Another cold Tuesday morning, and the windows are fogged at 12 Baskets Café in West Asheville as the steam rises from hot curries, baked chicken, and rice and veggies. Chalk dust falls from the gray-framed blackboard as a volunteer finishes putting the last touches on the daily menu. But noticeably absent from the list of 12 Baskets’ entrées and sides — today and every day — are prices. That’s because this café doesn’t charge for its food, or even cook it: Everything served here has been rescued from a local restaurant, cafeteria or catering company.
Co-organizer Andy Thomas of the Asheville Poverty Initiative says the nonprofit’s goal is “to end poverty through mutual relationships. We have three missions that help us do this, but 12 Baskets is the most visible day to day. We run out of and in partnership with Kairos West, which is a ministry of The Cathedral of All Souls.
“There’s a chalkboard that lists what the food is every day, and then our volunteers go around and take orders and bring the food to them. All of our food and drinks are served on pottery that was donated to us by The Village Potters.”
Beaming, he adds: “A big goal for us is to help restore humanity for people who are experiencing homelessness or are living in poverty. Most places can only serve off paper plates or Styrofoam, but we are lucky enough to be serving on this gorgeous pottery. When people come in to get their coffee, they even get to pick their favorite mug, which is a little thing, but it’s pretty cool.”
The Asheville Poverty Initiative has been in operation for three years now, but the café opened only in October, taking advantage of a little-known federal law that permits individuals and restaurants to donate perishable food to nonprofits. Most restaurateurs, grocers, caterers and event planners believe it’s illegal to give away unused food, but as various local nonprofits have been demonstrating, that just isn’t the case.
“There’s a nonprofit called Food Connection,” says Thomas, explaining how the café got its start. “Say someone catered an event, and not as many people showed up as they were hoping: What do you do with all that food? Well, Food Connection is an outlet that you can call to pick up that food and take it somewhere that needs it.”
Nationwide, a staggering amount of food gets wasted. “Statistically, 40 percent of all the food we produce in our country ends up in the trash,” notes Flori Pate, who founded Food Connection and co-founded Dig Local — a web and digital app that promotes Asheville businesses. One of the group’s clients, Pack’s Tavern, had expressed remorse about the constant flow of wasted food resulting from the restaurant’s catered events. “We did some research, because everyone was saying that it was against the law to donate food, and found that it’s actually a misconception,” she explains.
Now 20 years old, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act was named for the Republican congressman who championed it, only to fall victim to lung cancer before the law was passed.
When President Bill Clinton signed the bill on Oct. 1, 1996, he said: “Through food recovery and donation, Americans can share with the hungry a portion of our country’s immense food resources that would otherwise be wasted. … Most of this food is prepared in restaurants, hotels, cafeterias and other institutional settings and would otherwise have been thrown away. Through this important effort, thousands of hungry people have been fed, at no cost to the federal taxpayer.”
Money aside, the law also reassures potential donors that their good intentions won’t land them in legal trouble. “Once people see that they’re protected at the federal level, that really alleviates the fear,” says Pate. For two years, Food Connection has partnered with AVL Taxi to save and deliver unused prepared meals all over the city. As soon as a catered event within 4 miles of downtown is over, the caterer or host can text Food Connection, and AVL Taxi will dispatch a driver to pick up the food and deliver it to one of the nonprofits that accepts prepared meals.
“We’ve rescued over 30,000 meals this way,” notes Pate. “We’ve also had brides and grooms who know they’re going to have food left over contact us beforehand and arrange for a pickup. We want to get the word out to all the people who are getting married, and their caterers, so we can rescue all of that food.”
Food Connection works with Pack’s Tavern’s Century Room, Céline & Co. and Corner Kitchen Catering, as well as breweries like New Belgium, Highland and Sierra Nevada that also cater events. Other major donors have included the Lexington Corner Market and Pete’s Pies. Another key partner is UNC Asheville’s cafeteria, where volunteers transport the leftover food all the way to the Hot Springs Community Learning Center, where it’s divided among four nonprofits. “It’s usually well over 100 pounds of food,” says Pate. Some of those donations are broken up into family-sized portions that people can pick up at local food pantries.
Similar partnerships are being developed with Mars Hill University’s cafeteria and local nonprofit kitchens. Much of the rescued food is delivered to nonprofits like BeLoved House, the Downtown Welcome Table and the Asheville High School Homeless Student Support Group.
“I like to say that we’re the Match.com for food,” says Pate. “We connect people with too much food to people without enough food. It’s about providing the food that Asheville is famous for to people who may not have even had a meal that day, and it makes the people who may feel invisible feel loved by the community.”
Something unexpected happens once all this food reaches those kitchens.
“More often than not, we are taking in more food than we’re using, so, more than anything, we need people coming by and just being a part of the community,” says Thomas, who encourages anyone to come eat and get to know the café’s regulars. Many folks, he notes, express concern about taking food away from people who deeply need it, but Thomas says that’s not a problem.
In fact, 12 Baskets wants more visitors. “We encourage people to come out and eat and be a part of the community,” he explains. “There is always enough food. We’re really focused on building that sense of community. I like to say of 12 Baskets that food is what we have, but it’s not who we are.”