By Donella Meadows
–March 5, 1987–
Four years ago Lee Stuart was in San Diego working on her Ph.D. in systems ecology. Now Dr. Lee Stuart lives in the Bronx, where she helps distribute 360,000 pounds of food a month to 8,000 families. That’s not where she thought her doctorate would take her.
While Lee was writing her thesis, she was also a volunteer for the Hunger Project, an organization that encourages you to figure out what needs to be done and then do it. Lee and an improbable combination of friends from the Teamsters Union and the Catholic Church decided San Diego did not need a charity program to feed poor people. It needed a self-reliance program to help people earn their own food. Not a program where some folks help others, but one where everyone pitches in.
The organization they invented now reaches 65,000 families in 10 locations, including Philadelphia, Chicago, southwest Virginia, Minnesota, Mexico, and Peoria. They call it SHARE — Self-Help and Resource Exchange. Here’s how it works.
Any community group can become a host organization for SHARE — a church, a neighborhood association, a union local, a senior center. SHARE New York has 157 host organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Horsemen Social Club, the Morrisania Day Care, and the True Gospel Tabernacle Church. Host organizations do not need to be for low-income people. SHARE is for everyone.
Anyone can bring $12 to a host organization on a given day each month and sign up for two hours of volunteer work. That investment stands as an order for a package containing $30-$40 worth of food. SHARE uses about 20% of the pledged work-hours; the others are used by the host organizations for painting the church, cleaning up the back lot, tenant patrol — whatever is needed.
The day after Order Day, SHARE New York phones the number of orders to the San Diego office, where Joe Peterson pools it with those of the other SHAREs and begins to call brokers and growers.
Joe orders about 3 million pounds of food a month. He’ll arrange with a broker in North Carolina to ship yams from Tennessee to New Jersey. He recently acquired 300,000 pounds of kiwis that were off-size for the regular grocery trade. He buys products that might otherwise be discarded — apples that aren’t perfectly red, or carrots with a few broken tips. He lets brokers and farmers know they’re partners in helping people help themselves, and he presses for bargain prices, but he doesn’t ask for donations and he won’t take garbage. “The best quality we can get for the amount of money we have” is his mandate.
As the food begins to arrive in the Bronx warehouse, a flurry of packing begins, done by SHARE participants. For example, the $12 package for January was:
5 lb chicken legs 1 lb turkey sausage 3 lb lamb stew 12 oz. shrimp nuggets 1 head cabbage 1 lb carrots 3 green peppers 2.5 lb. onions 5 lb. potatoes 3 lb. yams 2 lb. kiwis 5 lb. oranges 2 lb. spaghetti 2 lb. rice
Dairy products and peanut butter are not included because they are available through government surplus programs. Snack foods and desserts appear only rarely. The emphasis is on fresh produce and on basic nutrition.
On Distribution Day, each host organization sends participants to the warehouse to pick up its order for further distribution to families. For some of those families the package is just a smart way to stretch food dollars. For others, it’s the difference between having food at the end of the month and not having it.
That’s how SHARE works in the Bronx, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Newark. Aside from the volunteer labor, the operation takes about 50 full-time staff nationwide (4.5 in New York). Donations are necessary to get a SHARE operation started, but from then on the $12 deposits pay for all operating expenses, as well as food.
SHARE could be seen as just a large and effective food co-op, but it’s more than that. It gets good food to the poor without labeling them as poor. People of all incomes, races, and religions belong to SHARE. Together they create a market for good food that growers otherwise couldn’t sell. SHARE shows people how they can work together to solve problems they could never solve separately. It generates thousands of volunteer hours for existing community organizations, where people get to know each other and get things done.
In the Bronx, by far the poorest community in which it operates, SHARE demonstrates workability to people who rarely see anything work well. It lets people pay their own way and make a contribution, when they never imagined they had anything to contribute.
Why is Lee Stuart with her new Ph.D. working at SHARE New York? “Because there are more people willing to teach ecology than willing to take on the problems here, with an aim of solving them, not just enduring them. When I first came to New York, I was nearly destroyed by the poverty here. I wondered if I could stick it out. But I knew that if I didn’t, I would have to shut up about peace and justice and all those concepts I used to make so much noise about. I discovered that I really was committed to those concepts. I didn’t want to shut up. So this is where I need to be.”
If you are interested in learning more about SHARE, its headquarters are at 5255 Lovelock St., San Diego CA 92110 (619-294-2981). SHARE New York is at 4000 Park Avenue, Bronx NY 10457 (212-583-8500).
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987