Community Plates: Food Swaps Designed To End Hunger

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Several North Market merchants donate surplus food to Community Plates which then transports it to local food pantries and soup kitchens.(Photo: Marilyn Smith, WOSU Radio)
Several North Market merchants donate surplus food to Community Plates which then transports it to local food pantries and soup kitchens.(Photo: Marilyn Smith, WOSU Radio)

Thousands of people in Columbus go to bed hungry every night, while restaurants, markets and bakeries find themselves throwing away leftovers because they have no way to get it to people in need. But one local group is trying to change that one road trip at a time.

North Market is just about to close and several vendors, including Bretzel and Omega, are gathering up whatever they didn’t sell to donate it to Community Plates.

Community Plates wants to end hunger in Columbus. On any given day, the US Agriculture Department says there are nearly 50 million Americans who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

In Columbus, that number stands at more than 200,000. Community Plates started with a handful of volunteers and an idea.

Smart phone routes

Food routes are conveyed via social media or a smart phone app.

Food runners pick up leftovers from local restaurants and vendors and distribute them to local food pantries and soup kitchens using their own car.

Columbus Director Susan Keiser Smith says Community Plates has mushroomed since it began 2012.

“We’re growing very fast. At the beginning of the year we had about twenty volunteers and now we’re over a hundred. I think last month we rescued 9-thousand meals just in Columbus, Keiser Smith said.”

omegaEager to donate

Inside the market, vendors know Keiser-Smith by name and seem eager to donate their leftover food which on this night will go to Faith Mission on Grant Avenue. Brian Ellingwood is the manager of Omega Artisan Baking. He says they often bake a little extra just to donate.

“We’re happy when we have stuff. We just don’t want to throw it away. And if we can make use of it, we want to do that. And if we can feed people with it, all the better,” he said.

On this run, Omega donates six 5o-pound flour bags full of bread and rolls.

Handing over a big bag of her leftovers, Pam Tylka of Pam’s Popcorn is also enthusiastic. She used to donate her leftovers to another North Market vendor that sells farm raised meats.

“I’d rather see people eating it,” Tylka said. “If they’re not eating it, I give it to Bluescreek and one way or another it goes. I’d rather see people eating it than hogs.”

Over at Bluescreek, Assistant Manager Tim Struble hands over two very large bags of bones and meat scraps. He says avoiding throwing out usable food is important.

“The biggest thing that I see with Bluescreek especially is nothing goes to waste. There’s so much effort, so much love put into everything that we do, to see anything thrown away just really hurts us more than anything. So Community Plates is a valuable resource,” Smith said.

bretzelSurplus food

Market Manager Vernetta Kiser agrees. She says most of the Market’s food vendors want to donate surplus food.

“We see a lot of people throughout the day that are homeless. And a lot of merchants want to help. The way they do it is donate the food at the end of the day,” Kiser said.

Smith and her thirteen year old son, Parker, who’s along to help out, begin to pack up a grocery cart with tonight’s haul.

In addition to the breads and rolls from Omega, the popcorn from Pam’s and the bone and scraps from Bluescreek, the pair begins to pile in croissants and breakfast pastries from Pistachia Vera, pizza shells from Sarafina’s and pretzels from Bretzels.

meatDonating to soup kitchens

They drive the mile or so to Grant Avenue and East Naughten Street.

Upon arriving at Faith Mission the process continues…this time in reverse. Cook Barbara Smith greets them at the dock door. Smith says she is is grateful for the food.

“Pretty important to us. We use every donation that come in here,” Barbara Smith said.

Keiser Smith said it’s pretty important to 15 or 20 other soup kitchens and pantries in Central Ohio too. She says earlier this month Bob Evans Restaurants donated two thousand pounds of meat from its test kitchen in New Albany.

That donation was divided among four area charities including one that had never before had meat to serve its hungry visitors.

Including Columbus, Keiser Smith says there are four Community Plates Chapters across the county.

Two others are in Connecticut and one is in New Mexico.

A national spokeswoman said combined they provided nearly 400,000 meals last month. In Columbus that number topped 51,000. And Keiser Smith said Community Plates is well on its way to swapping 1 million meals in Columbus.