Just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down life-as-normal, Todd Corboy was a busy chef in a swanky restaurant in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow turning out more than 300 meals a night.
But after shifting gears over the last month to begin transforming surplus grocery donations into meals for the needy, he’s now feeding more than 1,500 people a day.
“I feel like I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing,” Corboy said above the din of a community kitchen in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, “right where I need to be doing it.”
As restaurants closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Corboy joined forces with San Francisco Food Runners, a non-profit group that takes donations of excess food from restaurants and grocery stores, and redistributes them to some 30 organizations that work with people in need.
Corboy took the group’s concept a step further by establishing a kitchen in group’s Haight Ashbury distribution center and turning leftover ingredients like Brussels sprouts, bread and lettuce into prepared meals ready to be handed-out to people in SROs, senior homes, churches and neighborhood collectives.
“Without us stepping in and doing what we’re doing here,” Corboy said, “the majority of the food we’re using, to turn into nutritious meals for people, would’ve gone to compost.”
Each morning as Corboy starts work, there is little idea of what the day’s menu will be. It isn’t until the donated goods begin to pilfer in that he’s able to formulate a course for the day’s offerings. Often times he and his army of volunteers will transform raw ingredients into soups, salads and bread pudding — thanks to lots of bread and egg donations — crafting packaged meals which Food Runners volunteers then deliver.
“People would be severely sick, possibly dying if they weren’t getting food from volunteers right now,” said San Francisco District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston who volunteered Friday in the kitchen, ”especially when they’ve been told ‘stay inside’”
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Corboy’s unexpected path to the Food Runner kitchen began in the kitchen of Wildseed restaurant where he worked — one day he took surplus ingredients that would’ve gone to the compost bin and instead whipped up a vegan chili. He tried to find an organization to distribute it, only Food Runners agreed. It struck him that in a time where people are in need, throwing out perfectly good food seemed a colossal waste.
His foray into feeding the hungry has now set him on a different life trajectory; he intends to form his own organization devoted to steering would-be food waste, into meals for those who need them. He’s raising funds through a GoFundMe campaign to fund the operation.
On Friday morning, Corboy seemed the calm in the midst of a storm — or rather in this case a kitchen in full-swing. Delivery drivers dropped off pallets of supplies from stores including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and the neighborhood’s Gus’ Market — while volunteers swooped in to load the cars with boxes carrying containers of the previous day’s meals. Hundreds of boxes of fresh soups from Whole Foods sat on a pallet next to the door.
“It’s very stressful, it’s very long days, long hours but it’s great,” Corboy said heading back into the kitchen. “It’s extremely satisfying.”