‘This food, it means a chance’: Meet four people on the journey of Starbucks FoodShare donations box

Starbucks barista in black ballcap shows back of black FoodShare t-shirt

One hundred percent of Starbucks company-operated stores in the U.S. are participating in the FoodShare program. Go with us on the journey of a donation box from a store in Los Angeles, through the food bank and into the hands of some of the people who need it the most. 

LOS ANGELES – It’s 10:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday night, and the cars are still stop-and-go in the drive-through line at the Starbucks Community Store in Watts. Inside, Antonio Flores Sanchez, the store manager, is checking his inventory of perishable food.

Sandwiches, salads, pastries, wraps. Various protein boxes filled with vegetables, eggs, cheese and chicken. He rifles through them all, filling an orange tote box with unsold products.

Portrait of Antonio Flores Sanchez, Starbucks store manager, standing outside Los Angeles Watts Community Store in a green apron.

Antonio Flores Sanchez, Starbucks store manager

“When you’re on the receiving end, every bit counts,” Flores Sanchez says, walking the box to a refrigerator in the back and putting it inside.

This is where the story of a Starbucks FoodShare donation box begins. A story about all the people and groups who play a role in addressing something as big and complex as hunger. A story about Art Ortiz, a delivery driver, who knows the difference a refrigerated truck can make, and Liz Cervantes, from the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, who sees the scale of need every day.

It’s a story about how a box like this eventually ends up in the hands of a man named Eric Perkins, a cook, who transforms the ingredients every night into a hot meal for a few dozen men participating in a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at the Long Beach Rescue Mission.

And it’s a story that happens thousands of times over, at every company-operated Starbucks in the United States.

FoodShare is Starbucks commitment, in partnership with Feeding America® and other hunger relief organizations, to making sure unsold food doesn’t go to waste. It aims to help address food insecurity as 1 in 8 face hunger in the U.S., and tries to help address some of the root causes of that hunger. To that end, Starbucks is announcing a commitment to reinvest $100 million into hunger relief over the next 10 years. This year alone, Starbucks is making a $1.7 million donation to Feeding America to advance equitable access to nutritious food among households with individuals who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) residing in communities experiencing high rates of food insecurity, such as Watts.

FoodShare also represents an exercise in the power of scale. What’s the impact of one box? In Los Angeles County alone, 592 Starbucks stores together donate around 2,000 boxes a week – about 1.2 million pounds of food so far this year. Now, scale that by almost 9,000 – the number of company-operated U.S. stores. Since 2016, Starbucks has donated close to 34 million meals* through FoodShare.

"Rescuing our unsold food is table-stakes. I'm very proud of what we've been able to accomplish to scale FoodShare to 100% of our stores,” says Jane Maly, a Starbucks director who has been instrumental in FoodShare’s growth. “I'm excited for what's next, and how we can consider using our scale, network, and expertise to move from feeding those experiencing hunger, to also addressing some of the root causes of hunger."

Portrait of Jane Maly, Starbucks social impact director, wearing a FoodShare t-shirt and standing outside.

Jane Maly, Starbucks social impact director

For Flores Sanchez, the Watts store manager, his part in the story feels very personal. He grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, and he ate free breakfast and lunch at school. He worked in retail for about 15 years before joining Starbucks, where he now helps lead and organize social-impact programs in his community. 

During the pandemic, Flores Sanchez, 35, distributed food alongside a local youth mentorship organization. Next month, he’ll start collecting supplies to make and distribute hygiene kits. In the future, once society starts to reconnect, he dreams of a dental care awareness event inside the spacious meeting room that’s the centerpiece of the company’s community-store concept.

“My parents, I saw how much they struggled, I saw how much we didn’t have,” Flores Sanchez says. “If you can donate this food to somebody who needs it … they can focus their money on something else. That’s going to help give them a better life. That’s my drive.

“I get paid to set up volunteer events. I get paid to connect with community leaders and provide support. I get paid to nominate local organizations for grants. I get paid to figure out what’s possible. Don’t think the only thing I can do is make coffee.”

Next stop: Art Ortiz, the delivery driver

It’s 1 p.m. the next day, and a delivery truck has just arrived at one of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank’s warehouses, a 90,000-square foot storage and distribution center that processes four million pounds of food donations every week. Art Ortiz, the driver, waves out the window and backs his refrigerated box truck into one of the empty bays.

Portrait of Art Ortiz, delivery truck driver, standing outside semi-truck.

Art Ortiz, delivery truck driver

Starbucks uses an innovative backhaul model, which means the same drivers who drop off the supplies at each Starbucks store also pick up the donation boxes and bring them back to a central warehouse, unlocking efficiencies and possibilities that didn’t exist before.

Like Ortiz. One driver with one truck, who started his shift that day at 5 a.m. at a warehouse in nearby La Puente. He organized all the FoodShare boxes that came in the night before – including the one Flores Sanchez filled in Watts – stacked them 42 to a pallet and then wrapped each bundle for travel. The numbers add up. He hauls about 50,000 pounds of Starbucks food to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank every week.

“I used to work at a gas station and people would come in and ask for food all the time. I hated seeing people hungry,” says Ortiz, who’s been a FoodShare driver for two years, first in Washington state and now in Los Angeles. “So I'm happy that this food is going to somebody and not just being thrown away, because there's a lot of food that gets thrown away.”

Born and raised in Southern California, Ortiz, now 40, comes from a family of truck drivers. When he started delivering the Starbucks food, he found he enjoyed talking to the people at the food banks and liked the sense of purpose.

