According to Adam Gregg, an Americorps volunteer who has recently started working with the group, Gratifood is a descendant of the Free Meal program that used to serve free lunches at the Sun Court. Gregg said that Brer and Heila Ershadi started Free Meal in 2008. That program continued into 2011.
“They weren’t getting enough volunteers,” Gregg said. “They were also having a hard time getting people comfortable with a truly free meal.”
But several area residents weren’t willing to give up on the idea. Daniel Suelo and Pete Gross came up with Free Feast or Famine. They picked up the food and then sent it home with anyone who wanted it. Gross said that Feast or Famine ultimately didn’t work out due to timing.
“Since a lot of the food we pick up comes from the schools, we can’t pick up until they’re done serving,” he said. That meant the food was being served around two in the afternoon, when most people had already eaten. So Gross came up with the idea of delivering the food directly to organizations that could use it.
Gross said he has continued his daily rounds of pick-ups and deliveries – except for when he’s guiding river trips – for almost two years. While his main goal is to reduce the amount of wasted food, Gross said he enjoys doing the work.
“It’s fun,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends. People really like you when you’re bringing them free food.”
Gross regularly picks food up from Grand County High School, Moab Charter School, Helen M. Knight Elementary, and Zax Restaurant. He then delivers it to the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, Community Rebuilds, WabiSabi and several area bike shops. “I also randomly offer free food to people on the street who look like they might be receptive,” he said.
Until recently, Gross operated the program alone. However, Gregg has recently taken on the role of trying to find new volunteers to help the program grow.
Gregg has created a Facebook page to help the program. “It’s unbelievable how quickly it spread,” he said. “It shows me that already, this has huge support in the community.”
Gregg said community support is vital.
“It’s going to require a lot more community involvement,” he said. “Not just one or two people running it and trying to get everyone else to come. Cooperation and community is at the heart of the whole idea. To have just a few people making it happen goes against the spirit of it.”
Suelo said the idea of community is a main tenet behind the movement. “It promotes generosity, gratitude, balance and a sense of sharing community,” he said.
Suelo said Free Meal was about encouraging people to cross class boundaries and enjoy each other’s company. “In this way, it is way more than about food, but about reviving a sense of free community.”
Marilyn Stolfa learned about Gratifood after hearing Gregg speak at the Lions Club. She spent the last three weeks filling in for Gross while he was out of town. Stolfa said that, while it would be wonderful to deliver the food directly to people in need, the purpose of the program is actually to keep otherwise good food from being thrown in the dumpster.
“I’m thoroughly amazed at how much food is left,” she said. “And good quality food.”
While Stolfa uses a car for her deliveries, Gross does the job by bicycle. “Pete started it with the determination not to contribute to air pollution,” Stolfa said. “He can do it as fast on his bike as I can in my car.”
Gregg said the group hopes to offer a community meal similar to Free Meal at least once a week starting sometime this summer, but that will hinge on the number of volunteers they find. Eventually, Gregg hopes the program will be big enough to have an actual space to offer the meal.
Gross said he’d like to get back to something similar to Free Meal, without having to deal with the issues of storage and preparation. He said his ultimate goal is to deliver the food directly to Sun Court for residents to take home, “unless another organization comes on board that would like to host it.”
Currently, either Gross or Stolfa collect and deliver the food nearly every day. More volunteers are needed for the program to expand, he said.
Anyone interested in volunteering with Gratifood should contact Gregg at 801-390-2384. More information is available at www.facebook.com/Gratifood.