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New York Nonprofit Rescues Food Waste to Relieve Hunger, Promote Community

As the president and CEO of Community Solidarity, Jon Stepanian, FCLC ’06, runs the largest vegetarian hunger relief program in the country. It’s a nonprofit he hopes doesn’t exist in a generation or two.

“When we started, we wanted to build a structure where we could theoretically put ourselves out of business in the communities [where]  we operate,” Stepanian explains. “We want to make sure that there’s going to be no need for us in 30 to 40 years if the community itself can take care of these needs.”

Based on Long Island, Community Solidarity rescues food from being wasted and distributes it to people at food shares across four locations on Long Island and one in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Each area, he says, is at risk of being a “food desert,” a neighborhood with limited access to fresh, nutritious, affordable food.

Stepanian knew he wanted to focus on helping local communities after graduating from Fordham. As an undergraduate, he studied history and political science, and an internship at the United Nations and a stint working at the American Civil Liberties Union gave him perspective on the benefits and challenges within the intergovernmental and nonprofit sectors. Shortly after college, he and his friends decided to start a Food Not Bombs chapter on Long Island, setting up a food distribution table on occasional weekends.

Before long, he says, he realized he needed to create a more sustainable structure to keep it going. Community Solidarity, with its 501(c)3 nonprofit status, was born out of this realization, although Stepanian notes that a non-hierarchical structure was important from the outset.

“When we decided to become a nonprofit, we said we wanted no lines of demarcation between who can volunteer and who can get food,” he says. “We wanted to make it so you wouldn’t be able to tell if someone’s volunteering or in need or both.”

Community Solidarity’s emphasis on rescuing food waste while feeding neighbors sets it apart from many other hunger relief organizations. In a 2018 TEDxNYU talk, Stepanian talked about what he called “the myth of scarcity,” and how a communal response can address hunger while creating a deeper sense of belonging among neighbors.

“We’re also trying to raise awareness by saying that we will, in 10 years, be the largest hunger relief organization in the country, and we’re doing it for a thousandth of the price that the food banks are doing it, all because of this waste,” Stepanian says. “This is how abundant that system of waste is. We want to make it eye-opening for people.”

Can you talk about Community Solidarity’s emphasis on food waste and rescuing food?
I can go to a typical supermarket and they’re going to be wasting 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of groceries a day. Where we operate on Long Island, there are about 27 million pounds of food that get wasted every single night, and there are about 182,000 people who are going hungry on Long Island every night.

We rescue food waste because it’s common sense—it’s cheap to do it. But on a more philosophical level, on a more economic level, this is why people in our communities are struggling. We see it as a fundamental problem in our system that’s making people in our community poor and hurting people overseas and also destroying our environment by producing large quantities of stuff that we don’t need, which is adding to greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of natural resources. We’re trying to rescue a small portion of that waste and repurpose it for something good, like feeding our neighbors, but also to expose the problem.

What’s the process for getting the food you distribute?
We go to supermarkets or go to farms, and we ask if they’d work with us in rescuing their food waste. Here’s where the problem comes in. If a supermarket throws out the food, it’s a tax write-off: no questions asked, no lawyers, no accountants needed. They just get their money, which is great for the supermarket. It’s the same thing as selling it. If they donate the food to us, then there are receipts that we have to provide, there are lawyers, there are accountants at the end of the year, there are tax forms. It’s actually a little bit more difficult to donate food than just throw it out. That’s why there’s so much food being thrown out in this country.

When we go to a store, we pitch the idea that our volunteers are trained in this. We know how to work with the store, and we say we can find ways of saving you money by saving your employees’ time. When a store throws out its milk, they actually have to open each [container]  and pour it down the drain and then they take the cardboard and put it together and they ship it back to the company in order to get that tax-deductible rebate. We go through the store and we show how we’re going to make it cost-effective for them and how we’re going to get out of the way, not be a nuisance and make sure everything’s been cleaned effectively.

Stores, after they see that and start working with us, they love it. Some of the stores we work with, they have donation areas now. And some of [their]  employees come down to our distributions and they volunteer. They might also get food for their families because their paychecks might not be enough to actually pay for food and where they’re living. There’s a solidarity in that, where people want to help out. Some of these employees will say, “Oh, I’m going to go the extra mile,” and make sure it doesn’t get wasted because they see where it’s going.

