10 million people fed through Starbucks FoodShare program

To distract herself from her hunger, Josephine Muller would try to focus on work. But it was hard to think when she had to go several days without eating a meal, existing on only a small, occasional snack. She lived with constant headaches and fatigue. But that was what was required to make sure that her three teenaged children had enough to eat. She and her husband, James, always ate last.

Once, the Las Vegas family had lived a comfortable life and had their own apartment, with enough to eat. James had served in the Army, being honorably discharged after suffering a back and leg injury during a training exercise. Muller worked to supplement his disability income.

But then, during what should have been minor kidney surgery, a complication caused her chest to fill with fluid and her lung to collapse. She spent the next few months on oxygen around the clock, working as she could, but not earning her regular paycheck. Bills mounted and the family was evicted from their apartment.

They slept on friend’s couches and floors, or rented motel rooms by the week when they could afford it. She lost her job, which she did online from home, since she often didn’t have a reliable internet connection. Food was always scarce.

Now, during the midst of Hunger Action Month, Muller looks back on that time – and thinks about how different her life is. Today, she’s the executive assistant to Arnold Stalk, founder of Veterans Village in Las Vegas, which provides housing, food and other services to veterans and their families. She and her family moved into the Veterans Village a year ago, after Stalk heard about their situation and reached out.

Muller now knows where her family will sleep each night – and that there will be enough to eat every day. Residents from Veterans Village can utilize the food pantry to get staples they need. And daily, nourishing meals from Starbucks FoodShare program arrive. FoodShare, which Starbucks launched in 2016 in partnership with Feeding America, packages eligible unsold food every evening, and delivers the meals to Veterans Village.

Las Vegas, where Veterans Village is located, is one of the 22 markets across the United States currently participating in FoodShare. Starbucks has a goal to rescue 100 percent of the unsold food available from all 8,000 of its U.S. company-owned stores by 2020.

To date, more than 10 million meals have been donated through the program. Each of those meals represents a person who didn’t go hungry that day, said Laura Olson, director of global social impact.

“Knowing that our surplus food, that would otherwise go into the garbage, is feeding a family or child or veteran is incredibly satisfying, especially knowing that our partners across the country make it happen,” she said.

More than 40 million Americans face hunger, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A lot of people don’t realize that hunger is an issue in our country every day,” said Matt Knott, president of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. Feeding America partners with Starbucks to connect FoodShare donations with local food banks and people who need them.

One in eight Americans struggle with hunger, he said. “And one in six children in our school classrooms may not have enough to eat. It’s a hidden issue for many.”

Arnold Stalk, the founder of Veterans Village and the son of a World War II Navy veteran, also said many who are homeless or in need are invisible. “People who are couch surfers or living in their cars or trucks, that number is indefinable,” he said.

Stalk created Veterans Village in response to a request from a veteran – his dad, who had served in the Navy during World War II.  The two were talking shortly before his father died seven years ago and, “he said ‘I don’t like the way our veterans are being treated. We don’t show the respect to them they deserve. We have award ceremonies – but are we OK with our veterans sleeping on our streets?’”

Then he asked Stalk, who worked in architecture planning and redevelopment, to do something about it.

Today, Veterans Village has three campuses open with plans for five more, so veterans and their families will have a safe place to live – and enough to eat without having to beg for food.

“The thought of a veteran in the morning eating (donations of) Starbucks food or from Whole Foods … that is a miracle to me,” he said. 

Impossible decisions

Knott, of Feeding America, said many of those struggling to eat are the working poor or single-parent households who too often are faced with impossible choices such as whether to pay a bill, get needed medication, or buy food.

“When people just don’t have enough, they are forced to make tradeoffs,” he said. “It’s so easy to judge people, but what we don’t know are their circumstances and what the other factors are that can make it incredibly difficult to do some of the things that many of us take for granted.”

Before Muller and her family lost their apartment, she used to volunteer at a local shelter for women and their children, helping those in need. After they arrived at Veterans Village, she and her children continued the tradition of helping others by volunteering at the food pantry. She sometimes sees the embarrassment people may feel about not having enough. “Some people are ashamed to ask,” she said.

Being hungry is about much more than an empty stomach, Knott said. Not having enough to eat is also associated with chronic illness and other physical problems and can affect mental health. “The consequences are worse for kids,” he said. “They are more likely to be hospitalized and have anemia or asthma.”

Muller said she used to feel anxious about how she was going to feed her growing teenagers. At Veterans Village, she relies on the donated Starbucks sandwiches to hold her boys over in the afternoon after they get home from school and before she gets home from work. “I know they won’t have those hours of sitting there wondering what they are going to eat.”

More than a chocolate croissant

Connecting people with the food they need is the point of FoodShare, Olson said. “This is food clients may not otherwise be able to afford, whether it’s in a backpack for lunch or heading off to work and they need to take something with them.”

Shortly after the program began, she said, Howard Schultz, who was then chief executive officer of Starbucks, received a letter from a woman who had been married with children, leading a comfortable life. She used to take her children to Starbucks once a week for a chocolate croissant to have some special time with them. Her circumstances changed and she had to quickly leave her husband and home. She was living with her children in transitional housing and felt so sad that she was unable to give her kids a sense of normalcy, she wrote. But then one day at the shelter’s cafeteria, she saw the Starbucks FoodShare donations come in – including chocolate croissants.

“That day she was able to sit with her kids in the cafeteria and have that moment together again,” Olson said.

Olson said she often thinks of all of the people involved in getting a meal to someone in need. She thinks of how the idea for the FoodShare program came from Starbucks partners who wanted to find ways to donate unsold food at the end of the day. And she thinks of how Feeding America made it possible for the food to be collected and distributed. And she thinks of people like Muller, who once went without eating so she could feed her children, and now helps pass out Starbucks food to those in need.

“Without that simple act of Starbucks partners packaging up unsold food at the end of each day for donation, those 10 million meals would not be served and would not benefit our communities,” she said

Feeding America estimates that one-third of all the food in the United States goes to waste. Each year, it rescues 3.5 billion pounds of food and redirects it to those in need. The number is so vast it seems hard to fathom. But for people like Muller, it translates to simply knowing she can take care of her family.

“It is a great feeling to know that there will always be food available to feed them,” she said. “I feel so much less anxiety."

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