The Respecting Our Elders motto — with apologies to the U.S. Postal Service — could be, “Neither pandemic nor heat nor wind can stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
For sure, the all-volunteer, food-rescue charity hasn’t allowed COVID-19 or power outages to stop it from feeding Marin County’s poor and hungry older adults (and others).
Though some bumps surfaced when the coronavirus first hit, most were quickly eliminated, allowing the Novato-based nonprofit’s 100 volunteers to continue delivering an average of 500 pounds of free food each day, according to 75-year-old Ruth Schwartz, its president and board chair.
The fresh food consists mainly of dated goods that need to be taken off shelves, produce a little too ripe to sell and grocery items with damaged packaging.
It currently comes from daily pickups at seven Marin supermarkets plus the Sunday farmers market, ranging from pork, beef and meatloaf to produce and prepared foods from deli counters.
Flowers and donated merchandise (like toiletries and cleaning supplies) are also distributed to needy recipients, notes Curt Kinkead, 78, Schwartz’s husband of 27 years and the organization’s secretary and lead volunteer.
Food is now handed out at seven senior facilities. The organization also services a Saturday bag program as well as an open food day where “anyone can show up and get served, no questions asked,” said Schwartz. Delivery to a San Rafael church stopped because the facility closed down; all the other spots had some interruptions, she said, “but all are back in operation, working within COVID-19 safety requirements.”
Added Kinkead, “We’ve promised recipients that we’ll feed them free for as long as they — or other people they want to help — need it. A lot of our recipients don’t cook, so that’s a real blessing.”
Clients frequently voice their appreciation.
“If you want to be loved by a bunch of people, just bring them food,” Kinkead said with a smile.
Risks of contracting the virus are kept to a minimum via mask wearing and social distancing, and Kinkead is glad to report that “we haven’t had a single volunteer come back positive for COVID.”
All the volunteers come from the charity’s recipient base: “We have the best of the poor taking care of the rest of the poor,” he said. “Nobody’s ever done it better, more efficiently or more lovingly.”
Although the couple has lived at Novato’s Los Robles Mobile Home Park since 2010, they founded Respecting Our Elders 15 years ago while living at the Villas at Hamilton, a subsidized housing development, because they realized, Schwartz explained, that “some of our neighbors weren’t getting enough to eat” and they were certain they could do something about it.
Their initial goal was simply to reduce the amount of money participants in what Kinkead had labeled “a hell hole of poverty and despair” would need for food so they might have a little left over for a movie or coffee date.
They quickly succeeded, beginning with food from one store, Trader Joe’s in Novato, then adding Whole Foods in Mill Valley, then more and more supermarkets.
Because what they hand out is given them cost-free, their overhead is limited to about $700 a month for gas, $1,600 for two sets of tires a year for the van, and $500 a month for brake jobs and other repairs. For that, they do accept donations.
Kinkead, who volunteers for the charity seven days a week, made his living as a guide in Southern California for 250,000 whale-watchers. He is the author of two books, a novel and a work of nonfiction about whales, dolphins and their connection to the universe. Schwartz, aka The Wonderlady, is a self-publishing consultant who helps writers bring books to market.
How long do they plan to work with Respecting Our Elders? “As long as we can,” said Kinkead.