As a career fashion executive, Ellen Bowen counted money and success amongst her blessings, but the 66-year-old volunteer says that after moving to Miami, Florida, she realized what she calls is the most rewarding achievement of her life.
As the Miami site director of Food Rescue US, Ellen launched in 2018 what is now the largest Food Rescue affiliate nationwide. Serving alongside a group of more than 500 dedicated volunteers, Ellen is connecting community donors like restaurants, hotel caterers and more to neighborhood social services to keep healthy, fresh food in the neighborhood. Distributing meals that would otherwise be wasted food, Ellen and her volunteers have kept more than 617,000 pounds of food in the Miami area and Broward County from being thrown away in landfills, bridging the gap between excess and access in her greater community.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I’ve always been interested in philanthropic efforts but to be honest with you, previously, I’d write a check or attend an event and buy silent auction items. Once I moved to Miami, I witnessed amazing poverty and homelessness, and realized how much food was being wasted. Food Rescue US and their efforts spoke to me.
Describe your volunteerism with Food Rescue US.
As the Miami site director, I’m recruiting volunteers, identifying new food donors and conducting community outreach to match food donors to social service agencies. We just added Trader Joe’s to our donor list. Our goal is to keep food in the neighborhood where the donor is. A donor can be a restaurant, hotel catering departments, convention centers or stadiums, grocery stores. We also do a lot of grant writing and apply for funding opportunities.
Explain how the impact of your volunteerism is multifold.
We get to see the happy faces of recipients getting the food, but also, the chefs that donate are so proud. If you think of it, when a chef creates a dish, it is like art to them. To then have to throw that meal out is horrible, especially when they know people are hungry nearby. Also, our volunteers are so committed and love this service because it’s so hands on. Many of them were laid off and furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve had a couple volunteers that show for a free meal and then offer to stay and help us. They’re the boots on the ground, actually seeing where the food is going.
Share one personal story with me from your volunteerism.
A woman approached me at a community event and asked if I was Ellen. This woman, a nurse who works at a local hospital in Miami, said she had a lot of patients from a local shelter, Miami Rescue Mission. She told me she hadn’t seen one man from the shelter for a long time, but he’d recently come in for a checkup. She said he had color in his cheeks and he looked healthy. When she asked what he’d been doing, he said, ‘We’re getting really good food at the MIami Rescue Mission!’ (Laughs) We were getting some amazing food like fried chicken and meatballs to distribute to the shelter from catered hotels like the Fontainebleau.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
If nothing else is learned from COVID, it should be that we live in a society filled with excess. We don’t think twice about spending hundreds for entertainment and food, and we turn a blind eye or become numb to the homeless and underserved areas. It’s important to give back to those who aren’t as fortunate. If everyone spent a little time giving back, they’d find more purpose to their lives.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your service?
This volunteerism has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. My background is in fashion in New York City. Before, I was an executive and that was really nice and I made money and all those things, but for the first time, I feel like I have a purpose to my life. Doing this kind of service, children will thank us and people burst into tears telling us what the meals mean to their family. We even rescued more than 40,000 pounds of food at the 2020 Super Bowl post-event. If someone had said to me five years ago that I would be feeding the homeless in Miami, I would have said, ‘What?!?’ But here I am!
How have you continued to volunteer throughout the pandemic?
So many of our donors closed because of the pandemic. We rescued everything and anything perishable we could in the first week of the pandemic and directed it to the shelters. Since then, unemployment has been a huge issue, especially here in Florida. Through fundraising, we’ve been able to keep the doors of 25 restaurants open. By keeping these restaurants open, we’re helping them keep staff employed, and they’re also able to prepare very simple meals that we pack as takeout for meal distribution in underserved neighborhoods. We’ve provided more than 50,000 meals thus far through this Restaurant Community Kitchen initiative.
In one word, what does volunteering mean to you?
How can readers help?
We’re fundraising to continue distributing meals during the pandemic. To help continue our efforts, please visit our website.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Ellen Bowen? Find local volunteer opportunities.