Muffin People collect, deliver donated food to Oakland service organizations
By Lou Fancher
Once-a-year philanthropy feeds many people during the holidays, but to meet hunger's daily grind year-round, a group of East Bay charities rely on The Muffin People.
For 27 years -- six days a week throughout the year -- a small cadre of volunteers from St. Monica Catholic Church in Moraga have been picking up donated food from Lamorinda grocery and specialty food stores to deliver to Oakland service organizations.
St. Mary's Center executive director Carol Johnson says the deliveries mean the service center doesn't have to turn people away empty-handed.
"It's an incredible value to people who need this food. People are hungry year-round, which shouldn't be a surprise. People on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) don't get food stamps, they get $889 per month to spend on everything: their food, rent, transportation. Without the food help, they have an impossible time."
The excess inventory includes day-old baked goods and items delivered accidentally or approaching their sell-by date.
Jack Dice, 81, of Moraga, supervises the operation begun by St. Monica parishioner John McGhee in 1988.
"John got me started about nine years ago," Dice says. "He told me how the men's club started picking up food and delivering it on a casual basis, but then realized the organizations needed a dependable routine. The name came when a recipient greeted them with, 'Here come the muffin people!' whenever they arrived."
Dice spends about 10 hours a week setting up the schedule in two-month blocks, and drives a once-a-week shift. Food is collected from Diablo Foods, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Suzie Cakes in Lafayette, Pleasant Hill's Lunardi's, Republic of Cakes in Orinda, four Lamorinda Starbucks, the Orinda and Lafayette Safeway, and Oakland's L C Food International.
"One time, Safeway had a dairy that delivered the wrong brand. The dairy wouldn't come to pick it up and said toss it. They called us. That was 90 gallons of milk," Dice recalls. "A few years ago, Trader Joe's didn't sell all their Thanksgiving turkeys. We got 425 turkeys. Lunardi's once had 90-some pounds of butter and 140 packages of Jimmy Dean sausages."
Dice says the food that is perfectly safe to consume would otherwise end up in a dumpster and ultimately, a landfill. Instead, it meets a crucial need.
"If we didn't bring it, the agencies know they'd have to use their slim budgets to buy it."
Dice receives a printed report that shows the value of the food donated to St. Mary's Center, A Friendly Place, the Mary Ann Wright Foundation, St. Vincent de Paul and Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program: roughly $1.25 million annually.
Trader Joe's, which donates from all categories except liquor, provides the largest quantities.
Muffin People crew member Steve Crine, 72, said, "The last time I was out, I had five milk crates full of Trader Joe's whipping cream. Diablo Foods, everything leftover in their deli counter goes -- really good food that's just a day old because they only sell fresh deli food in their store."
Crine, known to his family and close friends as "Rocky," sets out in his Toyota Tundra at 7:30 a.m. Mondays.
"I'm home by 11, sometimes later because there's so much. I once had 18 full pallets of bread. That filled up my truck bed for sure."
He was raised in upstate New York with a mother who'd learned the value of food from The Depression.
"If something came back on the plate, she'd say, 'If you don't eat it at dinner, you'll get it for breakfast.' We had five kids and there was never anything left over. If there was, she'd eat it."
Retiring from his job as a Pacific Stock Exchange floor trader, Crine volunteered occasionally at the Lafayette Library, enjoyed his four grandkids and continued a longtime habit of bike riding, running and working out. A heart attack "out of the blue" 10 years ago jolted him in ways he doesn't often analyze, but admits do influence the choices he's made since then.
"The friend I was riding with got me to the fire station. Boom, they started working on me. On the way to the hospital they had the paddles out and popped me. It scares you. I still go to the gym, but about two years ago, I wanted another outlet for my time. I wasn't out to save the world, but this program is something I can do to help out."
The biggest rewards, Crine says, are the interactions he has with the people who work at the food relief organizations.
"Everybody is so thankful to have the food for people who need it. I'm always smiling."
Muffin People originally were all men, but the three dozen volunteers now include both men and women, ranging in age from early 30s to 80-year-olds. Dice says he's always looking for new volunteers.
"Muffin People are stimulated by another member inviting them," he says. "They get hooked and after that, giving keeps going because you see other people doing it."