Pleasant Hill group serves growing food needs amid pandemic

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PLEASANT HILL — Every day, thousands of area people go hungry while thousands of pounds of surplus food go to landfills.

This eye-opening statement spurred the formation of White Pony Express (WPE) a food-rescue operation headquartered in Pleasant Hill that has become a vital link between businesses with surplus food and area people in need, which has more than doubled during the pandemic with WPE’s average food deliveries increasing from 6,000 to 14,000 pounds a day. To accommodate this increased need, WPE is asking for the public’s help.

White Pony Express driver Dario Guzman and volunteer James Quintana unload a truck full of nutritious surplus food for recipient organizations that distribute it throughout Contra Costa County to those in need. (photo courtesy of Lauren Militello) 

Dr. Carol Weyland Conner founded the nonprofit in September 2013, troubled that in a county like Contra Costa with tremendous abundance, thousands of people were going hungry everyday, many suffering from inadequate and unhealthy diets. She learned that it wasn’t due to a scarcity of food since grocers and restaurants every day were sending thousands of pounds of food to landfills, either due to excess inventory, appearance or artificially created “sell by” dates.

With the knowledge that these businesses would welcome help to reduce what they were throwing away and that community agencies would greatly welcome receiving food, White Pony Express was conceived as the link to bring the food to those who needed it. In seven years, WPE has diverted more than 14 million pounds of nutritious food that would otherwise have been sent to landfills. Reducing the amount of food going into landfills also reduces the toxic greenhouse gases this food produces, a great benefit to the environment.

White Pony General Store Operations Manager Ana Bostick and Director Steve Harrell show clothing that will be distributed free of charge to isolated seniors. (photo courtesy of Lauren Militello) 
White Pony General Store volunteer Candice DeVisser shows a wrapped bundle of babies’ onesies that will be distributed for free to Contra Costa County residents in need. (photo courtesy of Lauren Militello) 

“Our name comes from Pony Express, the American innovation designed to deliver mail and goods twice as fast as anything else available at the time, renowned as always reliable, and the white pony, a symbol in many faith traditions of divinity and unity,” said WPE Executive Director Eve Birge.

White Pony Express (WPE) volunteers David Kennedy and William Davis load a van with nourishing fresh food for delivery to WPE’s recipient partner organizations. (photo courtesy of Lauren Militello) 

The process works like a well-oiled machine. Seven days a week, 364 days a year, refrigerated vans pick up about 14,000 pounds of fresh surplus food from around 88 food donors — supermarkets, restaurants, food distributors and farmers markets — and bring it back to the distribution center. There, morning and afternoon shifts of volunteers sort through huge wrapped palettes of food and lay it all out.

“We want to be certain that what goes back in the trucks to be distributed to our agencies is of the same quality as what we would serve our own families,” she said.

WPE works with about 70 recipient organizations throughout Contra Costa County. These serve many different populations from shelters and residential facilities, to churches, schools and community kitchens, each one with different food preferences depending on whom they serve. Volunteers select specific foods for each organization that will receive food that day. Once sorted and repacked, the food goes back out the same day in refrigerated vans to each organization.

“I think it’s been a boon for the partner agencies we have across Contra Costa to get this free, fresh, healthy food because their budgets are tight and this way they can focus their energies on their clients,” Birge said.

Volunteers drive this system, and their safety is kept paramount during this pandemic, with measures in place according to health guidelines and everything spaced 6 feet apart. With these measures, 17 volunteers can work in the morning, another 17 in the afternoon.

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