The idea is elegant in its simplicity: You wheel up to the supermarket checkout stand, your cart loaded with provisions. As you wait in line you notice, perched up above the candy bars and gum and National Enquirers, a little rotating display rack on which brightly colored Food for All cards are hung in denominations of 50 cents, $1 and $5. Pulling one or two of them off the rack, you toss them into your cart. The checker rings them up (they are bar-coded), adding the appropriate sum to your grocery bill, then gives you part of the card back as a receipt. (Food for All donations are tax-deductible.) You have just helped feed the hungry. Easy, wasn't it?
"Convenience is a big factor in Food for All's success," says the organization's founder and director, Linda Hamilton of Redlands. "We get letters all the time from people who say, 'There was nothing to it. We just filled up our carts, and then threw a few cards in.' I think they really like the connection between providing for their own needs and helping provide for the needs of others."
The idea for Food for All came to Hamilton, 47, from two different sources: "When my husband and I would go grocery shopping," says Hamilton, "we always used to buy some additional food and take it to the local Family Service office. Then it dawned on me that what groups like that really needed was money, not food. At about the same time, our local utility company started a program where you could voluntarily add a little bit to your bill to help pay gas bills for the poor and elderly. One day, the two ideas just sort of came together in my mind. But then it took me a couple of years to get up the courage to pursue it."
In May of 1986, Hamilton continues, "I finally had the nerve to talk about the idea with Paul Gerrard, who owns Gerrard's Market, an independent grocery store here in Redlands. He thought it might work and was willing to help us test it out at his store. Then the mayor of Redlands heard about it and wrote to all the chain supermarkets in the area, asking them to participate in the test. The local Lucky store said yes. From day one, people liked the program. It was easy for the stores and the customers. By late '86, we had 12 stores in the area taking part--and in early '87, Lucky took us chain-wide in their southern division, from Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo to San Diego."
Today, Food for All cards are displayed in every Lucky and Alpha Beta store in California--although now that the courts have blocked the proposed merger of the two chains, notes Hamilton, she's not sure if all the Alpha Beta stores will stay in the program. About 145 Ralph's stores throughout Southern California are expected to sign on this month. Other participants include 26 upscale Nob Hill stores in Northern California, about 50 Waldbaum's Foodmarts in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, and approximately 40 independent markets in California and New England.
Food for All has raised about $1.5 million for various hunger relief programs, local and international, since it was founded--$586,000 of that during the last fiscal year. This fiscal year, says Hamilton, the figure will probably exceed $1,000,000. And, she says, with seven full-time and two part-time paid employees, plus a couple of hundred volunteers, the organization is able to donate 90% of the money collected directly to its beneficiaries. These currently include more than 200 organizations in California and New England, ranging from local chapters of the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army to church groups, community soup kitchens, AIDS hostels and hospital outpatient facilities. Last year, Food for All also made grants to 11 overseas self-help programs, mostly agricultural in nature--among them a Near East Foundation aquaculture training program in Sierra Leone, an Oxfam America pasture regeneration project in Mali, and a UNICEF child nutrition and family food production enterprise in Kampuchea.
Although such international projects have been given sums ranging from $6,000 to $10,000, the average domestic grant is $1,000 per year. "That might not sound like much," admits Hamilton, "but it is really significant for a lot of very small organizations who have no other source for money of this kind."