In retrospect, Bruce Feldman's idea for what hunger activists refer to as 'food rescue' seems almost too obvious to have been missed for so long

Socially Responsible Entrepreneur:
Bruce Feldman, Economy Linen

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No one would argue that turning restaurant and hotel-kitchen leftovers into sustenance rather than trash is anything but good. Good, yes, but not easy to accomplish. For years the efforts of well-meaning folk have been stymied by the administrative costs of getting the food to the people who need it.

Bruce Feldman had an idea that was both efficient and practical: use the resources of his linen-service company -- its trucks and network of restaurant delivery routes -- to make food pickups for the local food bank.

Still, even good ideas are just daydreams until they're invested with energy and time. Feldman took his vision and dealt with every practical challenge to come up with an operational plan to collect and distribute food in his own neighborhood, and then transformed it into a nationwide success story. He's earned this year's Socially Responsible Entrepreneur of the Year award.

The genesis of Feldman's idea was mundane enough. One evening in late 1989 he was listening to talk radio as he drove home from work. His local congressional representative, Tony Hall, was describing the frustrations of developing a method to transport leftover restaurant food to the American Red Cross's regional Emergency Food Bank. The food bank had a donated truck and a volunteer driver, but Hall didn't know how it would coordinate the effort or pay the expenses, which he estimated would approach $60,000 for start-up alone.

Feldman, then 31, was president of his family's business, Economy Linen and Towel Service Inc., which he'd joined nine years earlier. Founded by Feldman's grandfather in the early 1930s, the company employs 300 people, and has plants in Dayton and Zanesville, Ohio, and distribution centers in Cincinnati and Columbus. Annual revenues range from $10 million to $15 million.

Though Feldman had done charitable work, he'd never been involved in hunger issues. But Hall's challenge set off the proverbial light bulb, and soon he was meeting with Dan Foley, a staffer in Hall's office, and with the director of the Emergency Food Bank, Burma Rai.

"Bruce is dynamic in a very quiet way," says Rai. "He's a progressive thinker. But one of our fears was that there would be a commitment, but it would be short-lived. We found out fairly quickly that he was totally committed."

Feldman, Foley, and Rai crafted a plan: first, they would work with the local health department to set guidelines for freezing the food (because it would be transported in unrefrigerated trucks); then Economy Linen would line up restaurant customers that wanted to contribute their surplus. The drivers would provide those restaurants with food containers and would equip their Economy Linen trucks with insulated carriers. When drivers made linen pickups and drop-offs, they would also pick up the food. At the end of each day, they'd transfer the containers to an industrial freezer at Economy Linen's warehouse, and the Emergency Food Bank would collect them for distribution to community kitchens, homes for runaways, and shelters for battered women.

"I couldn't even have dreamed of something like this," marvels Representative Hall. "I wasn't thinking in these terms. It took a businessperson to think of it." Feldman says he took a business approach: "We had a goal, to collect food, and the job was to figure out how to get our customers to give the food, how to work with our drivers to pick up the food, and how to get the containers washed and sanitized and back where they belong. It became a business within itself." Of the idea, he says, it simply "seemed to be a way for private industry to harness the assets we have in place already in the community."

Indeed, the beauty of the program, named Operation Food Share (OFS), is that it folds charitable efforts into everyday work. The people who make it succeed -- kitchen staff at restaurants and the linen company's drivers -- don't have to change their habits so much as make small adjustments. The payoff, though, is considerable: shelters spend much less time on food preparation, and the food is more nutritious, protein rich, and savory than the typical shelter-prepared hot meal.

The biggest challenge turned out to be lining up restaurants to participate. While some operations embraced the opportunity enthusiastically, others were less inclined to cooperate. They were afraid to institutionalize a solution to the problem of miscalculating how much food they cooked. And, even though most states have "good-samaritan" laws, which transfer responsibility from restaurants to food banks, they still had concerns about liability.

Nevertheless, in May 1990 Economy Linen began its program with Dayton-area country clubs and restaurants. The start-up cost was $7,000, raised by the Food Bank. In its first year, Economy Linen transported 25,000 pounds of leftovers -- roughly 19,000 meals.

"At the very beginning, we were proud of the program but never thought it could go nationwide," says Feldman. But by late 1991 he and Dan Foley had begun wondering whether the program might be reproducible. In January 1992 Foley left Representative Hall's staff to help set up similar networks in other communities. With administrative assistance from the Textile Rental Services Association of America (TRSA), the first expansion was to Washington, D.C., two months later. In the two years since then, OFS networks have begun operating in four other cities, and another six are in development. Already, nine linen companies are involved.

With an $80,000 budget for 1993 funded by the TRSA and other contributors, the program has become systematically institutionalized. The OFS team members -- Feldman, Foley, and two others -- help coordinate food-rescue efforts nationally. They oversee discussions between linen companies (often several participate within the same city) and the food banks they'll be serving; they've developed promotional materials for recruiting restaurants; they arrange cocktail parties and stage press events with mayors and community leaders as cities launch their programs; they provide automated tracking systems for the linen companies to give their drivers as reminders of where to make pickups; and they compile all the statistical information on how much and what kind of food is being donated to help new cities plot their programs. They also plan to start a national newsletter and to arrange an annual meeting of representatives from each linen company.

"Bruce has been here a half dozen times," says Gary Foster, general manager of American Linen, in Denver, which kicked off network operations in October 1992, in cooperation with three other linen companies. "It really is kind of neat," he says. "We beat one another up day in and day out trying to secure business. But it's nice that we can bury the hatchet in times like these." In a synergistic adjunct to Foster's participation, his wife, Jo, is focusing her business studies on discovering why some companies resist joining the program and what could make OFS more successful.

For Feldman, involving others in this effort has become a passion. Two or three times a year, he details the program's progress at meetings of the TRSA, which contributed $25,000 in 1993. Around Dayton, restaurants have taken their cue from him: they've expanded their Food Bank efforts beyond OFS, raising $18,000 toward the purchase of a truck one year and $14,000 for a forklift another year. OFS has obtained donated office space as well as accounting and legal services. Feldman made a presentation at the first national conference of Food Chain, a nascent association of "prepared- and perishable-food-rescue programs," speaking about the linen industry's contribution.

By year's end, OFS will have moved some 200,000 pounds of food, and it expects to double that number next year. The program's goal is to get the nation's 10,000-plus linen trucks that visit food operations each day to make at least one food pickup daily. It will take a while: even Economy Linen's fleet falls short of 100% participation.

"There is a great emotional benefit to having a chance to do this community service during our normal working day," says Feldman. "Maybe not every business has that opportunity." Sure, the decidedly unglamorous linen industry garners goodwill. But for the most part, the day-to-day execution is done quietly and without fanfare, purely because it should be done, and because it is best done in a pragmatic, businesslike way.