I recently sat down for an interview with Stephanie Tyler Smith about Food For Free, and their mission to improve access to healthy food through establishing innovative programming and partnerships to overcome barriers and strengthen the community food system.
Stephanie brings almost 10 years of nonprofit program management to her current position as the Vice President of Programs at Food For Free. She has been involved in hunger relief work for the last 8 of these years. Prior to Food For Free she ran the food programs at Beverly Bootstraps Community Services, where she learned that she loves helping others access good food. At Food For Free, she oversees a team of nine staff and works closely with the Operations department to execute Food For Free’s programs: Just Eats, Healthy Eats, Heat-n-Eats, School Markets, and Carrot Cards.
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Transcript – Please note, this Transcript is AI Generated. It has not had the discerning ears of a real human to edit it, as such, there are bound to be a few errors
Jimmy Tingle 0:05
Hey everybody, this is Jimmy. Welcome to another episode of the Jimmy tinkle show. We have a very special show for you today because we’re going to be talking about hunger right here in Massachusetts. Our guests, ladies and gentlemen, Stephanie Tyler Smith. She’s the vice president of programs at food for free. Hello, Stephanie. Welcome to the show. Hi, Jimmy, thank
Stephanie Tyler Smith 0:26
you so much for
Jimmy Tingle 0:29
thank you so much for joining us today. So Stephanie, let’s just get into it. Tell us what exactly is food for free.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 0:36
So food for free is a redistribution and food redistribution and rescue nonprofit. We work with over 20 Different communities in eastern Massachusetts to provide healthy food to people in need, and has
Jimmy Tingle 0:53
the is there a lot of need in Massachusetts, people think of Massachusetts, I think, and they don’t think oh, well, they have a real hunger issue. Is there a real hunger issue here in Massachusetts?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 1:04
Yeah, there really is. There was a report done by the Greater Boston Food Bank earlier this year, and one in three adults in Massachusetts does not have enough to eat, and that’s even higher with families or public college students. And those are some of the people that we’re working to
Jimmy Tingle 1:21
say, Oh, that’s pretty. That’s pretty striking one in three adults and Massachusetts.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 1:27
Yeah, it mean cost of living is really high in this state. And inflation right now is making groceries so expensive, that people are just really stretched, and we just haven’t fully recovered from the pandemic either.
Jimmy Tingle 1:40
And now, how long have you worked with food for free?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 1:44
I started here two weeks, actually, before the COVID pandemic hit our world. So I started on February 24 2020. And then hit the ground running, to say the least.
Jimmy Tingle 1:58
Yes. So when the pandemic hit, you were at one speeds, okay. So everything’s going along food for free, you’re delivering food to people, you’re getting people in need help and assistance, and nutrition, then the pandemic hits? Do you guys pause? Do you have to pivot? Or do you accelerate what happened?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 2:20
We had to have a total pivot to reach people in need at that time, because our work the way that we serve 20 plus communities in eastern Massachusetts, is through partnerships, whether that be schools or food pantries, or community agencies. And when the pandemic hit, everything shut down. So then all of a sudden, we realized we needed to do something to help people specifically in Cambridge, since we’re based in the Cambridge and Somerville area. And so we within days created a pop up Emergency Food Distribution Program to deliver groceries to food insecure people in Cambridge that we found out about through the schools or the senior center other agencies, because they were all shut down, they had no access point. So we launched that emergency distribution program, and served 2000 People 2000 households a week at peak during that program. And we did that during the lockdown of the pandemic and haven’t slowed down since I would say that really set us on a new trajectory of growth in our organization.
