It’s the Season for Giving

By Julie Bonnin / Photography By Sandy Wilson | November 02, 2015
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FruitShare: Making the most of the season – for everyone! (photo by Tom Newton)

Local nonprofits working to feed their neighbors

 

Houston’s identity as a food destination just keeps growing, with residents dining out more each week than in any other city in America. But our appetite for giving is equally impressive, taking many different forms. At this time of the year devoted to showing gratitude and caring for others, it felt appropriate to showcase a few of the food-related nonprofit groups that have found inventive ways to give back 365 days a year in Houston.

 

 

Fruit Share Houston

Each winter, citrus trees in the greater Houston area sag under the bounty of ripe grapefruit, oranges, lemons and limes waiting to be picked. Some trees get so large it’s tough for owners to reach much of the fruit. Some fruit tree owners aren’t able to get out and tend trees. It’s not unusual for much of the citrus and other locally grown fruits in Houston to fall to the ground unused.

Fruit Share Houston capitalizes on the overflowing bounty of the Bayou City’s numerous citrus trees, sending volunteers and equipment to harvest fruit, which is then distributed to people in need. A couple who live in The Heights neighborhood, Karen Gordon and Kent Keith, began reaching out to neighbors about harvesting the bounty in 2013. With ladders strapped to the top of their compact car, they enlisted help from friends and collected more than 8,000 pounds of fruit for 400 needy families.

Last year, the numbers doubled, as word spread about the group. They’ve acquired some equipment, become a part of the nonprofit Neighborhood Centers, Inc., group, and are generally willing to go wherever they’re called in the Greater Houston area. “It seems like it’s taken on a life of its own without our really promoting it,” Gordon says. About 5% of the trees picked have been referred by “complete and total strangers” who have contacted her online, Gordon says. The group is always looking for spotters in far-flung neighborhoods who know of potential overloaded trees, and especially those who are willing to hand out flyers explaining what the group does.

Volunteers can support the abundant harvest by donating equipment, time, resources or all of the above during fruit-collecting season, October through April. In exchange for the fruit of their labor, they’ll have the gratitude of hundreds of families sitting down to meals inspired by juicy, healthy citrus.

Photo 1: Executive Chef Maurizio Ferrarese prepares a pickup. Four Seasons Hotel became a food donor in August 2015.
Photo 2: Shaken or stirred, all profits go to charity at OKRA Charity Saloon (styled by Julie Hettiger)
Photo 3: OKRA voting booth
Photo 4: Barbara Bronstein (back) delivers to Magnificat House, a shelter community in Midtown.
 
In 2011, a group of independent restaurant and bar owners in Houston came together when a proposed change in city policy regarding parking requirements threatened to cut into profits in a significant way.
 
With that crisis resolved, the dream team of food and drink professionals kept meeting, and formally organized as OKRA: Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs. In 2012, OKRA decided to collaborate on a project designed to highlight the responsibility local businesses have to give back to the community that supports them. They opened OKRA Charity Saloon in one of the oldest buildings in Houston, helping to revitalize the Market Square section of downtown in the process.
 
OKRA Charity Saloon operates as a bar with light food offerings where 100% of the profits go to local charities, a tangible thank you to the city and people who’ve helped propel their prosperity. With every drink they purchase, patrons get to vote for one of four charitable groups vying for donations each month. Scott Repass, current OKRA president and owner of, among others, Poison Girl and Antidote, explains the group’s motivation: “We all really love Houston, and giving back to downtown was something we really wanted to do. The city and the people have been so generous to us, we felt like we should use our talents and resources to give back.”
 
The group of business owners, initially led by Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge, includes Ryan Pera of Coltivare and Revival Market, Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, Paul Petronella of Paulie’s and Justin Yu of Oxheart, among several others. “One of the fun things is, it’s kind of like being on an NBA all-star team,” Repass says.
 
While the OKRA owners can’t always be on the premises, they’ve shared recipes, techniques and fun memories, like getting to name a four-legged member of the Houston Police Department Mounted Patrol, “Okra,” or having an armored Humvee parked outside when a U.S. veterans group was trying for donations, Repass says. But seeing crowds of patrons and knowing their presence is helping fuel nonprofit groups in a significant way is most gratifying. The saloon has given away $600,000-plus since its opening.
 
Two residents of Magnificat House
 
When Barbara Bronstein attended large banquets, catered dinners and other events where large amounts of prepared foods were served, she often wondered what happened to the leftovers. She knew some of the astounding statistics about food waste—one-third of all food is discarded, according to the USDA—and she knew there were many in need of food in the greater Houston area: one in four children in Harris County have limited or uncertain access to food, for instance.
 
When the former marketing executive found that Houston didn’t have a food rescue group, she began connecting food donors and charitable organizations on an ad hoc basis. She researched the many different kinds of food rescue organizations that operate in other U.S. cities, met with the Harris County Health Department about regulations and food safety rules and enlisted pro bono legal work to incorporate as a nonprofit organization. In the summer of 2014, Second Servings of Houston was established, began fund-raising and created a website.
 
Partnering with Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston’s Meals on Wheels program (using their trucks and drivers), Second Servings Houston began picking up and delivering food from licensed food vendors, providing an astounding 25,000 meals in the first five month, Bronstein says. “When Hilton/Americas-Houston signed on back in February, that was our big break,” Bronstein says.
 
The nonprofit also stepped in recently to help a restaurateur who was looking for a way to serve the community on his birthday. Second Servings helped arrange a pop-up charity dinner—Indian food provided by Niraj “Nick” Shah of DGN Factory—for residents of Magnificat Houses, an organization that has served the homeless in Houston since 1968.
 
 
Fighting hunger and working to help reduce food waste at the same time are on the forefront for the Houston Food Bank. “While we live and work in the most abundant land in the world, we unfortunately have a high level of food waste that is, frankly, unacceptable,” says Houston Food Bank President/CEO Brian Greene. The Houston Food Bank has various programs designed to collect and redistribute food items that became unsellable because of a dent in the can or a tear in the box. One of their most successful donation programs is Retail Pick-Up. It is aimed to redistribute perishable food items with a reduced shelf life, and items like fresh meats and dairy become available to families who could otherwise not afford them.
 
In 2015, Houston Food Bank has been able to redistribute “unsellable” food: 12,358,140 pounds via Retail Pick-Up (perishable food items closer to the sell-by date); 4,179,134 pounds through Pantry Select (donations of damaged boxes and cans); and 1,889,947 pounds through Scan A Can (donation of dented cans). Source: The Houston Food Bank
Article from Edible Houston at http://ediblehouston.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/it-s-season-giving
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