Super Bowl players’ tailgate party saves 2,000 pounds of food

Just outside SoFi Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, over 2,500 patrons strolled past a line of food vendors selling freshly grilled octopus, cheese-covered burgers, rotisserie chicken, caviar steaks and carts full of mochi ice cream, while women wore casual clothes belted with Buckets full of oysters, hot sauce and mignonette wandered through the crowd, peeled and served.

It was the annual Players Tailgate event, a pregame party hosted by chefs Guy Fieri and Aaron May, who mingled with celebrities and fellow chefs and kept the celebrations alive until kick-off. As with many such events, the spread offered an abundance of refreshments and a virtual guarantee that some of them would not be consumed. Hundreds of pounds of food could have been wasted that day — but a Washington, DC-based nonprofit dedicated to tackling food insecurity was there to make sure that didn’t happen.

For the record:

12:20 p.m. Feb 16, 2022An earlier version of this story listed one of the recipient organizations as the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition; This organization is now known as the Hollywood Food Coalition.

The Food Recovery Network team landed two days before the event, but planning began weeks ago. Typically, the nonprofit encourages its national system of student volunteers to source and donate surplus food from their university cafeterias. However, for an event of this magnitude, where so much leftover food is expected, FRN would need to coordinate drop-offs at several LA-area organizations near Hollywood Park Casino, where Players Tailgate would be held. After all, the FDA is mandating that ready meals shouldn’t be eaten after they’ve been stored unrefrigerated for two hours, and the clock was ticking on an 82-degree afternoon on the day of one of the biggest sporting events of the year.

The goal is simple, but the coordination is complex. The organization, which currently has 17 student groups in California, must reclaim excess prepared but unserved food (as well as raw ingredients), match the excess culinary donations to the requirements and hours of operation of a food bank or other organization, and then make the journey within the allotted food safety window, monitor excess food and dwindling availability as the event unfolds. The nonprofit, funded by contributions and sponsorships from organizations like the Annenberg Foundation and the National Association of Realtors, will not recover dented canned or opened packaged food, or prepared food that has been on the table or served for more than two hours to guests. Shelf stable or raw (and refrigerated) or unopened materials or catering trays of fully cooked food are ideal.

A wide shot of a crowd sitting and standing at the Players Tailgate outside of Inglewood's Hollywood Park Casino.

More than 2,500 football and food fans attended Sunday’s Players Tailgate event to sample bites from celebrity chefs including Guy Fieri, Michael Voltaggio, Nyesha Arrington, Todd English and Pitmaster Leonard Botello IV. The event, which spanned 50,000 square feet, took place in front of Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood.

(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

“These are nonprofits that deserve to serve food with dignity, and everyone deserves to eat quality food, so we never want to serve anything questionable,” said Erin Price, program manager for the Food Recovery Network and his sole representative on site to transport 5,000 pounds of food left over from the 2020 Players Tailgate party ahead of Super Bowl LIV in Miami.

That’s when Price learned how demanding the job can be and how difficult it is to negotiate the logistics surrounding parking and ground transportation during the Super Bowl. She was therefore unable to meet with representatives of the recipient organization She had to return to the airport to hire a van, then load and unload it several times over the course of two days and drive £5,000 of groceries to the organization – all by herself. This year she brought more resources: two colleagues, five volunteers and two rental cars.

“Being able to be flexible and solve problems in the moment is really crucial,” Price said. “Food safety issues are one thing we never want to have. So if at any point the food integrity issue was an issue, we would just have to say, ‘We don’t think we can get this donation to you safely and we’ve tried our best.’ Sometimes that’s the hard part: it doesn’t work. But so far we’ve been pretty successful.”

A recent study by the Los Angeles County Emergency Nutrition Department and the USC Dornsife Public Exchange found that in the first half of 2021, one in 10 LA County households will be struggling to maintain consistent access or means to purchase fresh groceries. Though home to some of the nation’s wealthiest communities, LA County is also host to rampant poverty and homelessness. At Players Tailgate, the goal was to split more than 1,000 pounds of food between two of the many LA organizations that exist to feed people with food insecurity and provide other forms of support.