Jimmy Tingle 3:31
So the need has increased since the pandemic, places are
Stephanie Tyler Smith 3:35
open now. So that makes our work simpler, but the need hasn’t changed, like the inflation and pantry lines are just through the roof. And the demands that we have from our partner agencies for more food, to meet the needs of their constituents is is really high. It’s just less of the chaos of those first few months of the pandemic and more of a sustained, really depressing drawn out great need among our families and individuals. So that’s kind of a
Jimmy Tingle 4:05
trial by fire for you. You’re there two weeks, and all of a sudden, there’s a worldwide pandemic and like you got to reorganize the whole organization.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 4:15
Yeah, it was wild. We in the basically the job that I signed up for didn’t exist two weeks into it. And it was a new job and a totally new thing. And all of our programs had to really rebuild or totally expand in order to keep up with the needs in our changing pandemic world. So it was pretty wide, very
Jimmy Tingle 4:36
indicative of industries all over the world that either were able to ramp up and pivot and innovate to meet the changing terrain that we all found ourselves in or they didn’t they didn’t last. And it’s true. It really speaks to the innovation of your organization and the ability to to just keep your 14 Tell me tell me how many folks are work at food for free.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 5:07
We have just over 3030, we have about 35 full time employees. It’s, I’m hesitating, because sometimes it’s up to 40, seasonally. But yes, and we’ve over doubled in size and our operating budget and all that since before the pandemic. And we didn’t even have a facility before the pandemic, where we distributed food out of and now I’m sitting right here in our 12,000 square foot facility that we’re already growing out of. So. But yeah,
Jimmy Tingle 5:37
and I know that you have a lot of people who are really dedicated in terms of volunteerism, how many volunteers do you have at the organization,
Stephanie Tyler Smith 5:48
we engage about almost 200 volunteers on a weekly basis that come through our doors to help whether it be like individuals or corporate groups. Last year, we had about 800 volunteers total, you know, you meet volunteers who came through our doors. So definitely casting a wide net. And a lot of those are committed regular volunteers, which we appreciate them so much, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the people putting in that time and labor to just pack grocery items in a box and get it on our truck for our car or in their car for distribution. Definitely,
Jimmy Tingle 6:28
please walk us through how do you get food? I mean, you’re not a farm, you’re not growing the food? How do you get food? And where does it ultimately end up? Because I think a pretty interesting, pretty interesting journey.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 6:43
It is, and it’s there’s so much about our food system. That’s fascinating. So I mean, food for free started with the heart of food rescue. So basically, picking up food at a food source, like a grocery store or another place like that, that would otherwise go to waste and rescuing it. And a lot of times, whether it be from a farmers market or a grocery store, these are the items that we are rescuing so that they’re not rejected and thrown in the landfill are perfectly good items. And so we started in 1981, with a group of volunteers committed to just rescuing food and getting it to different community service agencies or meal programs who could utilize that food to help people. So that’s really our origin and a lot of our food rescue. A lot of our food source is that food rescue? We have about I believe it’s 1.5 million pounds of food each year is Food Rescue. And then the rest of that food is acquired through other partnerships that we have the Greater Boston Food Bank is a huge partner of ours. So we get a lot of food through them and then redistributed. So that’s kind of how we acquire it. We also do purchase some food from other vendors. But the bulk is rescue and acquired through the Greater Boston Food Bank as a key partner. And then to access the people who need food. That’s where we utilize this really wide array of partners who we have over all said and done over 150 partners across our organization. They are food pantries, their schools, their community colleges, their low income housing sites, that we work with them to figure out what they need in their community, whether it be a pop up market, a pop up food pantry market at a school or a grocery box drop that a low income housing resident coordinator can distribute to their residents or food rescue given to a food pantry that they put, you know, in their pantry and allow people to come through and get food. So the way that we serve a partner depends on who who they are and what we can supply them with. And, yeah, it’s good to. Just to add to that the community colleges, a lot of our support with them is either sometimes food pickups from the Greater Boston food bank, or our heating needs program, which is really an awesome pinnacle of food rescue that we then assemble into small ready to eat meals, and then distribute those to different partners.
Jimmy Tingle 9:37
It’s very impressive. So when you when you talk about I’m particularly intrigued by the Food Rescue. So for example, if Trader Joe’s, for example, is going to you know there’s a shelf life on something may 10. So they by law cannot have it on the shelf after May 10. Is that right?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 9:55
That’s true and then a lot of vendors even have their own codes where they can’t have something on the shelf, even if it’s two days within the sell, buy or sell by date. So then there are things that are perfectly good for a few more days.
