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.
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.
“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.
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.
White Pony General Store is WPE’s second service program, distributing high-quality clothing, shoes, toys, games and children’s books. With help from retail partners and individuals in the community, it has distributed more than 600,000 items, all for free. This winter a Cold Weather Clothing Program has distributed cold weather clothing and goods to anyone in need. Birge stresses that all items should be new or like new.
“Our purpose is to use food and clothing as vehicles for sharing love, and our goal is uplifting lives,” she said. “We talk about our work as a circle of giving with all of us taking care of all of us. When we look upon each other as part of one human family, we can solve all of the problems, by distributing and sharing food and clothing.”
Since the pandemic’s onset, demand for WPE’s rescued food has risen steeply. Though the organization now averages 14,000 pounds of delivered per day, on some days it delivers as much as 35,000 pounds. At one point during the pandemic, WPE was able to identify sufficient food sources and accommodate all the organizations that had been on the wait list. Since then more need has arisen, and 15 to 30 more agencies have come onto the wait list for food donations. More food resources are available, but another truck is needed for collection and distribution.
White Pony Express is hoping the public will help by making a monetary donation to offset the increased demand for food that has impacted their budget. Other ways to help are to donate clothing, sponsor a drive for the General Store or to volunteer either on-site under strict safety precautions or from home. They also hope their volunteer-powered “circle of giving” will be replicated in other communities.
“We’re not only in the business of rescuing and distributing food and clothing; we’re in the business of sharing love — the love of the volunteers who put all their energy into sorting the food and making sure our recipients receive just what they want and the drivers who show up and work long hours every day of the week,” Birge said. “The reason we do this is because we are all part of one human family, and we need to take care of each other.”
Marta Yamamoto is a freelance writer, longtime Bay Area resident and outdoor enthusiast. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.