BENTONVILLE — Truckloads of fresh fruit and vegetables once bound for the garbage now form the basis of meals for hundreds of financially struggling Northwest Arkansas residents.
What started with a few loaves of banana bread made from brown spotty bananas discarded by a produce supplier quickly ballooned into a plan to serve 5,000 free meals a week. The plan largely relies on donations, volunteer labor and products that would have otherwise been thrown away, said Rick Boosey, owner of the World Garden Restaurant in Bentonville.
"We're doing our little piece," Boosey said. "We found a gap in the system that's been there since the food service industry began."
The main ingredient in the low-cost meals is produce discarded by suppliers because it's too close to its expiration date to distribute to restaurants, which require about five days of guaranteed freshness.
Out of his Lowell-based warehouse, about the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, produce supplier James Urich discards enough produce to fill a 15-passenger van each week.
"It's close-dated, and we can't sell it," he said.
In the past, Urich has donated some fresh produce to homeless day centers and food pantries. But because it wasn't fresh for long, much of it ended up in the trash.
Cooking the raw ingredients and preserving them in individual portions ensures they'll be useful for an extended period of time, opening up a stream of ingredients that once seemed inaccessible, Boosey said.
"This is low-hanging fruit,"he said. "It's easy."
The plan started when Molly Rawn, development director for the Northwest Arkansas Women's Shelter, approached Boosey in the spring for a small donation.
The restaurant, which opened in November 2008, was still struggling to turn a profit during the recession, he said. In the first weeks it was open, the former Microsoft account manager and first-time restaurant owner changed his prices so many times he eventually ripped down his permanent menu boards, coating the walls with chalkboard paint instead to allow for easy adjustments.
Still, Boosey and his wife Cindy wanted to help. After giving a small pot of leftover soup to a family friend struggling with medical bills, the couple considered taking advantage of other remnants of the food service industry.
Urich told them about his discarded produce, noting an abundance of bananas he discarded when they started to brown, and World Garden employees started baking dozens of loaves of banana bread for the women at the shelter each week.
Urich started flash-freezing his brown bananas and provided hundreds of pounds to the restaurant. Volunteer bakers stepped forward and employees worked off the clock to package the loaves.
"Things just multiplied," Cindy Boosey said.
Eventually, there was too much banana bread for the shelter, and the Booseys started selling it in the restaurant and at the Bentonville Farmers Market for $5 a loaf, contributing all proceeds to the organization.
War Eagle Mill began donating 100 pounds of organic wheat flour from its historic grist mill each week and a Washington County egg farmer started providing eggs, leaving very few ingredients for the restaurant to supply.
"It was amazing," Rawn said. "We didn't have to make a plan or study the idea. It just happened."
This success motivated those involved to create a plan to meetthe nutritional needs of a growing number of people struggling during the recession.
The Booseys started taking an entire van load of discarded produce from the warehouse each week, making soups, stir fries and dishes capable of feeding about 400 people. They give much of the food to the women's shelter, allowing clients in crisis situations a break from preparing their own meals.
On Friday, they picked up crates of fresh blueberries, bags of potatoes and boxes of large tomatoes.
"It's like Iron Chef," Rick Boosey said of the Food Network television show where chefs are challenged to improvise dishes with surprise ingredients. "I call back from the warehouse and tell them what I've got and say, 'What are we going to make with this ?'"
The restaurant teamed with the Cobblestone Project, a service ministry for homeless and low-income people, to distribute the food as the project grows.
"The size of this really depends on how many volunteers we find," said Mike Rusch, cofounder of the Cobblestone Project.
The group will hold a meeting this month to determine how to distribute meals once the 5, 000-meal target is reached.
Providing individual servings of food will allow workers to quickly build relationships and gain trust with homeless people when they go out to offer assistance, Rusch said.
"We know that the road to relationships, especially in the South, travels through food," he said.
The ministry also plans todistribute the food through other organizations and at its outreach events, including "Laundry Love," a night of free washes at a coin-operated laundry, and "Sheer Kindness," which provides free haircuts to families.
"There's a definite need for assistance above and beyond what's been needed in the past," Rusch said.
Organizations that provide meals and emergency grocery assistance to low-income clients have strained to keep up with a combination of increased demand from new clients and decreased giving from longtime donors.
The Northwest Arkansas Women's Shelter, which has a capacity of about 30, has had a 50 percent increase of clients over the last year, executive director Angie Albright said. The shelter hosted 96 women and children in the first six months of 2008, a number that grew to 196 in the first half of 2009.
"It would be nice to think that it's just because we are doing a good job of reaching out to the community, but that's not the case," she said. "There's more people in crisis and it's because of the economy."
The Rogers-based Office of Human Concern, which assists families in Benton, Carroll and Madison counties, has seen an increase of people seeking emergency food supplies, executive director Al West said. About 40 percent of those seeking the services this summer have been first-time users, compared with about 20 percent last summer, he said.
Rick Boosey would like to see the idea expand to other restaurants. He has a button on a cash register that allows customers to donate to food providers when they order a meal, and he spreads the idea to generate momentum and excitement from others.
"There's 1,200 homeless people in Northwest Arkansas who are hungry," he said. "We're a tiny little restaurant. If we all gang together, we can make that go away."
Information on the project is available from Rusch at email@example.com.
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Northwest Arkansas, Pages 7, 14 on 08/03/2009