Furloughed SF chef helps turn discarded food into elaborate meals for people in need

"I came and volunteered for a few weeks and I liked the whole concept and so, I stayed."

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Friday, September 25, 2020
Bay Area chef turns discarded food into meals for homeless
Food Runners has been saving food destined for the compost bin and donating it to agencies serving people in need. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to change strategies in preparing meals it distributed to people unable to go to food kitchens.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Victor Parra is used to cooking for hundreds. As an executive sous chef at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, he has prepared meals for banquets and conventions. He even cooked up a special meal to honor renowned chef Tonya Holland in 2018.

But the COVID-10 pandemic left him at a crossroad. He was furloughed when safety guidelines forced the hotel to close in March. To stay busy, he started volunteering at Food Runners.

"I came and volunteered for a few weeks and I liked the whole concept and so, I stayed," said Parra, who uses his culinary skills to turn discarded food into healthy meals.

For more than 30 years, Food Runners has been retrieving unwanted and leftover food destined for the garbage or compost bin and redirecting it to homeless and people in need.

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"Before COVID, we were picking up masses of food from tech companies in the South of Market area and from special catering events. It was food that would otherwise be dumped in the compost," said founder Mary Risley.

Volunteers at Food Runners were picking up an average of 18 tons of food a week. The food was taken to homeless shelters and organizations operating food kitchens.

But just as the pandemic forced restaurants to close their dining rooms, food kitchens were also forced to close.

"All the special events stopped. All the catering stopped," said Risley.

Many food kitchens began packaging food in takeout containers and distributing it to people with food insecurity.

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Food Runners had to adapt as well. With restaurants closed and catering events cancelled, Risley and her team of volunteers started relying more on farmer's markets and neighborhood grocery stores.

Instead of taking all that excess produce to food kitchens, Risley decided it was better to make individually packed meals it could distribute to groups feeding people in need.

Before long, Food Runners moved into an unused kitchen at the Waller Center and started cooking hundreds of meals a day.

"We make the menu daily depending on what we get that day. If we get stone fruits, we make bread pudding. When we get lots of meats, we come up with stews or chili beans," said Parra, whose menu on this day includes sausage frittata and chicken curry soup.

Food Runners is now making 2,000 meals a day. Restaurants like Nopa and Sea Glass help out by making 1,000 meals a week each.

Volunteers drop the meal packages all over the city, including apartment buildings that house low-income seniors and community groups like North Beach Citizens.

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"Because they have these professional chefs, we've had potato leek soup and bread pudding and beautiful organic salads. It's nutritional food that is the key to make sure that the individuals that we are serving stay healthy," said Kristie Fairchild, who founded North Beach Citizens nearly 20 years ago.

The group hands out dozens of meals delivered daily by Food Runners to people who walk up to its office near Broadway and Kearny Street.

Food Runners is now collecting excess food at about 40 locations a week, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Mollie Stone's Markets.

"We'll pick up anywhere, anytime. There is no good reason to throw away any food in San Francisco," said Risley, who encourages more markets and restaurants to contact her group to donate excess food.