Jimmy Tingle 10:11
And so that’s an example of something that would say, Okay, it’s one day off of expiration, but it’s good for another, you know, whatever, two, three weeks or something. And you would get, that’s where you would get the food from places like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or supermarkets, sometimes restaurants as well.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 10:31
Absolutely, yeah. So a lot of the food rescue that we get from different grocery stores. And that’s kind of going directly to different pantries to stocker fridges and shelves and gives people choice. But then we also do a large amount of food rescue from dining halls or hospital kitchens, or places where there’s buffet lines and will rescue food in bulk and utilize it for our heat needs program to create Grab and Go meals,
Jimmy Tingle 11:00
right? Yeah. And the volunteers that you have a pretty impressive but Sam, my nephew in spirit of full disclosure, is working at food for free. And he’s wonderful. He’s been there, I think just about a year now. But yeah, yeah. And he, he’s in, invited my wife, and myself, I was not able to come because I was working. But my wife has volunteered on a couple of occasions, she gets a lot out of it. Because you’re helping people, you’re helping people who need food. And it’s like such a basic commodity, the most basic. And it’s just astounding that so many people step up and help but that there is the need that there is. And it’s just incredible to me is winter. More is the more demand in winter than there is say in spring or summer.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 11:49
Yeah, people feel things more in winter, I think there is just there’s definitely more of a need. I think sometimes it can be in relation maybe to just anxiety that people feel about the cold winter months or not being able to afford to keep their apartment warmer. Or if you kind of constrain the budget in these other ways. Maybe you have to get winter clothes for your kids. And that’s really tight. And all of a sudden, you’re like I don’t have enough money for groceries this month. So we do see more of a need. We have a client direct program call their healthy eats home delivery program that serves about 375 low income households in Cambridge who can’t access a food pantry, they can’t get out. So for those people, I mean, we have volunteer drivers who go on a delivery route to drop off boxes to 10 different households have people on this program and they really feel it in the winter. We feel the need in that program in the winter, because people are if you have a bad hip, you can’t go to a food pantry a mile down the street in the winter when it’s icy and snowy. And so there’s a hole for food insecure people. There’s a whole nother barrier just with the seasons. You don’t have access to a car. It’s kind of tricky.
Jimmy Tingle 13:08
And so are you primarily based in Greater Boston or what is your what is your territory?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 13:16
Yeah, we Eastern Massachusetts, Cambridge and Somerville, we are very close in those communities with serving their a lot of their low income housing sites, or the Cambridge and Somerville public schools. But we do extend across communities in eastern Massachusetts. So
Jimmy Tingle 13:35
how was it working with the Cambridge Somerville community? I would think that you from what I know of them and their level of activism, I think it would be something that they would very much appreciate and support. Is that the case?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 13:48
Yeah, absolutely. Um, I mean, Cambridge is really our origin city, where the City of Cambridge has been really helpful in kind of continuing to support food for free over the years and the ways that we’re filling the gap of hunger in their community. And so we have, we really have a wide base of city and nonprofit partners in the schools in Cambridge. And then over the last several years, we’ve extended that to Somerville. So we, I think, in those two communities really were seen as a resource where community partners, people who are trying to figure out what can we do to address food insecurity? Usually, we’re part of the solution with that to get food from a source to a person who needs it. And we’re happy to play that role and support that essential piece of the puzzle in the food access space.
