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Catering connection: Auburn college grad launching food nonprofit in area
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Catering connection: Auburn college grad launching food nonprofit in area

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Crystal Wolfe was working a catering job in New York City when she made the connection.

Taken aback by the amount of food that went to waste on the job, she wondered. She wondered why that food couldn't instead go to the scores of homeless people she saw in the city. 

"It just broke my heart," she told The Citizen on Wednesday. "And I'm not a person who can ignore human suffering."

Wolfe was told the food was thrown away because caterers could be sued by anyone who eats it, even those homeless people.

So Wolfe, an Indiana native who graduated from Cayuga Community College in 2011 and served as editor of its newspaper, The Cayuga Collegian, started researching. After learning that what she was told wasn't true — The 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act offers legal protections to businesses that donate food, and tax write-offs incentivize it — she continued researching. 

That research led Wolfe to launch a nonprofit, Catering for the Homeless, that seeks to connect sources of excess food with providers that can deliver it to people in need. More than 35 million people experienced hunger in 2019, according to the USDA, and that number has only risen due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wolfe, however, believes that number should be zero.

"There's enough food going to waste that nobody needs to go hungry," she said. "In every area of the country."

Since launching in January 2017, the nonprofit has created more than 100 partnerships to deliver more than 1 million meals and 200,000 toiletries and clothing items to families and homeless people in the New York City area, Wolfe said. She also turned her research into a book in 2019, "Our Invisible Neighbors: Accounts, Causes, and Solutions to the Epidemic of Homelessness."

Now, Wolfe is expanding the nonprofit to Cayuga County. She has begun working with providers like the Auburn Hunger Task Force and Friends Helping Friends of Cayuga to make the same connections with sources of excess food that she made in New York City. They include Wegmans, she said, as well as other grocery stores. A law passed in February requires them to donate excess food to charity. Wolfe also wants to recruit caterers, restaurants, farms and schools. A law passed in 2017 encourages all educational institutions to donate their excess food to charity as well.

Meanwhile, Wolfe is trying to take the next step in turning Catering for the Homeless into the hunger solution she believes it can become. And that is website where food sources and providers can log in and connect with each other. The site, which would be accompanied by an app, would make the nonprofit national — "unlimited, self-sustaining and ever-expanding," she said.

But launching the site isn't as simple as using a template service like Squarespace, she continued, or learning to code herself. To build the site that Wolfe envisions, she's received quotes ranging as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars. So she's simultaneously trying to raise money and find a developer that can help her take that next step in solving America's hunger problem.

"I have complete faith this is going to provide millions of meals a year," she said of the site. "We want to work with everyone to rescue food in every way we can."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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