It’s never a good feeling to throw away perfectly good food, but doing so when you know other people are going hungry is heartbreaking.
That notion sparked a new community outreach program at Regional One Health to donate excess prepared food to help feed the hungry in underserved parts of Memphis.
The idea started with Angela Hughes, community affairs and engagement manager. Hughes saw how much her colleagues enjoyed holiday meal packing events and began looking for similar volunteer opportunities they could embrace. She sought out churches where staffers could serve meals, and was amazed to learn they feed hundreds, even thousands, of people every month.
It got her thinking about all the prepared food that simply gets tossed out at Regional One Health – and it bothered her, big time: “I wanted to figure out how we could take the food we don’t use and, instead of throwing it away, do something good with it,” Hughes said.
But there are a lot of regulations involved with donating prepared food, and nothing gelled at first. Then, one day Nikia Bell, Regional One Health vice president of operations, walked up to Hughes in the hallway and said, “I want to help.”
Bell worked through the regulations, and in February Regional One Health started donating unserved food to St. Vincent de Paul’s Ozanam Center. Chris Hogstrom, director of food and nutrition services, and Vetrica Taylor, sous chef, are spearheading the initiative.
Each day, their team transfers excess prepared food that wasn’t served to patients or cafeteria guests into aluminum pans and freezer bags. Using standard food safety guidelines, they cool and freeze the food and bag up leftover breads and pastries.
Then, they call St. Vincent de Paul Operations Coordinator Becky VanDeren, who takes the food to the church to serve to people in need.
“All she has to do is thaw it, reheat it and serve it,” Hogstrom said; Taylor added, “It’s beneficial to them, because they have enough food to last three or four days.”
Already, Regional One Health has provided spaghetti, corned beef and cabbage, lasagna, pot roast, chicken cacciatore, cauliflower and broccoli bites, mozzarella sticks and more. It’s a better, healthier variety than the church might otherwise offer, and it’s going over extremely well.
St. Vincent de Paul welcomes the hungry to its Ozanam Center, a renovated Methodist church at 1306 Monroe Avenue, 365 days a year. “We serve anywhere from 150 to 200 people a day, depending on time of year, day of the month, if it’s cold or rainy. We don’t ask questions or take names – anyone who comes in is welcome,” VanDeren said.
With a tight budget, options are limited. “We’d been serving bologna sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly, plus a chip, a sweet, a soup and unlimited coffee or lemonade, so we wanted to try to expand to provide a wider range of nutrients – but you go through a lot of food with 150, 200 people a day,” VanDeren said.
Regional One Health’s donations let them do more, she said: “We can create a meal, and folks love having something hot coming out of the oven. We’ve enjoyed everything we’ve received.”
For the Regional One Health employees, it simply feels good to give back.
Hogstrom said his department estimates how much food is needed based on patient censuses and other data, but with changing dietary restrictions, moving discharge dates, etc. it’s an inexact science with the patient population – and guesswork that’s even harder in the cafeteria.
Therefore, “If not for this program, perfectly good food would just go in the trash, when at the same time you have people who are going through dumpsters and eating food that isn’t sanitary,” Hogstrom said. “This is a guaranteed way for them to get hot, healthy meals. It feels good to help – we’re here for the patients, but we’re also giving back to the community in other ways.”
“It’s amazing. Now we’re part of helping them feed those people each month,” Hughes said. “It shows we don’t stop with the care we provide in the hospital, we take it out into the community.”