A Corporate Retiree Invents Her Second Career — And It’s Social Purpose On Steroids

On June 26-27 I was in Cambridge, Mass., at the 2018 U.S. Food Waste Summit, a joint program of ReFED and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. Barbara Bronstein was the first person I met after registration on Tuesday morning — she graciously introduced herself and we ended up having breakfast together. As it turns out, her story of founding Second Servings of Houston straddles my favorite themes: reducing food waste, food recovery, and professional reinvention and purpose after age 50. I was all ears.

It turns out that when Barbara retired from her marketing career with Fortune 500 companies (Mars, Unilever, Coca-Cola), she wasn’t ready to relax. After a short stint blogging about restaurants, she found a new calling with social purpose and dived in: She set about to collect edible extras from special events and deliver them to food bank clients around Houston. The project was an 18-month pilot called Banquet Bounty for the Hungry.

By 2015 Banquet Bounty had grown into Second Servings of Houston — a nonprofit that rescues unused and unsold prepared and perishable food from hotels, cafeterias, distributors, and retailers and offers it to charitable organizations, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and low-income housing residents.

Essentially Second Servings is a free courier service for edible, untouched leftovers — and delectable ones at that. Barbara delighted in showing me mouthwatering pictures of recent donations, most of which are chef prepared. Rescued food goes straight from the donor to an agency or program feeding the hungry; there is no warehousing. The team strive to ensure that perfectly-edible surplus gets delivered to people in need instead of going to the landfill.

Healthy food initiatives in food banks
Serving healthier meals is a goal of charities across the country — so it’s a top priority for Second Servings. Drivers have a schedule of daily pickups of luscious fresh produce for delivery to both charities and food distribution centers. They are accompanied by volunteers who help gather the food and load the truck. Besides scheduled pickups, Second Servings responds to last-minute calls from caterers and other donor partners who are eager to support the mission.

Food safety is a top priority
Second Servings operates refrigerated trucks; paid part-time drivers are trained in safe food handling and storage. They only accept food from regulated entities such as hotels, caterers, cafeterias, and restaurants that are subject to periodic inspection by the city health department. Drivers will reject donations that do not meet food safety standards.

Many of the volunteers are retirees
Barbara told me that retirees love this kind of work because it’s just so rewarding. They are reliable partners who put in four to six hours every week. Barbara says volunteers particularly enjoy being involved in the end-to-end solution, i.e., working with both donors and food recipients. Chefs and other employees of the donor organizations are also really pleased that the extra food will go to helping people in need instead of being wasted.

Making a difference
Second Servings of Houston’s annual operating budget is under $250,000. Since its founding the organization has rescued more than one million meals at a cost of $0.15 each. More than 175 food donors participate. Second Servings’ work enables local organizations to serve over 13,000 food-insecure people weekly; thousands more are reached through donations to food distribution centers.

10 steps to starting a food rescue organization in your community
After studying Second Servings’ model, I put together this checklist for anyone considering getting involved in fighting food waste in his/her community.

  1. Educate yourself: Consult local experts from food banks and do extensive research.
  2. Get certified in food safety.
  3. Identify all the federal, state, and local ordinances you’ll need to comply with.
  4. Write a business plan.
  5. Set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
  6. Apply for grants from foundations and corporations; start a crowdfunding campaign.
  7. Get a refrigerated truck and supplies.
  8. Recruit volunteers.
  9. Recruit food donors and donation recipients.
  10. Spread the word via social media; contact your local news station.

A note about liability: In 1996 the U.S. enacted the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to encourage food and grocery donations to nonprofits by protecting donors from civil and criminal liability (except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct). Several states have enacted similar laws; for example, Texas passed the Good Faith Donor Act.

For additional information please visit the websites of Feeding America and the Natural Resources Defense Council, two comprehensive sources of information about hunger and food waste.