NEW YORK — Two hundred and fifty men and women are lined up outside Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish waiting to be fed. Today's meal consists of cold black coffee, chopped hot dogs and sauerkraut.
A yellow van pulls up, and the driver unloads the kind of food you would never expect to find at a soup kitchen: crusty baguettes, bran muffins, shish kebab and seafood salad. Most of the food will be served as tomorrow's lunch.
Trinity is one of 117 soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters throughout the city that receive regular shipments of fresh food from City Harvest. The 6-year-old organization provides an average of 7,230 meals per day by collecting and distributing leftovers from 77 gourmet restaurants, wholesalers and even corporate cafeterias.
"The muffins are great," said Christopher, an emaciated 27-year-old homeless man who considers City Harvest's daily deliveries a welcome change of pace from regular soup-kitchen fare. After helping to unload the van, he grabbed a few bran muffins.
Volunteer workers, themselves off the street, would get first dibs on the seafood salads, said Brian Heinrich, pastor at Trinity.
"When we first started feeding people 3 1/2 years ago, there were only around 20 people," Heinrich said. "Now we're feeding up to 400 people a day."
Millions of people in the United States go hungry every day, according to the Harvard Physicians Task Force on Hunger. However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately one-third of the nation's food products end up wasted.
In 1986, the combination of soup kitchen and food pantry meals added up to an average of 1.2 million meals every month in New York City.
"The need in this city is unlimited," said Peter Houtzager, food distribution manager of City Harvest.
The organization is funded by private foundations, corporations and individuals. This year's budget was $700,000.
Helen Palit, director of City Harvest, thought up the idea in 1981 when she was working in a soup kitchen in New Haven, Conn. Dining regularly at a nearby restaurant, she discovered that they used only the potato skins for a certain recipe and threw away the insides. She convinced the manager that she could put the discarded potato flesh to good use in the soup kitchen. When she moved to New York City in 1982, she started up the program on a much larger scale with city funds.
"I never allow anything to be thrown out in my kitchen," said Chef Philip, head of the Port Authority's food service in the World Trade Center. "Wasted food is a crime." The Port Authority has been donating food to City Harvest every Tuesday for more than a year.
Chef Philip provides enough leftover cold cuts, turkey divan or goulash each week to feed full-course meals via City Harvest to more than 50 people at St. Paul's Chapel in lower Manhattan. The chapel serves up to 850 lunches a day.
"It helps a lot," said Cheryl Dawkins, supervisor of the chapel's bag lunch program. "There are more people in need of food than ever."
The 21 Club donates fresh produce, meats and fish after private parties. Florent, a popular French bistro in Manhattan's meat district, donates leftover croissants, muffins, cakes and pies. The Odeon, a chic eatery in Tribeca, gives baguettes and rolls.
"City Harvest brings bread every day," said Cary Baker, warden of the Holy Apostle Church on West 29th Street. The church runs the largest soup kitchen in the city, feeding up to 2,000 people every weekday. "We really depend on them for bread. It's the only thing we can give seconds on."