*Click here to watch the video profile on White Pony Express created by our own Rick Brotman '73!*
As Americans watched in horror last March while Russian missiles slammed into Kievand other Ukrainian cities, the members of White Pony Express noticed that a neighbor had begun to collect supplies in his garage for the refugees who were now streaming into Poland. Volunteers and staff at the Pleasant Hill, Ca. non-profit, which delivers food, clothing and other essentials throughout Contra Costa County, began bringing canned food and diapers to the neighbor to add to a hastily assembled supply line that managed to get necessities to Ukrainian troops and desperate civilians. Within a few weeks, WPE had grown its own network to deliver pallets of medical supplies, hygiene kits and clothing to Ukrainians on both sides of their country’s borders.
“Our circle is large, the need was so dire,” said Eve Birge, executive director of WPE, which has become a model for repurposing food, reducing greenhouse gasses, and creating a “circle of giving” that honors those who receive as well as those who volunteer and donate.
“We would never give out food or clothing that was not the best quality,” said Emily Karakashian ‘73, who connected the non-profit with ClassACT’s Bridge Program. “It is a sense of unity. We are one family.”
Located in an area that embraces both affluent San Francisco bedroom communities and “food deserts” like Richmond, this Bridge Project began in 2013. Its founder, Dr Carol Weyland Connor, was searching for a way to offer to the homeless people she got to know on her daily walks the produce and baked goods she saw grocery stores dumping. The volunteers she helped organize soon began going from store to store seeking donations they could then deliver to a growing number of partner non-profits who would provide the food to those in need.
Borrowing each other’s minivans and lugging ice chests, Karakashian and her fellow volunteers went from department to department in grocery stores seeking donations. Other service organizations helped them raise funds for refrigerated trucks, and a faith-based non-profit provided them with storage space and utilities. “We were all in,” Karakashian said. “We were so happy to do it. The need was so great.” She recalls calling on one butcher who catered to affluent customers. He told her, “I know what you are doing. My father is head of the Salvation Army in Mexico.” He then pulled out his best cuts of meat and put them in her basket.
White Pony Express has delivered more than 18 million tons of fresh food to approximately 120,000 people who grapple with financial hardship compounded by the pandemic. The non-profit has created more than 15 million meals for Contra Costa residents. In a fleet of refrigerated vehicles, its 17 teams of about 400 volunteers speed to stores and restaurants and bring the surplus food back to the warehouse to be sorted and organized. Finally, they deliver the food to partner organizations like food banks and schools where it can be distributed.
By rescuing fresh produce and other food stuffs that otherwise ends up in a landfill, WPE estimates it has prevented approximately 17,000 tons of greenhouse emissions. It has served as a model in a state that recently enacted a mandate that food- service businesses must donate surpluses to food-recovery organizations to combat both hunger and climate change. California has set the goal by 2025 of rescuing 20 percent of all edible food currently being discarded in order to help one in four Californians who don’t have enough to eat.
In recent years WPE has expanded its recovery efforts to include the returned clothing and dead stock that stores discard or sell for a pittance. These items, as well as donated household goods and toys, make up the inventory of the WPE General Store where clients can choose what they want. Donors are told to ask themselves this question: “Would you give it to a loved one?” Karakashian explained. “It has to be that good.”
With its ability to connect abundance to need, White Pony Express was able to step in when the Camp Fire ravaged parts of northern California in 2018. In the weeks and months after California’s worst wildfire in a century, WPE volunteers made two to three trips per week in vans packed with food. At Easter that year, volunteers prepared a brunch for the survivors, some of whom counted family members among the 85 souls who perished in that fire. “The intent was to make it a special day,” Karakashian said. “We prepared boxed meals, special treats, music. It was an uplifting day for everyone.”
That ability to bring its forces to bear rapidly on a disaster allowed WPE to expand its efforts for Ukrainians as the crisis worsened. The non-profit began to “grow its own network,” Birge said. “We started delivering pallets of medical supplies, hygiene kits, warm clothing.” In addition to a page on their website for monetary donations, WPE set up a link that directs donors to an Amazon page where they can purchase desperately needed supplies like tourniquets and baby formula. WPE then bundles these necessities into pallets they are now sending at a steady pace.
“The community has leaned in,” said Birge. “People are feeling that you don’t want to just sit and watch TV. You want to be part of something that helps the situation.” Of the supplies headed for the war zone, she said “We are making sure the way they are packaged and labeled will honor the people in Ukraine, and they will feel the love and respect we have for them.”
From Contra Costa the pallets make their way to several destinations in Ukraine and its neighbors. In April, 500 medical kits went to medical training centers along the border with Poland where Ukrainians came to learn healing techniques and to pick up supplies for their besieged country. Relief workers in Poland loaded other pallets of food onto trucks that drove directly into Ukraine. Partnering with organizations like the Ukraine Freedom Fund, WPE tailors its work to meet priorities and needs that change with each new attack from the Russian army. “We are moving very quickly and learning as we go,” said Birge.
Cash donations earmarked for WPE’s Ukrainian relief efforts can be made at https://www.whiteponyexpress.org/supportukraine. For those who want to purchase priority items on Amazon to be sent to WPE, the list is available at:
White Pony Express is still dealing with a pandemic that has left an increasing number of families with food insecurity due to job loss and rising inflation. In the early months of the pandemic the non-profit scrambled to rescue 25,000 tons of food per day and then deliver it to a growing number of recipients, including 15 new partners. The demand “spiked and it has not gone back down,” said Birge. Now, however, with supply-chain problems, the amount of rescued food has dropped to 10,000 lbs. per day from 15,000 lbs.
Covid protocols have necessitated coming up with new methods of distribution to reduce the risk of infection. Like many food banks across the nation, WPE organized a “touchless” drive-through operation to share the food and clothing people urgently needed. WPE partners who had designed pantries to enable people to select items now have had to box up everything.
To cope with swelling demand, the staff came up with a “White Pony Express App” that allows volunteers to pick up and deliver small amounts of food in addition to the large quantities the organization continues to repurpose. When the non-profit workers receive word of available food, they immediately link that collection with a distribution partner and then send out a notification to all volunteers. Using the new app, a volunteer can claim the run, get the map on his or her phone, and pick up and deliver the food. “It’s so easy,” Emily said. “When I am free, I can say ‘Let me know.’”
With a storehouse of experience and constant innovations, the folks at WPE are eager to share their model. Last year the United Nations Food Rescue Initiative selected the Contra Costa non-profit as one of the solutions for expanding food supplies and reducing greenhouse gasses. The climate action staff of California Governor Gavin Newsom have also applauded WPEs initiatives as they grapple with the state’s rising number of homeless citizens and the effects of a warming planet.
The successes of WPE can serve as a guide for ClassACT HR73 members beyond northern California who are looking for new ways to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables rather than watching produce be dumped into a landfill. “Back in the beginning when we became a bridge project, we hoped that classmates in other areas could take our model and reproduce it,” said Emily. With more and more Harvard College classes forming their own ClassACT groups, she is again optimistic that variations of WPE will soon be found in other locales.
For those ClassACT members who live in the Bay Area, White Pony Express continues to welcome their volunteer efforts for food redistribution and for Ukraine relief. Cash donations can be made at: https://www.whiteponyexpress.org/donate-funds.