Starbucks FoodShare program expands to feed hungry in Manhattan

Story by Linda Dahlstrom and Jessica Conradson, video by Josh Trujillo / Starbucks Newsroom

Carmel Smith sees the need right in front of her all the time.

As the assistant manager of a busy Starbucks store in New York’s Midtown, she passes homeless and hungry people on her way to work. Sometimes they come into the store hoping for food. Once she found a woman going through the garbage looking for something to eat.

She sees the faces behind the statistics – some of the individuals who make up the 1.4 million estimated people in New York City who struggle each year to have enough to eat. For her, it’s not a number. It’s personal. She does what she can to help, volunteering through her daughter’s school to help feed the homeless. But the need is vast, she knows.

And in the evenings, if there was extra food left at her store she felt bad throwing it away. So, it means a lot to her that now the extra food at her store – and 44 other Starbucks in Manhattan – will be donated each night to help feed the hungry through a partnership with City Harvest, a New York-based food rescue organization.

It’s part of Starbucks FoodShare program, which launched in March of 2016 and has been expanding to areas around the country. With the new addition, the program is now in 10 markets. On Thursday, Starbucks and City Harvest officially kicked off their partnership with an event at Madison Square Park. Starbucks’ chief executive officer Kevin Johnson spoke and more than 100 Starbucks volunteers helped pack lunches for those in need.

Johnson credited Starbucks partners with providing the energy behind the effort.

“You saw the need and opportunity for Starbucks to make a difference in the communities we serve and you took action,” he told the group. “This is a model that can be replicated. We encourage other businesses to put a focus on food rescue for the betterment of our neighbors, communities and the environment.”

The FoodShare concept is simple: food from Starbucks that hasn’t sold is collected each night in refrigerated trucks and then distributed to local organizations, such as City Harvest, who can help get the meals to the hungry.

Donations of food from the 45 participating Starbucks in New York will translate to about 164,000 meals each year, said Jilly Stephens, chief executive officer of City Harvest. Next year, when the program is expanded to more than 300 stores, donations will equal the equivalent of more than 1 million meals annually.

As summer approaches, the need can be even greater. When school is out, children are cut off from the free meals they may be relying on daily.

In a city known for great restaurants, the disparity between those in need and those who are wealthy is great, said Stephens. “Let’s connect our fantastic food with our hungry neighbors,” she said.

Matching businesses who have extra food with those who need it has been the core of City Harvest’s mission since it began piloting the food rescue program in 1982. Since then, it’s delivered a more than 600 pounds of nutritious food. It’s a model followed around the world, said Stephens.

“Hunger anywhere in the world is unacceptable,” said Stephens. “And it’s happening in our own back yard. Really great food is going to waste.”

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Goal of 50 million meals a year

The idea of FoodShare came from partners like Smith, said Laura Olson, senior manager of global responsibility at Starbucks.

“They were communicating to leaders that it did not feel good to throw perfectly good food away each night – especially when they saw or knew people in need, sometimes right outside our stores,” Olson said. “Our partners’ call to action prompted leadership to figure out how we could donate all our food, not just pastries, in a safe and consistent manner. This program not only answers our partners’ desire to do the right thing, it empowers them to do so every single day.”

Starbucks reached out to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, which helped the company partner with local food banks and other groups.

In FoodShare’s first year, more than 1 million meals have been donated, said Olson. And by 2020, when the program is fully up to scale, the program expects to donate more than 50 million meals each year.

For the last few years, Starbucks store manager Athena Wright and partners from her store have been volunteering regularly to help prepare meeals for the hungry. Thursday, they were at the FoodShare event.

"We were excited about FoodShare from the beginning," she said. "Partners are passionate about it. They are the ones who prepare the donations and make sure it is available for pick up every night. The way that (Starbucks) is globally responsible is amazing. We're always looking to incorporate ourselves into something positive."

In New York, two out of five households are living at or below the poverty line and struggle to afford the basics of life, said Stephens. “Food is used as an elastic expense. You must pay the rent and the utility bill but you can decide not to spend money on food to meet other expenses.”

Smith said she can relate to that struggle. “Food is very expensive in New York,” she said. As the parent of two children, she knows what it takes to feed a family and how to juggle. She feels for those who don’t have the resources to take care of the basics.

Stephens said she thinks a lot about a man she met recently at a City Harvest market where people who live in areas without direct access to stores can go and pick out fruits and vegetables at no cost.

It was early morning and he had just come off working the night shift at a senior housing facility. Despite his job, he and his wife just can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables for their four children. “He was so humble and appreciative,” she said. “He said the food was so important.”

Stephens said that those living in poverty know they should be trying to provide healthy food for their families (“We all get the same messages”), but that’s also typically the food that’s the most expensive.

More than a meal

Many of those who are socioeconomically challenged may not know where their next meal is coming from – much less have a choice about what kind of food it is, said Eric Cooper, president and chief executive officer of the San Antonio Food Bank, which began partnering with Starbucks FoodShare in February.

For them, nutrition isn’t always a given. And tantalizing taste can be a rare luxury. But with food donated by places like Starbucks, people are made to feel special, he said.

“Starbucks is known for the phenomenal tradition of hospitality and culture. The people and employees of Starbucks have the ability to make their customers feel special. ... Through FoodShare, we’re able to transport that culture to those in need,” he said.

Since February, about 50,000 pounds of food, or about 40,000 meals have been donated through FoodShare to the San Antonio Food Bank, said Cooper.

For many, food is more than just a meal. It has the power to transport someone to a simpler time or a fond memory, Cooper said. And providing someone with a good meal can show that you see their value.

“Even though food might be rescued, it doesn’t have to feel that way,” said Cooper. “Food has a power and ability to inspire and transport.”

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