Claire Insalata Poulos

Founder of Table to Table in Newark, New Jersey

You’ve established a wonderful new service, Table to Table, which helps 60 food relief agencies in northeast New Jersey.  And in 2010 you were one of 11 people in New Jersey to receive the Russ Berrie Award for Making a Difference, which honors unusual heroism and community service by New Jersey residents.  Table to Table is the only dedicated food rescue program in northeast New Jersey, serving 60 hunger relief agencies in Bergen, Passaic, Essex and Hudson counties. What makes it really outstanding is that it gets no government funding and is completely supported by corporate and private donors.

How did this all get started?

It’s a long story.  Back in the late ‘80s I took an executive buy-out package – “a golden handshake” —from IBM.  I’d worked for IBM for almost 20 years.  And I was the first person in line. I took it. I, I said, you know? I want to do something else. I don't know what it is, but I want to do something else. So I went to cooking school. I went to ICE in New York. And trained as a chef.  I have to admit; I hadn’t planned on working as a chef. I was just always interested in food. I come from a big food family! I thought, I'll just take a year off. Go do something that I want to do. And then I'll figure out what else I'm doing with my career. So, after I got out of cooking school, I did some work with the James Beard House. because they were associated with the school.

Then what did you do?

I came back to New Jersey and started doing some fund-raising events for Share Our Strength, which, at that time, was trying to end childhood hunger in this country.  They did annual food and wine events called Taste of the Nation to support local hunger relief organizations. I did that for a few years and then something magical happened. The people that I was working with, the other volunteers, said, look, this money's going to support hunger relief organizations, but 30% of it has to go back to Washington, and we want it to stay here. And we knew, again, in northern New Jersey, there really wasn't a food rescue program, like, City Harvest, in Manhattan. So we went over to City Harvest, and we asked them if they wanted to start a food rescue program in New Jersey, and they said no. But they said they would help us start one.  We then went back to Share Our Strength, and said, listen, we're raising all this money, and we want to start this food rescue program. And, so they said, okay. You can have, whatever you raise next year, you can have half of it. And you can start Food Rescue with that.

What happened next?

A truck was donated, and because we had been working with the restaurants for those food and wine events, we went to them, and we said, look, if we start food rescue, will you stay with us, and continue to support us, both with the fund-raising and with the food, and they all said yes.  So, in the fall of 1999, we started Table to Table. That's basically how we started.

Milea February 2019 728×90

What was the operation like in the beginning?

Well, we started out with this one truck, and sadly, we knew that there was more food being thrown away in Northern New Jersey in just our area than we could ever possibly rescue. So we said from the very beginning, we're only going to focus on Northeast New Jersey. We're not going to try and expand throughout the state. And we're also not going to try and do anything except pick up food and bring it to places where it can be served. That's it. I mean we're not going to have a warehouse, we’re not going to stock shelves, we're only going to deal with fresh food that requires the refrigerated trucks that we have.

Where did you start?

Whole Foods, Alpine Country Club, Arthur's Landing, right here in Weehawken. 
We brought the food that we picked up to just a couple of places. And it exploded.  Not on the demand side, on the supply side. Everybody started wanting to give us food. And then, when the agencies heard that we were bringing them this food for free, they all started calling. So we knew we had to raise more money and get more trucks. And so every single year we had a new goal, because we're on a dual path – pick up as much leftover, fresh, perishable food as possible and at the same time, bring in enough money to keep the trucks going.

What was your goal last year?

Eight and a half million meals.

Did you meet it?

We did 10.  This year our goal is 11 million and I’m betting we’ll do 12. We currently bring food, free of charge, to almost 100 different agencies, and here's the beauty of it – they serve it that day or the next day. And we never pick up any food that we wouldn't eat ourselves.

Has this program provided other benefits than food?

Yes.  Agencies can use their food budget dollars for other services. Here's an example. There's an eldercare facility in Teaneck, and we've been bringing food to them for over 10 years. The money that they have saved from their food budget enabled them to build another wing on that eldercare facility.  It gives these agencies the freedom to use their budget dollars for the very services they’re set up to provide. 

What kinds of agencies do you supply food for?

We go to soup kitchens, HIV day centers, drug rehab places. We go to homeless shelters. As I said earlier, almost 100 different places that are providing really essential services to the community.

Where does the bulk of your food come from?

Primarily, supermarkets, because if a restaurant is really operating efficiently, they don’t have a lot of fresh food leftover.

Is there anything you won’t pick up?

Yes, bread.  We try and focus on food with high nutritional value, like produce and meat and fish and dairy and so forth. And food left over from catered parties that may have sat out 3, 4 hours. Many times, these events have food that's prepared that doesn't get out. But we always have to be aware of the temperature, food safety, and so on. And sometimes they need to save the food for their staff.

How do chefs figure in to this?

They partner with us so that we can do these fund-raising events and therefore raise the money to keep the trucks and the drivers paid. And they know that when they're cooking a dinner at a gala, they are basically driving our trucks.  We take our fund-raising very seriously.  We're rated four stars by Charity Navigator.  We're one of the highest four-star charities in New Jersey. And it's because we take the money really, really seriously. We always try and get a dollar's worth out of every dime. And the chefs understand that by cooking for us one night, they’re actually feeding thousands and thousands of people.

How much do you deliver food for?

Ten cents a meal. So, do the math. A $600 dollar ticket helps us deliver 6,000 meals. Now, 6,000 meals doesn't seem like a lot when you're trying to do 12 million. But they get it. And they understand that their efforts translate directly to that food getting delivered.

What about distributors? 

We do get food but it's not nearly as much as we would hope, because the majority of their product is packaged and canned food, and they have long-term relationships with places like Community Food Bank.  We don't deliver that kind of food.

How is Table to Table different from the Community Food Bank of New York?

The main difference is that they have these enormous warehouses, so they could take a delivery of, a truckload of canned items.

How do you feel about your work with Table to Table?

It’s one of the best things I’ve done with my life.  And I owe a lot of it to IBM!