A volunteer's car full of rescued food
Car loaded with donated food ready for transport. Photo courtesy of Food Rescue US-DC.

Gus Balourdos has joined other restaurant owners who made the painful decision to close because of the pandemic. He ran Sunrise Cafe, a cafeteria-style eatery inside the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission headquarters on First Street NE, for the past 30 years. The building and the cafe closed on March 15, and Balourdos isn’t optimistic federal employees will be returning to work on site anytime soon. 

He misses seeing the regular customers who became his friends, but he can’t make the math work anymore. “I’m ready to give up because it’s not worth it anymore,” he says. “I don’t want to retire, but right now I have no choice.” 

Instead of trashing Sunrise Cafe’s walk-in freezer full of food, pantry stocked with dry pastas and canned beans, and accumulated paper goods, Balourdos teamed up with the D.C. branch of the nonprofit Food Rescue US. The organization redirects food bound for landfills to feed those in need in more than 20 U.S. cities.

A fleet of volunteers picks up excess food from restaurants, commissaries, museums, hotels, and cafeterias and drops it off at one of the many local nonprofits Food Rescue US – DC partners with on food donations.

DC Site Director Kate Urbank says over the past eight months of the pandemic, her organization has been rescuing food from restaurants that have closed temporarily, permanently, or consolidated their locations. They’re often looking to offload their entire inventories.

Recent COVID-19-related rescues have come from restaurants like Protein Bar, Leon, DC Harvest, Maialino Mare, CUT by Wolfgang Puck, and DBGB Kitchen + Bar. The food and goods go to local nonprofits that provide community members with food and meals such as Charlie’s Place, Central Union Mission, DC Central Kitchen, Miriam’s Kitchen, House of Ruth, Campus Kitchen, Food For All DC, Christ House, and Casa Ruby.

“Certainly, with Gus, it would crush him to waste this food,” Urbank says. “We make the donors feel like they’re doing something in these difficult times … When they have to go through the struggle of closing temporarily or permanently, it’s one less thing to worry about and one more thing to feel good about.” 

This morning Food Rescue US – DC is packaging everything from Sunrise Cafe and delivering it to Casa Ruby. The bilingual and multicultural organization supports vulnerable LGBTQ youth by providing social services, emergency housing, and non-medical case management. 

Angela Brown, Casa Ruby’s director of prevention services, is eagerly awaiting the haul. “It’s bittersweet,” she says. “I hate that someone is losing their business, but at least I can put the food to good use.” 

The nonprofit serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On a daily basis they typically feed between 70 and 90 people across three locations and a drop-in center, Brown says. She’s focused on improving both the quality and quantity of the food at Casa Ruby.

“When we receive food like this, we can feed our youth at a level we were [not able] to at one point,” Brown says. “It elevates the quality and the volume. There was a time when everyone got a small plate about the size of a Lean Cuisine. Now they can actually ask for seconds.”

Getting food from restaurants means Casa Ruby residents and other clients get to incorporate fresh vegetables into their meals. “Some of our youth haven’t had Swiss chard,” Brown continues. “We’re able to introduce them to new, healthy foods and help change their mindset about nutrition. Last night they had shrimp for dinner. How many shelters provide shrimp for dinner?”

Restaurants looking to make food donations can download the Food Rescue US app or reach out to Urbank via email (kate at foodrescue.us). In addition to clearing out closed restaurants, Food Rescue US – DC also partners with restaurants that are still cooking. Bistro Aracosia, for example, donates four pans of hot food twice a week. Food Rescue US – DC is also looking for more volunteers to carry out the pick-ups and drop-offs.