You’re hungry, but you’re not excited about cooking.
Then, in a mild eureka moment, you remember that to-go box in the fridge containing leftovers from your favorite Little Rock joint. It’s not only satisfying to savor another round with that tasty dish you enjoyed yesterday, but there is also a sense of completion that comes when you clean your plate and leave nothing to waste.
Thanks to the nonprofit Potluck Food Rescue, leftovers are being utilized to reduce the number of those left behind when it comes to food insecurity. Instead of ending up in dumpsters and landfills, fresh meals and other foodstuffs are going to those in need, allowing central Arkansas to clean its plate, so to speak.
“We provide hunger relief while reducing food waste, and we have a focus on addressing the health, environmental and economic impact of wasted food,” says Potluck Executive Director Sylvia Blain. “It’s an elegant solution to a couple of complicated problems. We pick up food from one place and provide it to others that need it.”
Potluck began collecting and redistributing food in 1989, but didn’t become incorporated as a nonprofit until 1991. In a state that is No. 2 in the country for food insecurity, in a nation where 30-40% of food is wasted — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — and one in five people is hungry or food insecure, entities like Potluck are tapping a resource that is literally ready-made.
“The USDA estimates that if just 20% of the edible food was redirected to hungry folks, then we could solve hunger in the United States,” Blain says.
With a staff of four and three vans, Potluck differs from other pantries and food banks in that it puts emphasis on already prepared meals as well as fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products and baked goods.
“We have trucks on the road eight hours a day,” Blain says. “Sunday we do a route. It’s not as long. It’s usually our shortest day of the week, but we are on the road with our van seven days a week picking up food.”
Potluck affiliates with the Arkansas Foodbank, Feeding America, the Hunger Relief Alliance, pantries, churches and other local hunger relief organizations. It picks up surplus food from restaurants, hotels, caterers and fast food chains and provides aluminum steam pans and containers for safe and sanitary packing.
The hunger-fighting partner entities then retrieve the food at Potluck’s North Little Rock warehouse and distribute it. By the end of 2022, Potluck had redirected more than 504,000 pounds of surplus food and is on track this year to collect and redistribute 600,000.
Potluck will even claim flowers left behind after weddings and banquets and present them to nursing home residents and shut-ins.
“That ties back into the community,” says Yvette Parker, chair of this year’s Potluck fundraiser Driving Away Hunger. “This is not a huge statewide agency that’s trying to solve a lot of problems. We’re trying to solve two problems right here at home: one is food insecurity and one is food waste.”
Potluck is as much about transportation and logistics as it is nutrition, and those are aspects familiar to Parker, marketing director at Ben E. Keith Foods Mid-South. A Carmel, California, native, Parker graduated from the University of San Francisco and learned the hospitality business through a series of restaurant jobs while she was in school.
“I have always been service oriented and have a ‘hostess’ personality — I want to make sure everyone is included and happy,” Parker says. “My friends call me a connector.”
Connections have certainly been part of Parker’s professional life, no matter the job she has held.
As a concierge in a high-end San Francisco hotel, she connected guests with the goods and services they needed. Working in community development, she connected stores and businesses with the residential neighborhood the city was building up in the shadow of the baseball field now known as Oracle Park.
She moved to Little Rock in 2010 to be with her future husband, Andrew Parker, recent chairman and member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and current executive director of workforce development organization Be Pro Be Proud. She got into local hospitality and fundraising, first as an events manager at UA Pulaski Technical College, where she pulled together the disparate elements of productions like Diamond Chef Arkansas.
In pursuit of donations, she made a connection at Ben E. Keith, which led to her taking a job there 10 years ago.
“I guess I get a lot of the logistical side from working at Ben E. Keith,” Parker says. “We are a food company, but we are really a transportation company distributing food.”
Parker has also made a deep connection with her new home, embracing the outdoors through hunting, fishing and hiking and getting involved with her community through volunteer work.
“There’s a connection,” she says. “I work at Ben E. Keith Foods and obviously I’m very involved in the chef/hospitality community. I learned really quick that already a lot of local restaurants were using Potluck to pick up food after a local event. I knew as soon as I saw that that was an organization I wanted to be involved with and wanted to help grow. They’re a tiny nonprofit.”
As chair of Driving Away Hunger, Parker uses her connections and leans on her friends and the Potluck board members to help secure sponsorships, sell tickets, obtain the food and wine items donated for silent auction and obviously pull together the restaurants providing the evening’s menu items.
The casual event, held at The Rail Yard in Little Rock on Aug. 31, is being used as a kickoff to Feeding America’s Hunger Action Month. The fundraising goal is $75,000 and, unlike grant money that comes with earmarks, it’s cash that Blain can use flexibly as needed.
“It allows me to use [it] at my discretion, which is really important to remain agile,” Blain says. “I need to be able to call in extra hands and pay them when a tornado hits.”
And there’s no shortage of storms. Whether during the COVID-19 pandemic — when restaurants were shutting down and had no customers for their food — or after the March 31 Little Rock tornado, Potluck has a disaster relief element to its work.
In one weekend of the tornado’s aftermath, Potluck redistributed 12,000 pounds of food to storm victims as well as its usual number of clients in need. While the offices are usually closed on a weekend, Blain says she rallied her team the Friday the storm hit and gathered additional help.
“In some cases we stored that food,” she says. “We offered our freezers and storage, or we gave them a tax donation on the food they were going to lose and redistributed it to people that were harmed or affected by that storm.”
Potluck’s mission also, hopefully, is helping to prevent a disaster before it happens. With so much unused food winding up in landfills, it poses a danger to the climate in the form of methane emissions.
Every 100 pounds of food in a landfill sends 8.3 pounds of methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, Blain says.
“We’re feeding people while fighting climate change,” she says.
It’s no small task, to say the least, but it’s one where even small efforts — and small nonprofits leading them — can make a lasting impact. And it’s a mission Parker is keen on connecting her neighbors with as long as she can.
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