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    I meet “Red” mid-breakfast, his thick, freckled hands squeezing a fork as he slices into fried eggs in the dining hall of the Franciscan Kitchen, just south of downtown on Preston Street. “My name’s Richard Thomas, but I go by Red,” he says. Middle-aged, with crisp blue eyes and a once-fiery red beard that’s matured to an ashy gray, Thomas will soon board the Franciscan Kitchen’s white van and start his daily route of salvaging uneaten food from restaurants. He runs through the day’s list — Nord’s Bakery in Germantown, Papa John’s and KFC in Hikes Point, KFC on Blankenbaker Parkway, Kroger out in Prospect and a Starbucks too. “I call it round-the-world,” he says, smiling.

    Volunteer "Red" Thomas.

    Thomas remembers the first meal he had here some 25 years ago: pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans. He was homeless at the time, came around begging for coffee money or something. They invited him to eat, to keep coming back. “If I hadn’t found this place I’d be dead — drugs, drinking, wildness,” he says, adding, “You like rock ’n’ roll? AC/DC? ‘Highway to Hell?’” He grows quiet, shaking his head at his past.

    For 38 years, Franciscan Kitchen has served a hot lunch to the hungry. Lately, they total about 500 to 600 meals every day. Cooks can go through about 180 pounds of canned green beans in one day. The Franciscan Kitchen, along with similar nonprofits — Wayside Christian Mission, St. Vincent de Paul, the Healing Place — largely rely on food donations.

    That’s where Kentucky Harvest steps in. The 25-year-old nonprofit gets excess food to those who can use it. They partner with 84 donors — including Thortons, Panera, Longhorn Steakhouse, hotels and the food wholesaler Sysco — to scoop up leftovers or unused items and redistribute them. Their efforts total roughly 2 million pounds of food per year. It’s always a guessing game what Kentucky Harvest might rescue. Sometimes it’s two-dozen heads of cauliflower, turkey-avocado sandwiches from Whole Foods, 30 cartons of milk from a local school or 80 cases of Blue Bunny ice cream from a wholesaler. The day after the Ironman Louisville competition, Kentucky Harvest loaded unused Gatorade, oranges and bananas into a truck.

    Dare to Care, that’s the big one in town, delivering 24 million pounds of food a year to organizations throughout Louisville and surrounding counties. Some of Dare to Care’s food, stored in a Clydesdale of a warehouse on Fern Valley Road, comes from the USDA. A lot of it is pulled from 101 different stores in the area, as well as produce distributors who donate fruits and vegetables that may not please the eye on grocery shelves but still taste fine and offer valuable nutrition.

    Spend some time with those who salvage food, and the mission feels massive. The amount of food lodged in walk-in freezers, refrigerators and slid onto food pantry shelves overwhelms. It seems like hunger should just move along. The answer is all right here. But out in the community, seen and unseen, known and unknown, gaps persist.

    A recent Louisville Solid Waste Management study showed that nearly 29 percent of solid waste in Jefferson County is food. Some of that may just be banana peels and scraps, but a lot may be edible, useful. In Jefferson County, it’s estimated that 16 percent of residents — including one in five school-aged kids — are food insecure, or lacking consistent access to affordable, nutritious food. About 34 percent of those individuals are people who don’t qualify for food stamps or other meal-assistance programs. The households are likely working, perhaps patching together paychecks or unable or unwilling to trek to food pantries and shelters to ensure a meal.

