Barbara Bronstein, Founder of Second Servings of Houston Shares Her Journey

As you undoubtedly know, retirement can take many different forms. Some people dream of relaxing, slowing down their hectic pace of life, and look forward to enjoying the new chapters of their lives in a more leisurely style.  Others choose to “never retire” and work as long as they can at their full- or part-time jobs. Still others may find retirement as challenging, due to the loss of daily structure, work colleagues, and personal identity.

A study published  in Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy notes “Having life goals that continue into retirement is more important than the nature of those goals when it comes to a successful transition.”  So, whatever your goals are, and whichever path you choose, is totally fine… this is a time to do what brings you the most pleasure and gratification—after all, you’ve earned it!

Whether you are retiring from working, or working into retirement, many people opt to develop their passions and dreams in personal and fulfilling ways.  For some people, their love for food translates into spending more time cooking, trying new recipes, or even taking cooking classes to master new techniques and creations. For one retiree, her interest in food led her to find her passion preventing food waste, in favor of feeding people in need.

Food insecurity, defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food due to insufficient financial resources, knows no age boundaries. Feeding America’s most recent research found that 5.3 million seniors, or 7.3% of the senior population, were food insecure in 2018.

Another serious problem is food waste, which the EPA estimates is between 30 and 40% of all available food. To make matters worse, when food is sent to the landfill, it decomposes and emits potent methane gas, a major contributor to climate change.

Many of us may remember our parents saying “Finish your food, there are starving children in (you can fill in the name of country).” One Silver Disobedient never forgot those words, and went into action.

Barbara Bronstein is a career marketing executive whose work experience spanned a few national food brands. As an active member of the Houston community, she often attended charity banquets, where she noticed an enormous amount of food being wasted due to last minute no-shows. Beginning with an idea five years ago, her food rescue nonprofit, Second Servings of Houston, now has over 250 food donors—primarily retailers, manufacturers, and distributors—that donate their surplus unsold food for direct delivery, for free, to 90 shelters, soup kitchens, low-income housing and other local charities that serve about 170,000 people annually.

We sat down with Barbara, Second Servings of Houston’s founder, president and volunteer, to find out how she decided to fight food waste and feed people.

What triggered your interest in food waste and food insecurity?

It was eye-opening to learn that Houston’s rate of food insecurity at 16%, was much higher than the U.S. population at 12%. I couldn’t imagine not having enough food to eat, so I started thinking about how to redirect unserved banquet food, to people in need. The food was high quality chef-prepared food that had never left the hotels’ kitchens, and it was getting thrown away, since there wasn’t an alternative at the time.

How did you begin solving the problem of food waste?

My initial efforts included connecting a local soup kitchen with various hotels, so that it could benefit from their banquet food surplus.  That worked out well, and after a year and a lot of research, I discovered what I was doing actually had a name. It was called “food rescue” or “food recovery”, and that it was going on all over the country, from small cities to large. It just wasn’t happening in Houston, so I studied over 25 food rescue organizations, and compiled best practices that would fit my home market. This included using refrigerated trucks, since Houston is hot most of the year, and paying drivers, since reliability and dependability were primary keys to success. I consulted with a lot of experts in foodservice, public health, law, and social services, developed a business plan, and founded Second Servings of Houston, the city’s only prepared and perishable food rescue organization. Since we began operations in 2015, we have already rescued over $20 million worth of food and kept more than 3 million pounds of food from the landfill.

Many of us are familiar with soup kitchens and pantries, where you can volunteer to make or distribute food.  Can you tell us, though, how a food rescue organization is different?

We provide the conduit between food donors and charity recipients. Using our refrigerated vans, we pick up surplus unsold food every day from food businesses, and deliver it directly to charities that serve people in need. The charities use the food either “as is”, such as sandwiches and chips, or as ingredients for their meal preparation, including meat, fresh vegetables, fruit, and dairy products. We get to know our charities’ preferences, so we can bring them what they like and need. We work with food donors on a scheduled or as-needed basis.

What populations do you serve?

Our food helps nourish disabled homeless seniors, low income adults and families, at-risk youth, veterans, abused women and children, adults in recovery, developmentally challenged adults, the homeless, and many others. 

How have crises impacted your organization?

Unfortunately, the Houston area is prone to hurricanes, some of which develop into crises.  In 2017, for instance, Hurricane Harvey caused devastating flooding and damage to the Houston area.  Most recently, Covid-19  has caused tremendous damage to people’s livelihoods as well.  During both crises, we immediately went to work, rescuing valuable perishable food from hotels, restaurants, business cafeterias, distributors, schools, and other businesses that were unable to operate.  During Hurricane Harvey we rescued more than 100,000 pounds of food valued at more than $1.2 million.  For Covid-19, when many businesses were forced to close and so much surplus food in the pipeline, such as the 24,000 apples and pears from a school lunch provider, we enlisted help and received donated services from new resources to make some of the huge pickups. Thus far we have rescued more than 700,000 pounds of food valued at $8.4 million.

With Covid’s devastating impact on people’s employment, we knew the need for food was skyrocketing and we created a new program called “Dinner’s On Us”, a mass meal relief program in just two weeks’ time, thanks to a myriad of collaborations with generous community partners. Since early April and with the help of 75 volunteers, we have been distributing the heat ‘n eat hearty meals at a drive-through site, as well as through partner charities serving families.

Tell me about your volunteers—who they are and what they do.

We have incredible volunteers of all ages, including many retirees, who find kindred spirits and community in our organization. Every day, a volunteer rides along with our drivers, assisting with pickups and deliveries throughout the day. What they tell me they enjoy most is seeing the whole cycle and knowing they are making a difference: from food donor, who appreciates being able to help the community’s needy and not discard perfectly edible surplus food, to charity recipient, who is grateful to receive the wide variety of high quality food, as well as save money in the food budget. The charities report using the savings to provide additional services to their residents/clients, serve more people, or pay overhead.

What is your long-term goal?

Most people laugh, but my long-term goal is to go out of business. That would mean there would be no more need and no more waste. Unfortunately, it will be a long time coming.