Keep Austin Fed Creatively Redistributes Surplus Food
by Sheila Julson
In 2004, while preparing to leave a fundraising gala at the Austin Museum of Art, Randy Rosens noticed the caterers preparing to throw away leftover food, primarily bags of bread. He approached them and asked if he could take their leftovers to a nearby shelter. The caterers agreed, and what began as a one-time act of food redistribution grew into Keep Austin Fed, a nonprofit of volunteers that rescues perishable food from grocery stores and catered events and distributes it to neighbors in need.
For the first decade, Keep Austin Fed operated primarily as a grassroots effort among Rosens and his friends and family, shares Executive Director Lisa Barden. In 2014, the organization registered as a 501 (c) (3). “It ballooned after that, with more volunteers, and food distributors and businesses donating to us,” Barden says. “When Trader Joe’s came to Austin, it really skyrocketed because that was the first grocery store that started donating food to us.”
Barden, who began volunteering with the organization in 2015, is Keep Austin Fed’s first paid employee. They have approximately 180 volunteers—all of whom use their own cars and own gas—that do 75-plus scheduled runs every week. Volunteers can check a schedule and sign up for a slot. They will go to the grocery store, commercial kitchen or event location to pick up food and drop it off immediately at a predetermined recipient organization that will redistribute it. All volunteers have food handler certifications.
The organization also receives calls from caterers that mistakenly make too much food. Keep Austin Fed will then put the word out to volunteers to find someone to pick it up. They accept perishable and short shelf life food items. Grocery stores donate meat, dairy, eggs, produce and bread. Prepared food comes from events, such as the recent Austin City Limits festival, and catered lunches from tech companies. “We have a catering company that has nine tech company lunch accounts. They bring back all the food that hasn’t been set out for people to help themselves,” Barden notes. “They give it to us while it’s still hot, and we distribute it to partner recipient organizations.”
All prepared food accepted by Keep Austin Fed has been handled by licensed food handlers. They cannot accept food from self-serve buffet lines or food that has been set out at home parties. “There are three sets of eyes on that food—the donor of the food, our volunteer and the recipient organization,” Barden emphasizes.
Keep Austin Fed partners with both faith-based and non-faith-based nonprofits that have the means to redistribute food. Those include food pantries operated out of churches, soup kitchens, low-income residential and senior facilities, addiction recovery facilities, domestic abuse shelters, homeless shelters and immigrant refugee shelters. The primary criteria are that the recipient organization has the means to store the food properly or is able to distribute it right away.
In 2018 alone, Keep Austin Fed provided nearly 12,000 meals per week to partner nonprofits to distribute to people in need. That also amounts to an impressive environmental impact—745,000 pounds of food kept out of the waste stream. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 30 percent of food is wasted globally across the supply chain, contributing eight percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
“The numbers are striking, because I read stats that if only a quarter of all food that gets wasted was redistributed to people in need, nobody would go hungry,” Barden affirms.
Keep Austin Fed hopes to expand their service area. “My goal is to work myself out of a job, so once there are no more hungry people in Austin, we can raise our hands and say ‘we’re done,’” she says. The organization is working with other city partners to change the permitting requirements for charitable organizations to help eliminate barriers for distribution of donated food. They’re also looking at ways to repackage large trays of food into smaller individual servings so it can be more widely distributed. And they’re always looking for volunteers.
Keep Austin Fed is funded by individual donations and grants. “For about $7 a month, we can rescue enough food to feed an individual for an entire month,” Barden concludes. “For just the price of a latte, you can feed a neighbor.”
For more information about Keep Austin Fed, call 512-831-3654 or visit KeepAustinFed.org.