Two women stand amid shelves of eggs, butter and other unopened groceries in the Players Tailgate refrigerated truck.

Food Recovery Network’s Erin Price (left) coordinates available fundraiser items in the refrigerated truck with Ashley Goddard, Operations Manager for Chef Aaron May.

(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

Through an afternoon peppered with Pro football players being interviewed on stage, Fieri tossing (unlit) cigars into the crowd, and even a surprise appearance from Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, Price – along with FRN chief executive Regina Anderson and stakeholder engagement manager Cassie Olovsson – worked to continually calculate and recalibrate the best method of delivering boxes of unopened ingredients. They were destined for the Westside Food Bank, which serves organizations that feed Inglewood, Santa Monica, Venice and Culver City, among others. Additional unopened ingredients and prepared food went to the Hollywood Food Coalition, whose nightly “Community Dinner” series could serve the event’s hot food – a rarity.

For chef and pitmaster Stan Hays, who oversaw the Tailgate’s grill aisle, the Food Recovery Network’s service is ideal: Fearing they’ll run out of food before guests are full, participating chefs tend to overstock. Unfortunately, this regularly results in countless trays and containers of food being thrown away at the end of the day.

Hays was co-founder and CEO of Missouri-based Operation BBQ Relief, which regularly works to feed people in alternative ways: When natural disasters or events like the pandemic suddenly plunge communities into hunger, Hays and his team serve smoked meat to first responders and those in need. The nutrition community is always at the forefront of his thoughts and thankfully, he says, over the past four to five years he’s seen a growing focus on curbing food waste.

“I think food insecurity has contributed to that,” he said. “I think as more people got into it, the awareness and awareness of the need grew. Unfortunately, in better days it was just out of sight, out of mind.”

Fieri, the face of the annual Players Tailgate, is a known proponent of redistributing unused, unexpired items; Surplus items purchased for shows like Guy’s Grocery Games will be donated to local charities. Aaron May, who curates the culinary offerings, works with local nonprofits to donate food a series of these tailgate events running throughout the season culminating in the Super Bowl Party.

Volunteer Hilary Lee peeks out from behind stacks of crates of fresh groceries in a delivery truck.

Chapman University volunteer and student Hilary Lee sits in one of the vans rented by the Food Recovery Network full of unopened groceries for delivery.

(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

As guests began shuffling out of the Players Tailgate toward the stadium or various viewing parties on Sunday afternoon, one of FRN’s white rental cars backed up into a makeshift space next to the refrigerated truck holding the crab legs, caviar, gallons of milk, fruit and vegetables Towering Crates of Yellowfin Chillies were kept throughout the day, along with anything else not used by the cooks.

The volunteers and FRN staff quickly formed an assembly line, passing boxes from one person to the next, and loading them into the back of the van that drove to the Westside Food Bank warehouse in Santa Monica. A second van was filled with unopened merchandise and ready meals destined for the Hollywood Food Coalition.

Nicole Yoo, a senior at Chapman University and a member of the newly formed Food Recovery Network chapter, said her mother’s interest in composting raised her awareness of food waste, but has since helped form the new chapter and pick up excess Coordinating groceries at a farmer’s market near campus has become an affair of the heart for her. So she was there with two of her fellow Chapman students — that, and it was the Super Bowl.

“We mostly do harvests at the farmer’s market, so we’re used to lifting heavy things, but we wanted to do this because it’s a great opportunity,” Yoo said, before hoisting some boxes into the van herself. “When else will we be able to do something like this?”

Two women are loading boxes of groceries from the trunk of a white van.

Cassie Olovsson, left, and volunteer Alexi Butts offload surplus groceries from Players Tailgate at the Westside Food Bank on Sunday afternoon. More than 1,000 pounds of food was donated to the organization that day.

(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times) Super Bowl players’ tailgate party saves 2,000 pounds of food

Russell Falcon

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