson says.
There were many snags along the way, but today Mi-Amore provides food for 40 elderly people, single-parent families, and recovering addicts in Winthrop. Unusual among food relief programs where recipients must go to a central soup kitchen or food aid office open only restricted hours, Mi-Amore’s eight volunteers, all Winthrop residents, pick up the donated food three times a week and deliver it to the homes of the recipients. Most families get at least one delivery of food a week. The program has a board of town residents, and donations of surplus food from the Winthrop Marketplace, several restaurants, assisted-living centers, and schools. This is a completely community-based effort that Carson is hoping will be a template for other communities.
On a chilly afternoon with spitting rain, Mi-Amore volunteer Julie Love wheels a cart piled with boxes of fruits, vegetables, a few roasted chickens and prepared meals, and lots of bagels and breads out to her SUV. Chris Wallerce of Winthrop Marketplace explained that this is “food you couldn’t sell” — products over the sell date, slightly bruised produce, and other items that would have been discarded. He and his father, Marc, are happy it’s going to someone who needs it in the community.
Love, ignoring the rain, looks over the food, counting up the different categories, and calculates it could be split among four to five families. She texts some and calls a few others, working from a text thread that is sent out to volunteers each week to keep track of who might need a visit. Each box gets some fruit and vegetables — apples, strawberries, tomatoes, bags of lettuce, a cucumber or peppers — and some baked goods. Families with teens might eat chicken, she thinks, and two older women who don’t cook much will get the prepared meals.
Then she jumps in to drive to her first stop. “I’m glad she answered,” she says of the first recipient, an older woman. “She’s such a sweetie.” Mi-Amore volunteers get to know recipients, and when Love arrives, she shares a hug and a quick conversation before bringing in the box of food. “I know you love tomatoes,” she says. The woman claps her hands in approval.
That interaction is repeated as Love drives from home to home, chatting about how people are feeling, assuring one man that the plant cutting he gave her is still alive and she’s not overwatering it, checking that another woman is getting out to see friends. “I know you’ll find something good to make with this,” she tells one woman. This delivery was fairly small, she says, adding that sometimes a yacht club or restaurant will offer platters or hundreds of hot dogs, and then the volunteers have to call in extras to help with distribution. Love, who with her husband runs a nonprofit coffeehouse, the Well in South Station, and is about to open another along with having two children in high school and two in college, insists her volunteering doesn’t take up too much time. “I wanted to get involved” in the town, she says, as she finishes up texting to account for how much food she delivered. “It’s an hour and five minutes. I could have been talking on my phone that long,” she says with shrug.
Community leaders such as the Winthrop police and fire chiefs, school officials, the parish priest, and recovery officials identify those who might need food aid. “There’s a pecking order,” Carson adds, with the elderly at the top, then single-parent families and recovering addicts. Half of the recipients are children. When asked about recovering addicts, Carson says that “recovering” can be a loose term but is quick to recount what one board member, a school nurse, told him. “Having food in your refrigerator sometimes is the line between recovering or not,” she said, adding that the stress of no food can push some over the edge.
The beginnings of Mi-Amore, in its third year, weren’t smooth, Carson says. After he and his wife did the structural work to set up a nonprofit, he contacted restaurants and other businesses about donating food that might go to waste, surprised when he got refusals or no answers. But then, Carson said, he met two women, Amie Hanrahan of The Arbors Assisted Living Communities and Ann Vasquez of La Siena restaurant, who immediately “got it,” Carson says. “They were both so progressive and generous.”
From that beginning, the program started to gain momentum. Carson says $16,000 worth of food was recovered and distributed in 2017, and he projects that $25,000 will be recovered this year. Winthrop Marketplace has been a cornerstone, with $20,000 in recovered food projected this year. The high school and middle school provide recovered food once a week; yacht clubs and other organizations pitch in when they have food left over from events, and restaurant managers call with food that cannot be used. The emphasis is on healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables, but pizza nights provided for by donations punctuate some weeks. Restaurants sometimes provide nutrition-dense meals for extreme need. And Carson says donations from individuals have also provided Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for recipients. “It’s good to know these families will have special meals just like the rest of us,” he says.
One recipient apologized to him that his sons liked apples, hot dogs, and hamburgers, but might not eat some of the other vegetables. Carson says he told him: “Don’t apologize. It’s a relationship; we’re in this together.” Carson, who is a researcher for the US State Department and has taught at area universities, knows well what it’s like to need help. When he was a child in Youngstown, Ohio, his father lost his job when steel mills closed. Food stamps, donated clothing — “it’s not abstract to me,” he says, adding that he can easily connect to those having hard times who need some help. “I just loathe that people are hungry with kids.” Suzanne Carson, who is education officer for the Massachusetts National Guard, is so invested, he says, that not only did she not hesitate when he first suggested Mi-Amore, but when she delivers food, she “returns hours later” after checking up on their lives. Looking forward, Mi-Amore is a finalist for an EPA Healthy Communities grant, says Carson, that would enable strengthening of the Winthrop schools food recovery project and later help establish projects in East Boston and Revere.
Although they vary in size and methods, other programs across the state also help out with recovered food. One of the oldest is Cambridge-based Food for Free, started by volunteers in the early 1980s. In 2017 the organization reached 30,000 people in 12 communities. Besides providing recovered food for food pantries, shelters, youth programs, and other facilities and programs, says executive director Sasha Purpura, Food for Free has several innovative programs that provide prepared meals to college students in need, deliver directly to seniors several times a month, offer backpack programs so needy students can take home yogurt, fruit, and other healthy food for weekends, and “school markets” where families can go into their children’s schools for recovered food. Food for Free is now “concentrating on schools,” Purpura says. “When you are struggling with hunger, you can’t learn and get out of the cycle” of poverty.
Rick Doane, executive director of Interfaith Social Services in Quincy, says his group, which is part of the Greater Boston Food Bank, credits recovered food from Roche Brothers, Trader Joe’s, Stop & Shop, Amazon Fresh, and other groceries in allowing his group to help those needing food aid in 10 South Shore communities. With the agency’s one refrigerated truck and 130 volunteers, aid is distributed through food pantries to thousands. His agency also provides diapers for families with babies and distributes pet food aid to animal shelters as well as many other services. “The majority [of those receiving food] are people who go maybe twice a year,” Doane says. “Most only come when they’re in great need.”
Both Purpura and Doane say that they see a future when food waste will be reduced as retailers improve buying and inventory techniques. Some extra food is also being funneled to retailers such as dollar stores. But Purpura says that food waste “will not disappear for many, many years.” Programs such as these that take food that would otherwise go to landfills are “incredibly efficient ways to get food to people who need it,” Purpura says.
For the Mi-Amore volunteers, the benefits go both ways. As Vasquez, who is on the Mi-Amore board as well as volunteering, says: “It’s been incredible to see the families we help. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s my pleasure and my honor.”
Alison Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.