Jimmy Tingle 14:44
You know, I I’ve told my nephew Sam, when he started working for food for free, that for years, we I have been lived here my basically my whole life. But I remember back in the late 70s, early 80s, there was a van right on demand. Straight where you guys were located, and the original house that fooled for free, we started and there was a van and the bumper sticker on the van said, when I give people food, they call me a saint. When I asked why is there no food, they call me a communist. I never. I don’t know what quote it is. It’s a famous of it’s an obscure philosopher, ops, clergy person or something.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 15:27
Yeah, that quote, was hanging for years in our executive director’s office, and now it’s migrated over to wine. Oh, so. So you look at it every day? And it’s really it’s a great question
Jimmy Tingle 15:40
Cambridge, and some of us were very well off in terms of not only statewide, but nationally, this area of the country is got so much going for us in terms of resources and, and, you know, effective government, etc. I imagine you start getting out into Western Mass and the less affluent places in the in the state, and then you start looking at New England and rural poverty. I mean, there’s just a tremendous need. Is there any, you know, is there any momentum? Or is there any plans to expand to other parts of the state or other or the states with food for free
Stephanie Tyler Smith 16:18
right now? I mean, we were really focused on kind of the greater Boston area, I think, absolutely. There’s certain programs or kind of models that could be extended out to Western Mass and different rural communities, like you’re talking about that just are a lot more under resourced. And so we don’t have direct plans to right now. I think we are definitely kind of up against so much need just in the eastern Massachusetts area. And I think, obviously, there’s communities like Chelsea and revere and other other places kind of nearby that have that can have really a great amount of need, that we’re committed to supporting. And then, I mean, in Cambridge and Somerville, it’s interesting that there’s, it’s true. There’s so much community support for what food for free does. But there’s also such a massive income gap where like the highest high versus the lowest low, so there’s, yeah, they’re in the Cambridge Public Schools. in Somerville public schools, the poverty rate is is surprisingly high considering how affluent the communities are perceived and and are in kind of like a tax level. So we’ll do what we can to meet the need right here.
Jimmy Tingle 17:42
And hopefully, there were organizations in those areas of the state in the country that are stepping up and filling that gap as well. By the way, are you familiar with the weekend backpack program? And are you part of that solution as well?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 17:56
Yeah, we actually started at food for free was part of kind of championing the Cambridge weekend Backpack Program and the Summer of a weekend backpack program. So we provided the staffing support and volunteer support to kind of keep those going for a while before the pandemic. Yeah,
Jimmy Tingle 18:14
started by Alana Mellon, Vice Mayor, Kansas City Council person, and we were in touch a couple of years ago about possibly doing something with food for free. It didn’t materialize at the time. Although I have done a couple of events where we did the auction, I helped run the auction. And those are always fun, did a little comedy for us. Thank you. It was a blast. It was so much fun. But I want to say that finally this year, we’re very, very proud to have food for free is one of our nonprofit partners in the upcoming shows December 29 30th. And January 1, at the first church in Cambridge, and ladies and gentlemen who are watching this interview, if you would like to come to one of our shows and helpful for free at the same time, when you buy a ticket a mere $30. Let us in just a mere $30. You on the on the little What do you call it required field that says How did you find out about this event, you just scroll down, you check food for free and food for free gets $10 out of that $30 Not out of your pocket out of ours. And we are thrilled and honored to be able to participate with so many wonderful local nonprofits. Among them, of course is food for free. Then you can also make a donation when you check out. You can just add an additional donation again, use a scroll down to additional donations. And if you want to throw a few more dollars to food for free, they would be greatly appreciative of that because you rely largely on donations. Is that correct?
Stephanie Tyler Smith 19:41
Yes. 100% Yeah, we need people to donate. This is a time of year where we can really use that support with kind of our annual campaign. So please donate please volunteer,
Jimmy Tingle 19:55
right. That’s the other thing that people can do. They can volunteer. My wife did it. She loved it. It’s fun. At work, you know, you’re out there and you’re helping and you’re but you’re feeding people. I mean, is there a more basic need than food? I don’t know.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 20:07
You know, there’s not and it’s good for the soul. We have a great community of volunteers and everybody’s you’re happier when you leave them when you come in for shake comes home. It’s good for loading
Jimmy Tingle 20:16
on the cloud. He says, I have been helping the I’ve been helping the hungry. But yeah, she’s she’s great. And so is Sam. And so you and it’s excellent to meet all you folks working there. Everybody. I’ve I’ve been working with Eliza and everybody at the organization has just really wonderful and very motivated. So it’s a great, it’s a great feeling. And it’s perfect for the holidays. Santa Claus would be proud. Santa Claus himself would be proud of food for free. So thank you so much for joining us today. Ladies and gentlemen, you can find out more at for food for free.org Food for free.org. And all of this information is in the show notes. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause Stephanie Tyler Smith. Thank you, Stephanie.
Stephanie Tyler Smith 21:03
Thank you so much for having me, Jimmy.
Jimmy Tingle 21:05
It was great. Thank you