Boca Raton —
It’s not yet 9 a.m. on Wednesday and already 274 pounds of food have been saved.
Pete Rather, a foot soldier in the war on hunger, rolls a cart loaded with baguettes, pies and Technicolor-frosted cupcakes onto an industrial scale to assess the booty hauled from two Publix supermarkets. After the weigh-in, the loaded cart is rolled into the recesses of Boca Helping Hands where hundreds of hungry people are served daily.
Next up, the retired phone worker is heading from Whole Foods Market and then the Capital Grille.
Increasingly, Boca’s most desperate citizens are getting take-out — from some of the area’s most high-end eateries and outlets. Starbucks, Grand Lux Café and Seasons 52 are among those donating their slightly outdated food to those who need it.
In three years, donations to Boca Helping Hands from the city’s restaurants, supermarkets and from some special events have increased nearly three-and-a-half times, to 1.4 million pounds of food saved in 2013.
Helping Hands Executive Director James Gavrilos says he believes that half of all the food produced for supermarkets, restaurants and homes never makes it into people’s stomachs, as some national studies have shown.
Gavrilos ramped up his efforts to save what might have otherwise gone into the dumpster when the charity started seeing the increase in demand for food that came with the area’s real estate implosion.
With a refrigerated truck and a few delivery trucks added to his fleet, Gavrilos attributes the increase in recovered food to a growing awareness among the area’s restaurant and supermarket managers that Boca Helping Hands can use what otherwise would be wasted.
He said that he hopes that wasting food will be as taboo to the next generation as throwing away a recyclable aluminum can is to today’s youngsters.
“The food recovery movement is just beginning,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last year announced an effort to reduce the amount of food wasted. Their estimates are that 30 to 40 percent of the food that is produced gets thrown away. It’s calling for a change in attitudes, better planning and a more direct path for food that would go to waste to go to food pantries and kitchens such as Boca Helping Hands’.
“The change is going to be in the attitude of the provider who says to their bakery manager, ‘Anything that’s left, we’re going to get it in hands of people who need it,'” Gavrilos said.
Once restaurant and store owners are assured there’s no liability in donating food that can be written off as a tax deduction, they are on board with the idea, Gavrilos said.
As soon as Rather rolls up in his truck, with the Helping Hands framed in a heart emblazoned on the side, Whole Foods employee Peter Anania is on the radio signaling the store’s various departments.
Almond milk, pre-packaged meatball sandwiches, chipotle-flavored seitan, raspberries and marinated mushrooms are among the offerings wheeled through the storage area through the back door.
“Every department is allowed to donate with the exception of seafood, meat and vitamins,” Anania explains.
Later, at the Town Center mall, Rather backs his truck up to the rear entrance. He rings the bell and nods at pastry chef Linda Estrada with a cordial, “Good morning.”
He heads to an area lined with clipboards and sees what’s been put aside for him to pick up. Seventeen pounds of steak, 8 pounds of lamb, 9 pounds of sword fish, 38 pounds of potato and 8 pounds of desserts have been frozen into blocks encased in heavy-duty plastic for donation.
Bob Boribong, managing partner for Capital Grille, said the protein that’s donated is selected because it might not be the shape or exact weight the chef wants to use.
“It’s still top-notch,” he said.
Bill Harper, director of food and warehouse operations at Helping Hands, says the growth in donations is partly due to the organization’s ability to pick them up easily and quickly.
“Everything we get is typically in the clients hands or being cooked within 72 hours,” he said. “We are going to be there when we say we’re going to be there.”
Rather said he’s been amazed at how much food can be saved — and how much it’s needed.
“To see the lines of hungry people in Boca Raton …” he said, shaking his head.
Ageggis@tribune.com or 561-243-6624