as told to robert strauss| August 18, 2014 |
Over the past 30 years, Philabundance has grown from a one-woman operation to the region’s largest hunger relief organization. Founder Pamela Rainey Lawler explains why the fight is far from over.
Pamela Rainey Lawler.
Philabundance has been feeding the area’s hungry by collecting and distributing surplus food since 1984—sharing about 30 million pounds of food in 2013 alone. Pamela Rainey Lawler founded the nonprofit from her home in Roxborough and has been the organization’s face and fiercest proponent ever since. She sat down with Philadelphia Style at the Philabundance headquarters—appropriately at the South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center—to discuss her inspiration and Philabundance’s mission in conjunction with September’s Hunger Action Month.
“I was becoming increasingly aware of the problem with hunger; around that time, there was the famine in Ethiopia. I also read this fascinating book, Starving in the Shadow of Plenty, by Loretta Schwartz-Nobel, a Philadelphian. When I read that, it really opened my eyes to the problem of hunger right here in our cities. At the time, Reagan was president and a lot of the gains from the Great Society were being eliminated, so more and more people were falling into poverty. As an emerging foodie, I was spending a lot of time in restaurants. But at the same time, I was starting to look at perishable food and how much was being thrown away.
Philabundance set up this food distribution center with the goal of getting surplus food into the hands of the hungry.
I decided I would take time out of my schedule and my life to see if I could put something in place to address this. People said I couldn’t do it because moving perishable foods would be difficult, but I believed that if I could create efficient logistics, then it would work. And it had to—this was a problem that needed to be solved. I quickly raised my first $1,500 and left my job at a marketing firm.
I started with a base of nine agencies: three soup kitchens, three shelters, and three pantries. I made a detailed, creative questionnaire, examining their storage capacities, when they served meals, and who their population was. This way, when I got a call for a particular food donation, I would be able to match it geographically. I also started going to farmers’ markets and specialty food markets, explaining that our new organization was collecting surplus perishable foods.
I was very careful about publicity. In the early days, I knew that, because this was a new idea and because it was such a small start-up, it had to grow by word of mouth, and reliability would be key. If it grew too big, I couldn’t meet the organization’s needs. The idea of building slowly was really important.
My daughter Kristin was 14 when we started and my son Shane was 6. Because I left my corporate career to launch PHLB, the time was right to consider foster care. We signed up for short-term emergency care and a baby came in March of 1984. He was 9 months old, and there were times when he’d be in the back of my station wagon while I was making deliveries. We eventually adopted that baby, our son, Jason. Philabundance is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Jason is 30. It was a very special time. The children were an important part of those early years.
Food being distributed to the hungry.
We were able to continue to grow because of volunteers—people in the community who were so concerned about the problem of hunger. We did regular pickups with volunteers, who had assignments making deliveries to a couple of locations in Manayunk. At the same time, our volunteers were getting positive feedback from the donors, who were thrilled to meet people at the agencies and see the impact of their donations firsthand.
The big turning point came a year or two in, when we got a $10,000 grant from the Philadelphia City Council. Let me tell you… that was a great gift. When you get that money, your credibility increases. I was also finally able to hire a driver, because it became more important for me to be in the office, raising money and working with the volunteers.
Back then, I was not thinking about 100 years from now. We were hoping that we were not going to be needed at some point. But by the time the 1990s came, I was dismayed that this problem was not only still here, but that it was growing. What has always pleased me about Philabundance is that it continued the spirit of innovation [after I left as executive director and moved to the board in 1991]. Moving perishable food and creating the transportation system—that was an innovation at that time. It was important for me that the organization, even as it grew, continued to look at the community’s changing needs and adjust programming accordingly.
We don’t have goals, per se. While Philabundance moves an incredible amount of food and does a good job, we are still not moving all the surplus food that is available. Some is still wasted. In other cities, there are mobile apps and Web platforms that are identifying varying quantities of food and linking truckers. We have to keep being innovative like that. We adapt because our mission has not changed. The mission is surplus food, but also to provide for people in need. That mission and vision have been important, and I am very proud of what the organization has become.”