A merry band of Food Runners

Photograph of Mary Risley by Lucy Gray


By Marjorie Leet Ford

Like Robin Hood and his band of merry men, Mary Risley and her crew of Food Runners take from those who have too much and give to those who don’t have enough.

It all started when she realized she had a problem at Tante Marie, her cooking school: Her student chefs couldn’t eat as much as they cooked. Tante Marie had too much food — really good food — while people all over San Francisco went hungry.

One day Risley found herself with five wedding cakes. She took them to Glide Memorial Church, and Rev. Cecil Williams nearly fainted. Another Sunday she took him seven boned ducks stuffed with veal pate.

Then she got the idea for Food Runners.

It started small in 1987 in her little Victorian just off Alta Plaza Park. She and some friends in the restaurant world devised a way to deliver about 50 pounds of food a week to people who needed it. Now, two decades later, Food Runners delivers more than 2,000 pounds of food each week — and sometimes a lot more. Every time there’s a street fair, there’s a truckload. After the last Bay to Breakers race, the harvest was 2,000 pounds of edibles; later that day, Food Runners picked up a second ton from a catered event.

Such a feat takes a substantial network of volunteers. At first there were few enough that Risley could coordinate their pickups and deliveries from her home. Now there are 450 volunteers. Theoretically there are two paid employees, volunteer coordinator Nancy Hahn and a truck driver — except that he’s no longer driving, so now Hahn drives the monster, growling, “I am woman, hear me roar!”

The shiny white truck was donated by the UPS Foundation. Another supporter donated an office on Union Street. Some expenses are covered by various foundations. Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma, is a major supporter, and many others contribute as well.

The businesses that give food — restaurants, hospitals and markets — also benefit, financially and otherwise. One big downtown hotel saves $750 a month by donating unused ingredients and unserved dishes. Otherwise it would pay a penny a pound to compost it — or 5 cents a pound to have it taken by the trash collector.

The lift in employee morale is another benefit. When a Food Runner steps in, the parking valet, the dishwasher and the person flipping pizzas leap to open doors and hoist cartons into the car. Grins stretch their faces and many say, “It’s great what you’re doing.” Between the lines they’re saying, “It’s good what we’re doing.”

Every day Mary Risley and her merry band of Food Runners get 2,000 meals to citizens of San Francisco who otherwise might not eat. Somewhere Robin Hood is smiling.

To volunteer or contribute, visit www.foodrunners.org or call 929-1866.