"We live in one of the most affluent counties in the country, and it's disheartening for me to think there are people who don't know where their next meal is coming from," McDowell, 54, of Westport, said in a recent interview. "There's so much waste going on and there is so much need for that which is wasted."
Kevin Mullins, who co-founded Community Plates with Jeff Schacher, said food insecurity doesn't have to exist in Fairfield County because of how much food is thrown out by restaurants, grocery stores and other food-service establishments. He said Community Plates was founded with the idea of rescuing food from those businesses and bringing the food directly to agencies that provide meals for the needy.
"The thing that drives us is the statement Jeff was hit with early on -- that hunger in the United States doesn't make sense. It's a senseless problem," Mullins said.
Since its first delivered meal in May 2011, Community Plates has expanded from Fairfield County to Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, N.M.; and New Haven County. It plans to open in four more cities in the United States over the next year, Mullins said.
"We have a short list of cities we're deciding upon," he said. "There's a major need in every U.S. city."
On Oct. 1, Community Plates is having its third annual "Food for All" fall fundraiser, with a goal of raising $100,000 to fund its expansion and boost the annual number of rescued meals nationwide from 2 million to 3 million, Mullins said. The event, at the Loading Dock in Stamford, includes a VIP cocktail reception and an oyster bar by Norm Bloom & Son from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., followed by tasting tables and dancing from 7:30 to 10.
Restaurants participating so far include the Cask Republic of Stamford, Norwalk's Aladin Indian Bistro, Mama's Boy Southern Table and Refuge and NOLA Oyster Bar, and Westport's Post 154 and 323 Restaurant & Bar.
"It'll be a fun night, but also a very passionate night," Mullins said.
Community Plates started with two food-service establishments -- Match Restaurant in Norwalk and Trader Joe's in Darien -- three food runners, and the Open Door Shelter in Norwalk as its sole recipient agency, Mullins said. He said the nonprofit now has 30 to 35 food donors, 30 to 40 recipient agencies and rescues between 100,000 to 125,000 meals a month in Fairfield County alone.
In Norwalk, food donors include Match Restaurant, The Brewhouse Restaurant, Bull's Head Market, Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar and Wave Hill Breads, and recipients in Norwalk include the Open Door Shelter, the Norwalk Senior Center, Mid-Fairfield AIDS Project, Malta House and Person-to-Person.
"The growth has been there; the need has not decreased at all. If anything, we're more passionate for the need now," Mullins said. "Since (we started), in theory, our economy has experienced a recovery, but that has not been seen in the food-insecure population."
Mullins attributes the growth in Community Plates to its model of delivering meals directly from donors to recipient agencies, which eliminates the need for warehouses and refrigerated trucks.
"Because of the direct transfer food method, the food we rescue never goes to an intermediate agency," he said. "We eliminated trucks, the warehouse space to store food, and employee costs associated with trucks and a warehouse."
Mullins said Community Plates can rescue 8½ meals for every dollar donated and that the technology employed by the organization, which enables food runners to easily identify available runs, also has been a factor in the nonprofit's growth.
The number of food runners -- those willing to drive meals from food-service establishments to agencies that feed the needy -- is the only factor that restricts Community Plates from growing even more, Mullins said. He estimated that 100,000 to 110,000 residents, which includes 30,000 to 35,000 children, are classified as food insecure in Fairfield County and that there was no shortage of food that's thrown out but doesn't have to be.
Lou Montanari, co-owner of The Brewhouse in South Norwalk with his brother, Bob, said a Community Plates food runner rescues about 30 meals a week from his restaurant's Sunday brunch and private parties. The rescued food includes assorted salads, chicken, pasta and seafood dishes, and pastries.
"It's all prepared food they can heat and serve," Montanari said. "Instead of tossing it out, we package it up for those guys.
"We love it. We love the fact we can do something. They feed a lot of people every week."
McDowell, who's been a food runner with Community Plates since it started, said she used to drive food from Trader Joe's in Westport to the Bridgeport Rescue Mission and from the former Pane E Panini, Match Restaurant and Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar, all in Norwalk, to the Open Door Shelter in Norwalk. She said she now drives soups, salads, sandwiches and baked goods, such as croissants, muffins and doughnuts, once a week from Bull's Head Market in Norwalk City Hall to the Gillespie Center in Westport.
"It's food that's not going to last over the weekend, it needs to be eaten over the weekend, so if we didn't pick it up, they're just throwing it out," she said.
When McDowell did the Trader Joe's run, she said she collected food that was nearing its expiration date. She said that run was demanding and included collecting big bins filled with bananas.
"It came to the point where the run was overwhelming to me," she said.
McDowell said she occasionally fills in on other runs and likes a new software application that's designed to make the work of a food runner easier.
Mullins said the GoRescue app is an extension of an app that Community Plates started with.
"It's a fairly radical upgrade," he said. "We've made a real focus on increasing engagement with food runners."
He said the upgrade enables food runners to communicate with each other and better keep track of how many meals they rescue and where open runs are available.
Mullins said food runners are volunteers and aren't reimbursed for the gas they use in driving food from donors to agencies that feed the needy. He said food runners deserve the credit for Community Plates' success.
"It's just been a real honor to be a part of it and to watch it happen," he said.
McDowell said connecting the hungry with food is "such an important cause, and, because I have the time, I couldn't imagine not doing it."
"We're a community that's helping our community," McDowell said. "I think there's a tremendous amount of support within the organization and everyone actually running it ... is doing a really good job.
"Kevin's a smart guy and he's very passionate about what he does and passion inspires excitement and commitment in others."
Mullins said the fundraising goal of $100,000 on Oct. 1 would enable Community Plates to deliver 3 million meals nationwide from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2014, and that 60 to 65 percent of those rescued meals would be in Fairfield County. He said Community Plates' budget goes toward technology, administrative and material costs.
"Three million meals is a drop in the bucket for what we're going to have to accomplish to end hunger in America," he said. "We'll need 50 million to 100 million to really start seeing a change in the numbers. ... We're building a community based on a platform we think could trend those national numbers (of food insecure people) downward."
McDowell, who's helping to organize the Oct. 1 fundraiser, said Community Plates was hoping for a good turnout.
"In past years, it's been really fun, and this year's going to be even better," she said.
Ticket prices for the VIP cocktail reception and main event are $250 each ($200 if purchased through Sept. 7) and ticket prices for only the main event are $150 ($125 if purchased through Sept. 7.)
For more information, visit www.communityplates.org or email Mullins at email@example.com or call 800-280-3298, ext. 1.