It all started as a simple way to tackle two huge problems: hunger and food waste. A few members of a temple in metro Atlanta wanted to take leftover fresh food from grocery stores and restaurants and quickly deliver it to agencies that provide food to those in need. People would get fed, and the perishable food wouldn't get wasted.

What began as a social action project more than a decade ago quickly grew as members knocked on doors, gathered donations and identified agencies that could deliver the fresh food to those in the community who could use it most. Now a nonprofit organization, Second Helpings Atlanta has 62 donors, 31 partner agencies and a team of more than 350 volunteer drivers who hit the streets every day to pick up and drop off perishable food.

"The challenge is getting the food from those who have it to those who need it, and that's what we do," says Executive Director Joe Labriola. "We play a very specific role. We do 125 scheduled pickups and deliveries a week. We've gotten pretty good at this."

Food is donated by grocery stores and restaurants, schools and farmers markets, even corporate cafeterias. It's quickly delivered throughout metro Atlanta to partner agencies that range from traditional food pantries and community meal programs to places that offer meals along with temporary housing.

Influencing healthier eating habits

Fresh food provides more nutrition than the non-perishable, processed diet that so many people eat when they have low or no incomes. One of the group's goals is to change that standard, offering fresh food that will ideally help trigger healthier eating habits.

"The reason we're so focused on perishable food is that we're providing nutrition to the diets of people who are surviving on processed food," Labriola says. "We're breaking the cycle and hope that some of the health benefits of fresh food will start to kick in."

Since the first delivery was made in 2004, the group has "rescued" more than 5.5 million pounds of food, which they figure would be enough to provide more than 4.6 million meals. Looking just at this year through September 2016, the group has delivered 962,635 pounds of food, and Labriola estimates they will pick up and deliver more than 1.3 million pounds by the end of the year.

Because the concept has been so successful, they've been approached by groups in other places wanting to start similar programs in their communities. Labriola sees no reason why the program can't easily be adopted anywhere. After all, food waste and hunger are universal problems and this solution, he says, is a simple, effective one. He rattles off a list of food waste and hunger statistics:

  • 40 percent of the food produced in this country never gets consumed.
  • The average annual cost per household of food that gets thrown out is $650.
  • Just in Georgia, 20 percent of people in the state live in a food-insecure environment, meaning they're not sure when they're going to eat next.

"It's a pretty grim story," he says. "But if we rescue just 15 percent of that food, we can feed 25 million Americans."

Second Helpings Atlanta volunteers Second Helpings Atlanta volunteers (including Joe Labriola in white hat) seen at the Taste of Atlanta event, which provides the group with plenty of of fresh food donations from participating restaurants. (Photo: Second Helpings Atlanta)

The logistics of filling a need

Labriola first joined the group just over three years ago as a volunteer. He was looking for a way to get involved in the community and was impressed with the group's model, which offers volunteers a 90-minute monthly commitment with straightforward results. From the time a driver leaves home — stopping to pick up the food and drop it off at a partner agency — it typically takes no longer than 90 minutes for him to return home. Deliveries are made every day of the year except Christmas, and they range in size so people can pick them up no matter if they own a small sedan or a minivan. That way volunteering is within reach for everyone.

Although most pickups are regularly scheduled, the group often gets calls from people holding weddings, bar mitzvahs or festivals, knowing that there will be plenty of leftover food at the end of the night. When that happens, a call goes out to find a volunteer to help.

When people sign up to volunteer, they're shown the available routes and are asked to choose the one that would work best with their location and schedule. But Second Helpings Atlanta is working with a team of industrial engineering students at Georgia Tech to try to help streamline the process. They're developing an app to assist with recruiting and route optimization.

"We're turning to technology to be a much more efficient operation, from a cost perspective and making sure we are using our volunteers' time most effectively," Labriola says.

Pulling in a new generation of helpers

Often families will volunteer together for the weekly delivery service. Labriola says that group efforts is key to educating younger generations about food waste and hunger. He tells the story about a family with two young children who met him to pick up dozens of turkeys at a grocery store around Thanksgiving. The children were wide-eyed as they helped carry the delivery, bird-by-bird from the store to the truck then from the truck into the agency that would distribute them to families. Labriola told the kids they had helped feed 225 families, and as the realization sunk in, one of them said, "That's as many kids that are in my school!"

As the group hopes to expand and feed even more families, it has planned its first major fundraiser on Nov. 12 — The Taste of the Trucks, with entertainment, crafts and kids making bagged lunches to be donated to partner agencies. They're hoping that in addition to raising funds, the event will raise awareness of what Labriola calls "the best-kept secret in Atlanta." Another hope? Maybe that will also catch the eye of more potential volunteers.

"We need to continue to find volunteers," he says. "Because you can have all the food and all the partner agencies, but if you don’t have the volunteers to rescue the food, the magic doesn't happen."

Mary Jo DiLonardo Mary Jo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.