A couple of years ago, Chris Brockel and others came up with a plan to connect folks without enough food with those who had too much. The idea was to find farms and cafeterias where food was being wasted and reclaim it for area food pantries.
Last year, the Healthy Food For All effort got off the ground, and it has been growing ever since.
“We are definitely looking to expand,” Brockel said Tuesday. “We’re looking to do that in as planned way as possible so we don’t become overwhelmed.”
Brockel was speaking at the East Madison Community Center, home to one of the Dane County food pantries benefitting from the program, which also includes the Salvation Army Community Center and the Stoughton Youth Center. He appeared with Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Nathan Schultz, chef at Epic Systems.
Epic has joined the effort by donating excess food from its employee cafeteria. As an example, he brought in several individual containers of frozen potato dill soup, which will be distributed from the pantry.
“Epic takes pride that we are able to work with such a great community program that distributes nutritious food to those who need it most,” he said.
In all, the group has distributed over 60,000 pounds of food, which Brockel said translates into about 40,000 meals.
Brockel said the food collected by the group includes about 42,000 pounds of prepared food so far this year, most of it from Epic, which delivers anywhere from 500 pounds to a ton of food per week. And the tech giant plans to increase that amount.
In addition, Healthy Food for All has delivered 13,000 pounds of seasonal fresh produce — leafy greens during the early season and tomatoes, sweet corn and other late summer fare coming in now.
FEED Kitchens is also experimenting with processing some of the produce to make it more accessible, for example prepared pumpkin pie chunks.
The volunteer effort has drawn in several community partners, with local public health officials ensuring that the packaging of the food is sanitary and safe, and Dane County UW-Extension producing recipe cards to distribute with CSA-like boxes of fresh produce so recipients know how to prepare it. The Northside Planning Council, a nonprofit community development corporation, handles the administrative work.
Brockel brings to the table a lot of experience. He held administrative posts with the FairShare CSA Coalition and the Community Action Coalition. In those capacities he’s overseen efforts to supply food pantries in Dane, Jefferson and Wakesha counties, as well as coordinating work at about 30 Dane County community gardens. He currently serves as operations chief for the Northside Planning Council and FEED Kitchens.
All that has equipped Brockel with a wealth of contacts.
“Food waste is a huge issue,” he said. “And there’s potentially a lot out there.”
The effort is bare bones. Until recently, Brockel has been transporting food from area farms — food that otherwise would be plowed under for compost — in his Mazda sedan and rented vehicles. But the county has just handed him the keys to a surplus van, which increases the distribution capacity of the program.
Staff includes three people who share one full-time position, he said. But when needed, he’s able to call upon a pool of volunteers.
Brockel estimated that volunteers have so far this year logged in more than 900 hours.
“A lot of people are interested in this,” he said. “I think it resonates. People understand. They see the waste. They see large portions on their plates at restaurants. They know what they’re throwing out at home. If they’re on a farm they know they have excess.”
He said the fresh produce is in demand at food pantries that too often have an abundance of dry processed food and little in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“I think it’s making a difference,” he said. “We’re certainly hearing if from folks. I get calls all the time from food pantries saying, ‘Hey, where’s my produce? Where’s my healthy food?' So pantries definitely have an interest in making healthier offerings available. People visiting food pantries want those healthy options as well. They’re no different than any of us wanting to eat better.”