The sense of community over charity has a lot of overlap with the principles behind mutual aid groups. Were you already engaged with the idea of mutual aid when you started Community Solidarity?
We always had our roots in mutual aid. That kind of goes back to Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs has sort of an anarchistic structure, where the idea is anyone can participate. That’s also the foundation of mutual aid. The way I like to envision it is these are principles we need to strive for. If you truly believe food is a right, that food is not mine to give. I think that’s the big difference between mutual aid and charity. There has to be an understanding that basic necessities like water or food, no one should go without [those], especially since there’s such an abundance of them. If somebody in your community needs food, you always want to be there for them. You always want to stand with them and stand up for that right to food. It’s important for people to know that their neighbors are there for them on those hard days. I think we’re all really craving that.

And why vegetarian groceries and vegan meals?
I’m not going to speak for all our volunteers, because the vast majority of our volunteers are not vegan or even vegetarian … [but]  we want to show compassion to people coming to us [and]  to the Earth and the animals involved in agricultural systems.

It is [also]  safer handling these foods than it would be with raw meat. A lot of what we rescue is done with our volunteers’ vehicles. We’ll pick something up and within two or three hours, it’s handed to somebody else. On a hot, sunny day, two or three hours in a trunk, if you had meat, there’s a chance of spoilage. That’s why we don’t distribute meat. If we get non-vegetarian items [donated], what we do is we package it up and bring it to another soup kitchen or pantry that could use it. Right now, we’re supplying about 70 soup kitchens and food pantries across New York City and Long Island. The whole point’s just getting the food out there for people who need it.

This past year has obviously been a challenging one in a lot of ways, including a major increase in food insecurity and hunger. Can you talk about the increased need that you’ve seen and also what kind of challenges COVID-19 has created for you logistically?
It’s been something we never saw happening, the kind of changes we’ve had to make. I think at the end of 2019, we were helping about 5,700 families in a week. Right now, we’re helping a little bit more than 15,000 in a week. When I say helping, at our distributions, you get an entire week’s supply of food for every member of the family. The numbers have gone up drastically, more than threefold. At the same [time], we’ve had to incorporate social distancing.

Before the pandemic, our distributions looked pretty similar to a giant free supermarket or a farmers market, where we’d have areas for fresh produce and baked goods and dried goods and clothing. And you could walk around. There’d be hundreds of people and they’d all be congregating, and it was very crowded. It kind of [had]  a festival feeling. It was fun. But obviously you can’t have that in the middle of the pandemic.

We [now]  have a walk-up line that’s socially distanced. We break it down by age, so anyone who’s a senior citizen will automatically be served whenever they get there. And then everybody else will be served in the order they get there. We also have drive-through lines. And the drive-through lines are probably the thing that grew the most as the pandemic started to get worse. People with vehicles, we encourage them to stay in their car to keep them safe, to keep our volunteers safe. Everyone’s wearing PPE: gloves, masks, face shields, and everything like that.  We offer putting the box on a table and we step back and then you can grab the box and you can go. Or you can come in a car and pop your trunk and it goes directly in your trunk. There are families with their kids in the car at that time that have been on line for six, seven hours. It’s beautiful to see the community coming together to make sure everyone gets food, but it’s also heartbreaking to see that there’s this much need out there.

How do you see Community Solidarity growing from here?
A lot of people keep asking us when we’re leaving southern New York and going to other areas. Our plan is, actually, we want to get to a point where we fix most of the problem in terms of food access out here on Long Island. Going back to that 182,000 number, that’s how many people go hungry every single night in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and we’re reaching 15,000 of them, which is not that many all in all. But considering that we were reaching 5,700 a year before that and 3,000 a year before that, obviously we’re on a trajectory where we could grow, and we want to see how far we can take that growth.

Personally, I don’t want to run a nonprofit that’s all across the country rescuing food and managing all this, because I don’t actually think that is sustainable in the long run. We want to make these tools available to any organization that wants to use them and copy our model. We would love for soup kitchens or food banks anywhere in the country to start copying the way that we’re doing things if they find it more effective. I think the best way of showing them it’s more effective is by literally solving the problem in these communities.

How does your experience at Fordham connect to the work you’re doing?
The [Jesuit]  idea of community and working with one another and having hope and striving for something that might not be there yet, that’s something that I find really beautiful. I think it’s something that Fordham gave me that I hold and try to put into practice every single day.

For a list of Community Solidarity’s food share locations and schedule, visit the locations page on their website.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Adam Kaufman, FCLC ’08.


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