     

    Every morning, Kentucky Harvest dials up Franciscan Kitchen with a list of places where food awaits pick-up. On a recent Friday, Red Thomas arrives at the KFC in Hikes Point under a sunny, chilly October sky. He bangs on a back door. An aproned employee opens, handing Thomas a gray tub of frozen chicken. “Beautiful morning, my friend!” Thomas says, before thanking him and depositing the chicken into the van next to a box of doughnuts from Nord’s and three Papa John’s pizzas. Thomas says that at a different KFC location, he saw a worker dumping uneaten food. “I was like, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that,’” Thomas recalls. “A lot of people don’t donate food because they are afraid people will get sick.” Last year, Kentucky passed a law that protects farmers, groceries and other entities from lawsuits that might arise if someone gets sick from eating donated food. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that also guards anyone donating excess from litigation. Folks from both Wayside and Franciscan Kitchen say that, in all their years of operation, nobody has ever suffered food poisoning from the meals they serve. Still, food winds up trashed, especially after banquet-type events. Health codes indicate that food can only stay out for a few hours; by the time somebody could pick up anything extra, that window has likely closed.


    The Franciscan Kitchen

    This past summer, the city’s Office of Resilience and Community Services received a grant from the Natural Resources Defense Council to study food waste — what can be rescued either for consumption or compost. This greatly stems from the city’s mission to divert 90 percent of the county’s solid waste from landfills by 2042. Of the 29 percent of waste that’s food, it’s estimated that about 15 percent comes from households, the rest from institutional and commercial settings like hospitals or restaurants. A few years ago, the city started a wet-dry recycling program in the Central Business District, allowing restaurants to compost scraps, keeping waste from the landfill. (There are no plans to expand the program beyond downtown.)

    Stan Siegwald, director of strategic initiatives at Dare to Care, says food access for those who may be hungry but not necessarily homeless remains a persistent problem, one agencies are trying to chip away at. (This month, the Community Foundation is set to release a report on hunger in Louisville. It will look at food availability to those outside the network of homeless shelters and food pantries.) Dare to Care has a Backpack Buddy program in 38 regional schools. On Fridays, plastic bags of food — typically two pieces of fruit, a canned entrée, canned vegetables, cereal — go to students the school has identified as possibly lacking food over the weekend. Dare to Care also runs the Kids Cafe program that feeds children in 34 afterschool sites — totaling 1,200 meals per day. It has also placed food pantries in places families often frequent, like doctor offices, and of last year 11 local schools.

     

    At about 9:30 on a cold fall morning, the line for lunch begins to form outside the Franciscan Kitchen. Inside, green beans cook in two giant, steaming silver pots. Extra cheese is sprinkled onto salvaged Papa John’s pizzas that have been frozen and thawed. A rack of desserts — cake with happy yellow frosting and slices of pie oozing purple berries — sit just beyond bowls of apples, bananas and oranges.

    At 10:30 sharp, doors open. Bundled in sweatshirts and coats and beneath ball caps, men and women receive piled plates — apple crumble, pizza, potatoes and green beans. It’s mostly adults who settle down to eat at long tables covered in red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. Nearby at St. Vincent de Paul’s Open Hand Kitchen, which serves lunch and dinner to up to 400 people daily, the longtime kitchen manager has noticed more families coming in. So much so that St. Vincent de Paul recently ordered high chairs and booster seats for the dining room. It could be that more affordable family housing has been constructed nearby. But she’s also heard parents reluctantly share as they go down the food line that money’s tight, that they’re barely making it.

    Both kitchens, I’m told, never run out of food. St. Vincent de Paul often keeps sandwiches individually wrapped and ready for those who missed serving hours. (A wholesaler in Owensboro donates loads of lunchmeat to Open Hand Kitchen.) At the Franciscan Kitchen, even if the main entrée disappears, there are hot dogs in the freezer as a backup. Nobody leaves hungry, though that feeling is guaranteed to visit again.

    As I leave Franciscan Kitchen, a petite volunteer in an apron and glasses waves me down, gently grabs my arm. “Do you know how we get these big companies to donate?” she asks, adding that she works for a well-known company with a solid reputation for do-gooding in Louisville. And yet, she says, its cafeteria often tosses food that doesn’t get eaten, even after she’s offered to pack it up and take it to the Franciscan Kitchen with her. Fear of getting sued if something spoils, she thinks. The woman leans in, concern gripping the corners of her eyes and mouth. “How do we fix this?” she wonders aloud.

    This originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Food Network." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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