Waste, Glorious Waste 

Tales of urban grubbing in the land of conspicuous consumption.

Page 2 of 7

Part of his foraging drive stems from growing up in San Francisco during the 1930s. Young Cleveland had a vague sense of the Great Depression: "I saw a lot of people that were really needy, just getting food from the government," he remembers. "From that I always thought if I was able to help people, I wanted to do it."

Today he just wants to find some decent cilantro. "They like the cilantro," he says. Thomas tends to talk about the families who show up at Good Sam as if they're his kids. "Parsley they won't take," he adds. "But cilantro is good."

The old man reckons there'll be more than 250 families showing up on 10th Street at 5 a.m. tomorrow, trailing rolling wire shopping baskets lined with trash bags or rice sacks, carefully folded and saved for food days. "We had 274 families on Tuesday," he notes, steering the Ranger up 14th Street en route to Lincoln Square. His truck is crammed with papers and tools, and a few ancient-looking cheese logs roll around the bench seat as it lurches into gear.

When Good Samaritan House opened in the mid-1960s, its Eastlake neighborhood was largely African American. Now, the area at the southeast rim of Lake Merritt is largely Asian. "Ninety percent are Asians," Thomas says. "Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian." Many don't speak English.

A little while later, Thomas is back behind the swinging doors at the rear of the Lincoln Square Safeway, a big space crammed with carts, waxed cardboard boxes, and plastic bread trays packed with cull, the detritus of the produce bins. For scavengers like him, this is pay dirt: Scarred lettuce leaves stripped from still-saleable heads. Bruised peaches. Shucked ears of corn crazed with worm trails. He strikes gold — three bunches of battered cilantro. But the slimy mung-bean sprouts he finds are beyond salvage.

"Just a few do what I do," Thomas explains. He's picking out portobello mushrooms as dry as old sponges from a nest of slimy lettuce leaves. A jimmy-sprinkled donut with a single bite missing surfaces among the leaves. "Others just rely on the food bank."

Nearly three hundred local hunger agencies — food pantries such as Good Sam, soup kitchens, and shelters — depend on the Alameda County Community Food Bank for some level of support. Most shop the food bank for free or highly subsidized food, use it for access to government surplus commodities, or rely on it for social services such as nutrition counseling for their client families.

Thomas does this too, though less than many other agencies. He gets the bank's bulk food for organized giveaways — those potatoes and Egg Beaters, for instance — although he steers clear of USDA subsidies such as rice and powdered milk. Nothing against bulk commodities, he says. But without more volunteers, the task of portioning out bags of rice for more than 250 families is overwhelming.

Just foraging through cull takes almost all of Thomas' time. He does it six days a week from 7:30 a.m. until around 3:00 p.m. Sundays are a day off, sort of — he still stops to pick up day-old bread from Semifreddi's bakery in Emeryville. Raymond Williams, a semiretired contractor, helps out a couple of days a week, but two years ago, Thomas had a stroke and was laid up for two weeks. His son, Norman, took over foraging.

Thomas figures someone will step in as a successor when the time comes. "One thing I learned when I was working," he says. "There's always somebody who can come in and take your place."

Bridget Galvan, programs manager for the Alameda County Community Food Bank, calls Thomas an extreme example of a "mom-and-pop" food agency. Their kind is dwindling, she says. They make up about 15 to 20 percent of the food bank's client agencies, but most are older than seventy, and technology-averse. "Some of them don't even have a fax machine," she says.

Forget faxes. Good Sam's phone isn't even working. Something to do with switching, Thomas explains. But it's emblematic of the way he operates: Apart from the internal combustion engine, he relies solely on his own inner drive to keep Good Sam going.

The scrappy, tenuous, and sometimes-chaotic quality of Good Sam House contrasts with the more organized salvage practices of food pantries such as Concord's Monument Crisis Center. Monument relies on an intricate choreography of volunteers — seniors and Rotarians — to pick up and sort through salvage, not to mention alliances with Safeway's Northern California distribution center and the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties. Thomas is a maverick who prefers to be hands-on. Literally. Right now, he's picking through a box of Tuscan melons whiskered with mold to find a single edible one. "You ever tried one of these?" he asks the Safeway produce clerk, whose nametag reads Leonard. "These are real good."

Thomas tosses aside a couple of prepacked deli salads to get to a few damp heads of bok choy. Then he sees what he really wants: a small box of clementines with a few missing. He stops the clerk. "I saw these little tangerines here yesterday," he says. "Can you let me have them?"

"Always happy to help the homeless," Leonard says.

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