Looking at her gas bill one day, Linda Hamilton was struck by an idea that has now spread from two grocery stores in Redlands to hundreds of supermarkets on both coasts and yielded more than $200,000 in donations to help feed the hungry.
While they ponder the purchase of candy bars, magazines and cigarettes, shoppers at 229 markets in California, Connecticut and Massachusetts can now pick up 50-cent, $1 or $5 charity coupons that cashiers ring up together with their groceries.
At the end of every week, the proceeds of the shoppers' impulse-giving are sent off to the Redlands office of Food For All, an organization founded by Hamilton and her husband Milan, a minister in the United Church of Christ.
Food For All then sends most of the money to local organizations and to charities overseas to help them buy food for distribution to the homeless and to needy families.
"The idea was inspired by my utility bill, believe it or not," Linda Hamilton said this week. Seeing that the gas company offered its subscribers a chance to help pay poor people's heating bills, Hamilton decided that food shoppers should have the same opportunity.
Displayed in Stores
Incorporated in 1985, Food For All now displays its coupons in all 179 Lucky stores and three Hughes Markets in Southern California, 36 Waldbaum's Foodmarts in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and in 11 independently owned stores in the Los Angeles area.
Rather than using the proceeds to set up a new soup line, however, the Hamiltons concluded that it would be better to funnel the money to charity agencies that are already in business.
"It would be reinventing the wheel to have our own distribution program," Linda Hamilton said.
The program expanded beyond the experimental stage this year, but not all shoppers have gotten the message. Many customers at a Lucky store in the Los Feliz District said this week that they overlooked Food For All's blue, red, green and orange display racks bolted to the check stands.
A sign on the rack announces, "Food for All--A Simple Way of Giving. Help End Hunger in Your Community. Contribute to Food For All whenever you buy groceries. Select a card and take it to the cashier. You Make the Difference."
"I never even saw it," said shopper Eileen Latham. "I don't know a thing about it, but if it gets help to poor people, sure, I'd give. I'm for anything that feeds the poor people."
Other shoppers were dubious about the organization, which has gotten relatively little publicity outside of supermarket trade publications.
"I'm aware of it (the display) but I don't like it," said Barbara Golding, who said she supports a downtown mission and the Salvation Army. "I just like to give to charities I know. I have no idea what this is, so I'm very suspicious."
Hamilton said a redesign of the display rack is in the works, along with a new text in Spanish designed to appeal to Latino shoppers.
Nonprofit groups struggling to cope with the growing numbers of the needy in the Los Angeles area praised the program. According to an estimate by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition, there are 700,000 people in the city of Los Angeles who live below the poverty line.
"They (Food For All) are . . . taking a different approach in reaching people who want to help people who are hungry but they may not know how to go about it," said the Rev. Kathy Cooper, executive director of the coalition, which is made up of 90 organizations that are active on the hunger issue.
The allocations are determined by committees of local volunteers, almost all of whom were recruited through churches and synagogues. Many of the recipient organizations are also sponsored by churches or Jewish groups.
Variety of Foods
"We bought things like cans of high-protein foods with pop tops so homeless people could just use them even if they didn't have a place to prepare food," said Marea Kelly, executive director of the Westside Food Bank, which received $1,700 from Food For All earlier this year.
Some of the money went for wholesale buying of rice, beans, tuna, peanut butter, potatoes, carrots and onions to make up the weekly grocery bags prepared for families who rely on the Westside Food Bank's 33 client agencies to help make ends meet.
Other agencies that benefitted from the program include the Kern County Food Bank in Bakersfield; the Fullerton Interfaith Emergency Service in Orange County; the United Samaritan Help Center in El Cajon; the Valley Storefront of Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles; La Puente Food Pantry in the San Gabriel Valley and St. Joseph's Table in Wilmington.
In addition, Food For All sends about 25% of its proceeds overseas. Recent grants included $20,000 for projects working on agricultural development in Brazil, Senegal, Mali and Cambodia.
Efforts Begins Slowly
Food For All began slowly, with displays of donation coupons at two groceries in Redlands that brought in more than $6,000 in donations in two months.