Throughout 2015, the Food Recovery Project will be blogging about innovators, entrepreneurs, and advocates on the front lines of the food recovery movement – forward thinking and creative activists who are fighting food waste and wholeheartedly embracing a food conservation ethos.
Our first spotlight feature is Syd Mandelbaum, the founder of Rock and Wrap it Up! a think tank devoted to ending poverty.
Indifference. Syd Mandelbaum says that many people “Photoshop” poor people out of their line of sight. “In their minds they erase the poor like they are not there.” Through his thinktank Rock and Wrap it Up! (RWU), Syd has made it his business to ensure hungry people have food to eat. “If you see things that you could change and you don’t do it… then you lose. Change things and then inspire others to do the same thing,” Syd said.
For decades, RWU has been a pioneer in facilitating the collection and donation of prepared food from schools, hospitals, music, entertainment and sporting events. Way back in 1990, when Rock and Wrap it Up was founded, the food recovery landscape had fewer advocates. Indeed, RWU began recovering food five years before the Bill Emerson Food Donation Act was enacted, when concerns about liability where a far more significant hurdle than they are today.
RWU often increases participation in food recovery using a simple yet effective legal tool – private contractual terms. While working on a food donation project at Jones Beach Theater, Syd learned rock group The Black Crowes had a clause in their contract rider through which they requested marijuana in their dressing room. Syd was inspired! He started asking band managers to add a stipulation in their clients’ riders requiring excess food to be donated instead of being thrown away. In this way, Syd leveraged star-power to promote social good.
But RWU’s work didn’t stop with performers and venues. Indeed, one of RWU’s most significant contributions to the food recovery movement is the creation of a Whole Earth Calculator – a free online tool that quickly computes the environmental and anti-hunger impact of each pound of donated food.
RWU targets companies whose business models and imperatives will always result in excess food. Even the most green-minded schools, hospitals, and sporting events generate extra food. Stadiums, for example, aim never to run out of snacks that sports fans crave. As a result they consistently have left over prepared food that cannot be used at the next game. RWU makes sure that the leftovers are put to good use.
Syd’s desire to ensure food recovery remains sustainable, led to RWU’s involvement in the Federal Food Donation Act. In 2006, Syd was invited to a dinner at the Library of Congress. During dinner Syd asked, “What happens to the extra food?” No one could answer his question. Syd realized that if members of Congress did not know what happened to the leftovers, the other agencies did not know where their food was going either.
Syd drafted language for a federal donation law and sent it to several members of Congress. The language became the basis of the Federal Food Donation Act. Although Syd’s initial draft mandated donation, the final version of the bill “encourages” food donation. Syd tells potential donators, “If the federal government encourages donating excess food, shouldn’t you do the same?” Syd is hoping to motivate state governments to adopt provisions from the federal law.
RWU has also helped businesses become more cognizant of conserving non-food assets. For example, RWU is now engaged in asset recovery from high-end hotels. Hotels were throwing paper and hygiene products in the garbage. Toilet paper, tissue boxes, shampoo, conditioner and unopened soaps have huge value for churches and other nonprofits that assist low income people. RWU’s newest initiative, a Mardi Bra Party, is a benefit to collect feminine hygiene products for women in need. By incorporating a bit of LA-style fun, RWU is bringing attention to a critical hygiene need about which many people are generally unaware and uncomfortable discussing.
Although RWU has fed one billion people in the 25 years it has been in existence, Syd does not consider himself successful because there are still hungry people. “Hunger is a boulder that is always rolling downhill,” Syd said. Despite the enormity and the constancy of the challenge, Syd remains undetterred. Fortitude characterizes his personal and family legacy — both of Syd’s parents survived the Holocaust. Indeed, reflecting on the Holocaust inspired Syd to lead a life of service. While visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, he told his father, “I feel like I have to go back to America and change the world.” Syd believes he was given the opportunity to have life because his parents survived at a time when millions were dying around them. Syd honors his parents’ will to live by dedicating his life’s work to help people meet their basic needs.
While talking with Syd, one is left with the impression that he is sharing the story of his life and work with his whole heart. His humility and work for the poor are inspiring. I was honored to speak with him about his work.
Interested in volunteering or want to know more? You can find Rock and Wrap it Up! on: Twitter https://twitter.com/wholeearthcalc, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RockandWrap and http://rockandwrapitup.org/