Story by Linda Dahlstrom, photos by Luanne Dietz and Josh Trujillo/ Starbucks Newsroom
Sometimes lunch would be a container of ramen that cost 99 cents. Other times it might just be a bag of Cheerios.
Growing up, Ala Athena Toia-Gaidaszk, 23, remembers feeling ashamed to let other kids at school see what she had for lunch. Food was sometimes scarce at the home she shared with her single mother and brother. But her mom, who was juggling working, going to school and raising her children, tried hard to hide it when they didn’t have much to eat, so her children wouldn’t worry, said Toia-Gaidaszk. She lovingly packed and presented their lunches to them, even if there wasn’t much in them. She made sure they always ate, even if it was only white rice. “It wasn’t always nutritious, but she made sure we had food,” she said.
On Thursday afternoon, as she spoke, she and hundreds of other volunteers helped pack lunches to be distributed at local food banks as shelters as part of an official Starbucks FoodShare kickoff event at Seattle Center marking the program’s expansion into the Seattle area. Through the FoodShare program, nourishing food that’s hasn’t sold at Starbucks stores is collected each night in refrigerated trucks to be distributed to area food banks, homeless shelter Mary’s Place and various other social services organizations, through a partnership with Food Lifeline.
The program, which began last year, is now in 15 markets across the United States. In the first year, an estimated 3 million meals have been given to food banks, said Laura Olson, senior manager of global social impact at Starbucks.
For Toia-Gaidaszk, a Starbucks barista in Lakewood, Wash., helping others through the program means a lot, particularly when she thinks of children growing up in low-income families like she did.
“Everybody deserves the right to have a nourishing meal,” she said.
1 in 5 struggle with food poverty
In King County, an estimated one in five people struggle to afford to have enough to eat. In White Center, 22 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line, said Angela Beard, executive director of the White Center Food Bank, one of the recipients of the Starbucks FoodShare donations.
“We know that poverty and hunger are strongly linked,” she said, noting that many families in poverty are single mothers with children.
Working families who don’t have enough to meet basic needs is “a common trend we see,” said Carmen Smith, the community outreach manager at the White Center Food Bank “The services we provide allow them to not have to make the choice between buying diapers and food – they can have both.”
Speaking to the crowd of volunteers Thursday, Linda Nageotte, chief executive officer of Food LifeLine, told them that they were helping make the difference “between a mom having to choose between feeding herself and her children, or seniors having to choose between filling a prescription or buying food.”
The FoodShare program sprung out of requests from Starbucks partners who wanted to find a way to donate the excess food that wasn’t sold in their stores during the day. In response, leaders at the company began looking for ways to donate all the perishable food, not only pastries, in a consistent way.
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.
“We are proud and honored to partner with Starbucks and Food Lifeline to launch the FoodShare program in Seattle,” said Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America “The Starbucks FoodShare program is a truly innovative program that has enabled food banks to rescue surplus food and distribute it to people facing hunger. We are thankful to Starbucks for its commitment to fighting hunger, and for helping to support our neighbors in need across the country.”
'It means a lot'
By 2020, when the FoodShare program is expected to be fully up to scale at all stores, Olson expects that more than 50 million meals each year will be donated. Since the meals are already packaged, they can easily be taken home and shared with family or used as lunch at school for a child, Olson said.
“A parent can put a Starbucks sandwich in their child’s lunch and know the child will feel proud to unpack that lunch,” Olson said. “We’ve heard about responses from guests of the food banks about being able to provide something special for their child, even though they are facing challenges. For some, it’s a reminder of days of the past. For others, it’s about the possibility of the future.”
On Thursday, as the event began to wrap up, and pallets of food were being loaded onto a Food LifeLine truck to be given to those who are hungry, Toia-Gaidaszk paused to reflect.
“Having something like this …” she said, looking around, “especially growing up in a poor family, it means a lot.”