This Is Bananas

Monday, September 12, 2016

When I was in Madison this weekend to crew Ironman Wisconsin, I ended up buying lunch for a homeless gentleman on State Street when I was on the way to work a run aid station. 

Well, "lunch" in that it was lunchtime.  He didn't have teeth, and all he wanted was a protein smoothie from Jamba Juice. I've never done something like that before, though I have many friends who do. He said quietly, "I'm so hungry."  I couldn't walk away.

He noticed my race shirt, and told me he helps take the leftover bananas to a local food pantry.  I thought this was great, and I was glad to have helped him out a little bit. I don't know if his claim is true, but it seemed perfectly plausible.

The thing is, I have always assumed this sort of thing is routine.  There are always tons of product and refreshments left after events and there are hungry people everywhere. It's a no brainer.

The crew leader had mentioned to me on the phone that they have had issues in the past with local homeless individuals trying to take food from his race station's supplies during the race.  And I did notice a substantial number of homeless in just the few blocks my activity for the day was focused.

Point being... I was STUNNED to find out that the extra food is supposed to go back on the truck, and it sits there for possibly days while the trucks are sorted out, and then it all goes into the garbage.

I asked the crew leader why it doesn't go to a food pantry or homeless shelter.  He said he did contact a local food pantry once and they refused it because they didn't want to pick it up after the race.

From just my aid station, this was the produce left over:

- 4 boxes of oranges (I'm guesstimating 50 lbs a box), 3 unopened
- 2 full, unopened cases of bananas
- 3 flat cases of grapes, 2 unopened

Plus some potato chips, pretzels, many gallons of bottled water and Gatorade concentrate.

A run aid station serving food and beverages to Ironman racers.

The volunteers shared the leftover gels and energy bars, that was easy. I agree with the crew leadership that it's nice to give something to the volunteers who worked incredibly hard supporting the race, many from sunrise to after midnight. My real concern was the high quality fresh produce not be left to rot in the back of a truck.

There are at least 5 run aid stations and at least as many bike aid stations.  The math on the wasted food makes my brain melt.

The juxtaposition of the spectacle of luxury and privilege that is a world class endurance event with the homeless population literally sleeping on the side of the street as the racers go by is deeply disquieting. Throwing the remaining food away is unconscionable.

Last night, they were literally going to send the food to be thrown away with several of them sleeping within 50 yards of us. I just couldn't let it happen.

Another volunteer and I put our heads together and decided we would take the food.  We figure it can't possibly be THAT hard to find a food pantry or homeless shelter to answer their phone on a Monday morning and accept the donation. The other guy ultimately decided to handle it this time since he lived locally, and I had already agreed to disposition 4 nearly full cases of cups that I couldn't bear to see go in a landfill (they are apparently discarded once a case is unsealed for logistics reasons).

A quick search revealed at least half a dozen possible food pantry/soup kitchen type places in Madison that he planned to call this morning. I pointed out if we can make it work for this station, then we might be able to set it up so each aid station has a designated food pantry they work with every year to receive the fresh food.

Or perhaps, we can work with the UW Greek system. Many sororities and fraternities are affiliated with charitable causes. I bet it would be pretty darn easy to convince one or more of them to pick up the food and take it to a shelter.  The homeless population on campus is noticeable.  Anyone with half a heart should want to help.

Because seriously? I refuse to believe that there isn't someone willing to swing by the race site for 10 minutes on a Sunday night to pick up several hundred dollars worth of free fresh food to serve the hungry.

I'm not able to volunteer at Ironman every year.  It's a lot of time and money for me to go up there.  But I hope working on this problem will be a contribution I can make that has a lasting impact on the race, and the lovely city that hosts it.

If you are in the Madison area and know of any organizations that would like to work with me on this, please send me an email.  The crew leader told me if I am able to find someone to take it, he would be very happy to support that. We have plenty of time before the next Ironman, but it's also a concept that can be applied to any event, and endurance race season is in full swing now that fall has arrived.

There are countless races all around the country every year, and most of them offer athletes some form of refreshment.  I strongly recommend that leadership of food pantries and other organizations serving the hungry get in contact with organizers of local events to ask what they do with their leftover fresh food. 

Guys, this isn't acceptable.  On any level.  We have to do better.