Second Helpings’ approach to food insecurity

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors |

The problem was an old one: hunger in America. Or more specifically, hunger in Indianapolis. What was needed was a new solution, and with that forward thinking, Second Helpings was born.

In 1998, three area chefs – Kristen Cordoza, Bob Koch and Jean Paison — saw tremendous waste in the food service industry. At the same time, they could see that local nonprofit food service programs were struggling to provide nutritional meals. Surely, there had to be a way to channel the excess in one area to fill a need in another.

The trio took their chef’s hats off for a moment and put their business minds to work. Their creation — Second Helpings – was launched as a food rescue and hunger relief organization. And in doing so, Second Helpings had yet another mission: to train young chefs.

Second Helpings spokeswoman Betsy Whitmore wasn’t involved with Second Helpings when it began, but she has seen it grow to the successful organization it is today.

The Second Helpings formula works like this: the community kitchen accepts donated perishable and overstocked food and in turn daily prepares nutritious meals, and distributes them free of charge through local social service agencies. Second Helpings also trains unemployed and underemployed adults for meaningful careers in the culinary industry. The food comes from wholesalers, retailers and restaurants.

“The first 60 meals went to Holy Cross Family Shelter, and it was salad and a stew. The model — taking rescue food and making sure it’s prepared for nutrition and balance – hasn’t changed. The chefs were very smart about knowing, ‘Here’s this overage, here’s this need, how do we connect this?’” said Whitmore, the communications manager, who keeps the organization’s first meal ticket on her desk as a reminder.

Whitmore said Second Helpings was just something the chefs knew they had to do. One chef said it was not a project she found, it was a project that found her. Because they worked in the food industry, hunger was a problem they couldn’t understand.

What Whitmore believes has changed in 17 years is the face of hunger.

“What people don’t understand is what hunger really looks. Most of them are working families. They’re people who may have had major life changes, change in jobs, things like that. She said most of the people who receive food from Second Helpings, food pantries or feeding programs are from working families.

On a daily basis, Second Helpings volunteers prepare and deliver 4,000 meals. Last year, the nonprofit prepared and delivered 955,869 meals to 80 social service agencies. Forty-seven percent went to children, 31 percent to adults, 17 percent to families and 6 percent to seniors.

From a food standpoint, it adds up to about 2.3 million pounds of food. Kroger, Trader Joe’s, US Foods, Dr. Pepper Snapple group, Fresh Thyme Farmers Market and Sysco, are the top retail contributors, each contributing more than 100,000 pounds.

People who run food drives, for the nonprofit are typically asked to collect pasta and rice because those are not perishables. Weekly the organization goes through 70 pounds of rice and 350 pounds of pasta, which they incorporate into the meals. And while technology has been used by some operations, Second Helpings uses people to gauge what’s coming in and what’s going out, typically taking inventory by sight.

“We do everything by weight. Everything’s by weight because from a tax standpoint, whether it’s a can of beans or a rack of lamb, it’s pound for pound,” she said.

Whitmore also mentions the savings to the local nonprofits on the receiving end of the food. “Those agencies don’t have to spend that money on food, so they can use their dollars and resources to help people better,” she said. Whenever Second Helpings on boards a new agency, it makes sure the organization and nonprofit are ready.

Whitmore mentions, another food source in the community, St. Vincent DePaul at 30th and Rural. One unique element is its grocery store set-up.

“There is a lot of dignity that is put into it,” she said. “I think that awareness and education has changed. I think that people are starting to get a better understanding of what hunger really looks like in a community. There will always be some who don’t understand. But I think the more we educate people, so that people realize that it’s not just soup kitchens. Hungry people are your neighbors.”

There are also sites that serve meals provided by Second Helpings, which have food pantries. Families get a meal and have food for tomorrow. Some of the stigma, too, is reduced at the community-feeding sites.

“Nobody wants to show up and say, ‘I’m here because I’m hungry.’ I think it’s nice to know that it’s not just one way that we’re feeding people. One model that may work for one family may not work for the other.”

At these sites, besides getting a hot, nutritious meal, people get introduced to foods. Vegetables are often added to mac and cheese or a curry dish will be distributed.

“In a lot of ways, hunger is something people deal with very privately. It’s a dignity thing. But if it’s a community meal where my neighbors can just sit down and eat, it’s OK. I like to think of it as the extended family table because you don’t sit next to someone at a communal table and not eventually talk to them,” she said.

Whitmore said she sees the need increasing, and Second Helpings has seen a 12 percent growth in meal production annually.

“The model that we have here is always poised for growth, and we’re always reassessing what does our future look like, and what is our plan for the future if growth happens. It’s something you have to do, because especially when you’re dealing with hunger relief, it is tied to so many other problems in the community,” she said.

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