White Pony food program seeks bigger home
to help meet greater need
By Lou Fancher
Imagine 2,000 pounds of perfectly edible food, tossed into a landfill and left to turn into methane gas instead of being used to feed Contra Costa County's hungry.
Now picture it happening daily, as fresh produce, meat and dairy products from Bay Area grocery stores, restaurants, food retailers and farms go to waste.
White Pony Express, an all-volunteer food rescue organization operating out of a soon-to-be-too-small distribution center in the unincorporated Saranap area, is perishable food waste's greatest enemy.
The organization was founded in 2013 by Sufism Reoriented's spiritual director, Carol Weyland Conner. The Sufi faith community's devotion to service has established a direct nonprofit distribution system bringing previously tossed out food to the "undiscovered poor."
White Pony's more than 250 volunteers with more than 100 donor partners deliver 3,000 pounds of food per day to 42 recipient partners, including Loaves and Fishes, Monument Crisis Center and Shelter, Inc. (all in Concord), as well as Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, Trinity Center in Walnut Creek and other homeless shelters and pantries.
White Pony Executive Director Gary Conner (Carol's husband) said White Pony always needs volunteers and funding, but the most immediate concern is its central distribution space. White Pony's lease doesn't expire until November 2015, but the hope is to move by February or March.
"From an operational standpoint, we need (more space) now," Conner said. "Do you know anyone with 6,000 square feet of light industrial warehouse space -- no nice office required -- within 5 miles of where we are in Saranap?"
Providing enough food for 400,000 meals in its first year, White Pony expanded in March 2014 to form the "White Pony Express Free General Store," dispensing 20,000 gently used clothing items and 10,000 toys and books at 14 free "mobile boutique" events. Looking to 2015, the "White Pony Inn," a new addition in formative stages, connects individuals and families with vital resources to break the cycle of homelessness.
Gary Conner said the reason he devoted more than 80 hours a week to the program during its initial nine months was simple.
"I did it because when you see the faces of the people who realize someone cares about them ... well, I joined their joy," Conner said.
Seventy-five percent of the food White Pony distributes comes from pre-scheduled donors like the San Ramon Nob Hill grocery store, where food nearing its sell-by date or otherwise unusable for resale used to be simply hauled away three to four times a week.
"Now it's down to less than twice a month, (because) we pick up their shrinkage of 2,000 pounds each day," Conner said.
The remainder of the donations arrive spontaneously -- from small farms, prolific backyard gardens, local restaurants and other sources. Using phone and email hotlines checked by a dispatcher daily, a recipient is matched to a donation, a driver is scheduled for pickup. Because much of the food involved is perishable, unlike a typical soup kitchen's canned goods and peanut butter, White Pony has become expert at swiftly organizing incoming donations at its central distribution center. Food coming in at 10 a.m. is often on its way to a recipient by 11:30 a.m.
The program's growth means more vehicles are needed. A $70,000 donation from one individual recently provided a refrigerated box van and a cargo van; another volunteer gave $30,000 for a second cargo van, and others have made their automobiles available for use on call.
Erica Brooks handles community outreach and public relations and said, "In the beginning, it was a neighborhood program. As it's grown, we've had to take on expenses. Managing that growth means finding a new space, funding fuel. Our internal operations team no longer jumps into cars and delivers food; now, they handle the distribution center and the volunteers."
Even so, the original mindset of having no walls between recipients and donors remains. Conner said one donor was throwing away whole cartons of eggs because one shell was cracked -- a wasteful practice White Pony quickly rectified by accepting and delivering "incomplete" cartons.
"We don't put restrictions on anybody. Occasionally, a tiny percentage goes to compost," Conner said.
Brooks said the biggest challenges have become partnering organizations' ability to receive the amount of food they distribute ("If they do one free lunch a week, I ask, can they now do two?" Brooks said) and finding the unsupported poor who aren't already connected to a charitable organization but need the surplus resources.
"White Pony is not about creating more need, it's about creating linkages (to complete) a circle of giving," she said.
Brooks is particularly pleased with the Free General Store boutiques at which "consultants" -- many of whom speak Spanish to better serve the Latino community -- offer fashion advice.
"We have dry cleaners who wash the clothes for free, and we lay the items out like at a store," Brooks said.