20 million people fed through Starbucks FoodShare program

Corinne Crane laughs now, a pained and tired laugh, thinking about how she put away money for retirement and her kids’ college fund. She remembers being a “food snob” and throwing food away just because she didn’t like it.

But that was before her divorce. She had a hard time finding work and she needed to stay home anyways with her two young autistic sons. She ended up in a toxic living situation with roommates who stole her groceries. And before long, her savings were gone.

“Life kind of brings you down a few notches,” said Crane, 37. “I cry a lot more. I feel very frustrated sometimes. I guess I feel very unprepared. I didn’t see this coming.”

Today, Crane and her boys, 10 and 6, are starting over in a one-bedroom apartment in Veterans Village in Las Vegas, which provides housing, food and other services to veterans and their families. Crane’s ex-husband was in the Navy.

As she wrestles with her past and tries to figure out the best path forward, chief among her day-to-day concerns is this: What do I feed my boys?

Starbucks FoodShare program is helping answer that question. FoodShare, which launched in 2016 in partnership with Feeding America, packages eligible unsold food every evening, and delivers the meals to non-profits around the U.S., including Veterans Village. Every morning, people line up starting at 6 a.m. for sandwiches, salads, hard-boiled eggs, fruit, yogurt cups and pastries.

Starbucks has a goal to rescue 100 percent of the unsold food available from its more than 8,000 U.S. company-owned stores by the end of 2020. Currently around 60 percent of stores participate, said Laura Olson, director of global social impact for Starbucks.

To date, more than 20 million meals have been donated through the program. Each of those meals represents a person who didn’t go hungry that day, said Olson.

“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.

“We as a country have a perception of our prosperity that doesn’t make room for the reality of the struggle that many of our neighbors have,” said Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization.

Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks and 60,000 pantries, meal programs and soup kitchens, partners with Starbucks to connect FoodShare donations with local food banks and people who need them. Two million people volunteer with the non-profit.

One in nine Americans struggle with hunger, Babineaux-Fontenot said, including approximately 11 million children and 5 million senior citizens. “There is not one county or parish in this country that does not have food insecurity inside of it,” she said.               

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 five campuses open in Las Vegas with plans for three more, so veterans and their families will have a safe place to live and enough to eat.

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

Food affects every aspect of life

Babineaux-Fontenot, of Feeding America, learned about food insecurity early on while growing up in Opelousas, La. In the fall of 1963, her mother, Mary Alice Babineaux, heard about two children in a neighboring town suffering from neglect and abuse. She drove over, picked them up and brought them home, beginning a remarkable decades-long legacy of service to children in need that ultimately ended with 108 children – by birth, adoption and foster care – being a part of the Babineaux home. 

“Through that prism, I was able to see very directly the impact that a lack of access to nutritional food has on people, the impact it had on the frail bodies of my siblings as they joined my family,” Babineaux-Fontenot recalled. “I also was able to witness the impact that consistent access to nutritious food had on their bodies, and not just their bodies, but their brains and spirits. I watched siblings blossom upon receiving that access.

“It’s a truth I’ve known my whole life,” she said. “I’ve never existed without an awareness of what hunger actually looks like right here in America and the impact food has on people.” 

Being hungry is about much more than an empty stomach. Not having enough to eat is also associated with disease, fatigue and poor mental health. Hungry children suffer at school and are more likely to be hospitalized, research shows. And with many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, they might need to make hard choices around competing priorities like food, rent, insurance, bills and medication.

Crane had once traveled the world as a military spouse before she arrived at Veterans Village. Her husband worked aboard submarines. She spent time all over the U.S. and Madagascar. She was used to the lifestyle; she was born in Arizona in a military family.

She decided to homeschool her children, which meant she could take care of their special needs herself. But it left her without much job experience. She didn’t have much of a support network. Crane is working with a Veterans Village case manager now, trying to acquire some computer skills and navigate social services.

“The stuff that Starbucks sends is critical in my household,” she said. “I imagine it’s got to be critical in other households too.”

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, 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.

“Without that simple act of Starbucks partners packaging up unsold food at the end of each day for donation, those 20 million meals would not be served and would not benefit our communities,” she said.

Feeding America estimates that about 72 billion pounds of edible food is thrown away every year, not including household waste. This year, the organization rescued and redistributed approximately 3.6 billion pounds of food to those in need. The number is so vast it seems hard to fathom.

But Babineaux-Fontenot, of Feeding America, believes the problem is solvable. She’s encouraged by emerging leaders who expect to do good in the world; productive relationships with companies around resources, time and thinking; and a vast network of big-hearted people working on different parts of the problem.

“It’s easy to think, ‘There’s no way I can possibly do anything about that. It’s too big. It’s too complex,’ ” said Babineaux-Fontenot. “Yes, you can. Yes, you can. And you won’t be alone.”

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Starbucks to lead first-ever city-wide reusable cup project in California with NextGen Consortium