Truck drivers for Ocean State Job Lot (OSJL) left the parking lot of Quonset headquarters to more fanfare than normal Tuesday morning. The trucks blared their horns, pulling out behind a fire engine and State Police vehicles flashing their lights, as a crowd cheered nearby.
Then again, it wasn’t a normal delivery.
The trailers were filled with 400,000 pounds of nutritious food staples to be donated to 10 food banks across New England and New York – the equivalent of 333,330 meals.
“In a country as great as we are, it’s sort of disappointing that we don’t have the imagination or the will to get rid of a problem we have the capability to deal with,” said Alan Perlman, owner and partner for Ocean State Job Lot.
Tuesday’s event served as a kickoff for Three Square Meals, a food assistance program administered by the Job Lot Charitable Foundation, which was established in 2003. In 2013, the program is expected to distribute more than 60 truckloads, or $1.25 million, worth of food.
For many Job Lot employees, hunger is a problem they take personally. Head of Marketing David Sarlitto shared an experience he had while shopping at his local BJ’s Wholesale Club. He observed two young boys, roughly 8 and 11 years old, making their way through the food sample stations at BJ’s. Upon asking an employee, he learned that the two were regulars on Saturday mornings.
“The father of these two young kids has been out of work for a year and the mother has MS. Their breakfast is whatever samples they can pick up,” he said.
The story was heartbreaking for Sarlitto, but he said he is proud to be part of a company that takes action to fight hunger.
“Companies like ours have to play a larger role … to actually give a gut-punch to issues like this,” he said.
Perlman was quick not to take the credit, though, noting that the support of customers makes the program possible. Over four weeks during the holiday season, Job Lot shoppers in seven states were asked to donate $1 at the register. Shoppers donated a total of $1.2 million.
Job Lot in turn matched $100,000 of shopper contributions, and also donates all administrative services, labor and delivery costs, ensuring that donations go directly to food assistance for people who need it. The 10 recipient food banks then distribute food to more than 500 smaller pantries.
Perlman said it isn’t credit the company wants – it’s awareness.
“What we’re trying to do is bring awareness to people who are not aware of how serious food insecurity is,” Perlman said.
Perlman and his partners leverage the company’s buying power to stretch donations, purchasing food in bulk for half the cost or less. He recognized the distributors that have been especially generous, including Bob’s Red Mill, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Zatarain’s. Kellogg’s, for example, sold Job Lot 10 truckloads of cereal at a cost that is just 30 percent of what they normally pay. Zatarain’s soups cost OSJL $1, rather than the typical $4 they pay. Those distributors give added discounts and make product donations knowing of Job Lot’s work with charities, and food banks in particular.
“We consider ourselves very imaginative,” Perlman said.
Governor Lincoln Chafee and Senator Jack Reed both praised Job Lot as a Rhode Island success story.
“Ocean State Job Lot is a great Rhode Island story. It’s about Rhode Islanders who built an extraordinary company but never forgot about the communities that sustained them and nurtured them, and the people of those communities,” Reed said.
Among the food banks served is the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, which CEO Andrew Schiff says has the “home field advantage” of being able to work closely with OSJL year-round.
Both Schiff and Reed pointed out that between 2009 and 2012, food donations from companies have decreased by 2.1 million pounds.
“This is going to go a long way to make up that effort,” Reed said.
For Schiff, he says the “worst thing possible” would be turning people away when they are in need of food.
“We have been challenged to try to keep up with a rapid increase in need for food assistance. So many people who once were donors to our organizations now have to rely on us for food,” he said. “Every time, Ocean State Job Lot has come through with a food donation that has made it possible to serve everyone in need.”
Schiff additionally praised the company for educating customers and engaging them in the charitable work. Perlman says education and awareness are necessary if there is any hope to rid the country of hunger.
“No one is secure as long as someone else doesn’t have enough food for their family,” he said.