He watches as the workers unload pallets off his truck and give him back the stacks of empty boxes from the previous day’s delivery. “I love being able to help. I love being a part of providing meals to people who need it,” Ortiz says. “There’s no reason someone should go hungry with all the food that’s around.” 

Liz Cervantes, Los Angeles Regional Food Bank

Another important number in the fight against hunger: 34-35 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s the temperature inside the huge walk-in refrigerator at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank where the Starbucks FoodShare boxes are all stored after they arrive, the same temperature inside the back of Ortiz’s box truck, the same temperature back at the warehouse in La Puente.

Perishable donated food – especially fresh, healthy options that agencies like to distribute and that families like to eat – needs to be kept that cold to prevent spoilage.

But that’s where it gets tricky, says Liz Cervantes, the food bank’s director of Agency Relations and Product Acquisitions, who has worked there for 19 years. Refrigeration is an equity issue, she says.  

Portrait of Liz Cervantes, food bank director, next to refrigerators.

Liz Cervantes, food bank director

Nearly 700 smaller, local agencies work with the food bank to get food free of charge for their own programs, whether it’s a larger sub-agency or a kids’ backpack program or a senior-citizen home delivery service. But for them, Cervantes explains, “the largest challenges are transportation, number one, and then cold storage, number two. Refrigerated trucks and vans, commercial freezers, they’re expensive.”

She estimates that less than 200 of those partner agencies have the capability to keep their food cold, which means the rest have to borrow trucks, or use an SUV or the back of a pickup truck and hope for the best in the California heat, or not take fresh, perishable food at all. And these agencies are often the ones serving the people who need fresh food the most.

Even if they can somehow get the food there, smaller agencies don’t have a refrigerated storage space big enough on site – or the money to buy it – which is why Starbucks has also invested in buying refrigerated vans for hunger-relief organizations, and on innovative delivery methods like mobile food pantries.

The pandemic has only increased the need. According to the food bank’s estimates, about 300,000 people per month were serviced by the organization before the pandemic. Now, it’s at about 900,000 per month. 

“I would say in 2020, there were definitely more people who needed food assistance, who never needed food assistance in the past, nor did they ever think they were going to need food assistance,” says Cervantes, 48. “Because of the pandemic, I think people are more aware that anybody can fall through the cracks.

“There are families who are behind on bills, who lost work, who are going to need food assistance for a couple more months, if not years, and we can be that backbone.” 

Eric Perkins, the cook

It’s Thursday afternoon at the Long Beach Rescue Mission, and the kitchen is hot. Large, flat pans with 150 servings of chicken have been baking since noon. That’s when Eric Perkins started preparing dinner for the people who live in the mission as part of a rehabilitation program, or just come by at mealtime to eat.

Portrait of Eric Perkins, cook at a Los Angeles mission kitchen, standing and wearing an apron.

Eric Perkins, mission kitchen cook

The day before, he’d driven up to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to pick up the delivery – 250 pounds of orange Starbucks FoodShare boxes. Someone from the mission drives up five times a week to bring back the donated FoodShare items.

When the delivery arrives back in Long Beach, the kitchen staff opens the packaging and separates the food into like piles. The sandwiches will be reheated and passed out at breakfast or lunch. The hard-boiled eggs, cheese and greens from various ready-to-eat boxes are saved in a fridge until there’s enough to feed everybody. The greens will make a big salad soon.

On this day, Perkins’ focus is on the snap peas and carrots that come from the Starbucks protein boxes. It’ll make the perfect side to his chicken, donated from a local grocery store chain, seasoned with a red rub recipe he refuses to divulge. Usually, he can find enough peas and carrots to feed everybody if he waits through three days of deliveries. Sometimes he goes big with a brown-butter glaze; today it’s a simple sauté in butter.

Born in New Jersey, Perkins, 52, was placed with foster families at a young age, and as a teenager became addicted to crack and alcohol. As an adult, he lost his job after a failed drug test. He was clean for seven years, scared straight after he started coughing up black phlegm, but then relapsed after his brother died. He was in a bad place.

“The last week before I came here, I was in a hotel and decided I wasn’t ready to die,” Perkins remembers. “So I came here to sign up for the program. I didn’t want to die.”

He got clean the second time, in 2019, through the mission’s New Life Program – a strict one-year residential program for drug and alcohol addiction with wrap around services such as legal aid, education, classes on interpersonal relationships, work therapy, daily chapel services and bed checks. And he impressed the staff enough to get hired on as a cook after he graduated.  

Around 4:30 p.m., three volunteers show up to help serve dinner. After hugs and handshakes, Perkins directs them to their stations behind a small service counter, next to heaping piles of rice, beans, chicken and snap peas and carrots. Some of the food is sent across the street to the Lydia House, where women and children who receive the mission’s services live, and some is reserved for the walk-up crowd who’ll come by later that night, just to eat.

Nick Roberts, the mission’s volunteer program coordinator and another graduate of the New Life Program, leads announcements for the 40 or so men in the room. He welcomes several who recently joined the program, assigns a few others after-dinner tasks, and then talks excitedly about the big half-marathon coming up this weekend. He’s the coach of the mission’s running team; it’s part therapy, part reward.

After a short prayer, the men start to line up in front of Perkins, who greets them one at a time, with a smile or a joke or a bit of conversation. He hands over a hot plate of food to each one across the counter.

“This basically is what the program is, feeding the community,” Perkins says later, after the food’s all gone. “For me, this food, it means a chance, to try to give them something to enjoy. I don’t just say, ‘Here take it.’ I try to make it look different, make it taste different. Nourishment. I know what it’s like to be hungry. So someone coming in here, I just try to treat them with dignity and respect in the best way I can.”

*According to the USDA, 1.2 pounds of food is the equivalent to one meal.

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