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Sonoma Food Runners founder on a mission to reduce hunger, honored with North Bay Spirit Award

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The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

When June Michaels arrived on a recent Saturday at the end of a Santa Rosa farmers market wearing jeans and sneakers and carrying a basket, she wasn’t there to shop. But the vendors knew her and they knew what to do.

Farmers dumped excess spinach, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, leeks, apples, grapes, broccoli and peppers into her boxes, which Michaels wheeled over to her 20-year-old minivan parked at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, home to the farmers market. A man at the Costeaux Bakery stand told her, “Please, take more” as he handed over baguettes and a bag of dog biscuits.

It’s all a part of Michaels’ mission to eliminate food waste, alleviate hunger and build community. Five years ago she founded Sonoma Food Runners, a volunteer-run nonprofit that salvages excess food and delivers it to people in need.

“I just love everything that is fresh,” said Michaels, as she glanced at a box of donated red grapes in the back of her van. “Giving fresh food is giving people the flavor.”

A retired hotel concierge, Michaels lives in Santa Rosa and volunteers 30 to 40 hours a week picking up food all over the county that may otherwise be thrown out. She then distributes it to shelters and low-income communities.

Michaels has her regular pickup spots, like farmers markets. But she also fields tips from the community if there’s a wedding or corporate event with excess catered food about to be thrown away.

For her extraordinary efforts to put food bound for the dumpster onto the plates of those in need, Michaels is the recipient of November’s North Bay Spirit Award. The honor calls out people who come up with creative solutions to community needs and go well above and beyond normal volunteering in service to a cause.

When Michaels gets a call about available food, she’s off — even if it’s at an odd hour, said her friend and fellow volunteer InHui Lee, who nominated her for the award.

“I call her Saint June because she’s a retired lady who has no time for herself. It’s amazing how much she does from sunup to sundown. She’s on it,” Lee said.

“It’s all her. She’s doing everything.”

When there were power outages before and during the Kincade fire, a butcher alerted her to still good produce that was about to be tossed in the trash at an Oliver’s Market. Michaels rushed to save the broccoli, watermelons, pumpkins and other edibles, pack them into boxes and deliver them to the new Veterans Village of tiny homes in Santa Rosa and to local shelters. She keeps going from stop to stop until her van is empty.

Michaels deals strictly with perishable foods so she has to be quick. That usually means dropping off deliveries to charities that are closest to the donor.

“We don’t have the space to store food,” she said. “Our goal is to pick up the food and deliver it as soon as possible so it’s in its freshest state and at its most nutritious.”

On the recent Saturday following the farmers market, she drove her minivan filled with fresh food to the Veterans Village near the county jail, where a couple of residents picked out produce. One woman was excited for the fresh dog biscuits for her pet.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Michaels still had plenty to give so she continued on her rounds until it was all gone.

Donated furniture

Lee first heard about Michaels’ work when they lived in San Francisco in the late 1990s. Lee was working at a nonprofit, where her boss told her about “a wonderful lady at the Marriott Hotel who donates old furniture.”

Michaels didn’t start her volunteer work with food running, but with hotel supplies. She worked as a concierge in San Francisco for 16 years, and she didn’t like it when bedding or furniture was thrown out.

“I would see really nice chairs, like a $500 chair, in the garbage because it was less time-consuming to throw it away than to find a nonprofit to come get. And I first started doing that, rescuing items,” Michaels said.

It took a year in the mid-1990s to get hotel management to agree to work with her on donating old items instead of throwing them away. She worked with a group of nonprofits that would accept used hotel items.

“I don’t like trash. I don’t like the landfill, so it made me so happy,” she said.

Everything in the hotel no longer in use was potentially up for grabs.

“We gave away everything you see in a hotel, from linens to toiletries to furniture,” said Michaels. Sometimes she would do deliveries herself, driving the hotel truck all over the city. One time she delivered 2,000 mattresses.

Soon afterward, she met Mary Risley. A gourmet cooking school owner, Risley founded San Francisco Food Runners as an alternative to throwing out good food in the face of so much hunger in the city.

They were able to move the hotel’s excess food to nonprofits and shelters that would accept it.

“She was way ahead of her time in recycling and caring for her community,” Lee said.

When Michaels moved to Santa Rosa in 2003, there was no organization providing that service here. So after she retired, Michaels started Sonoma Food Runners in 2014. There are currently 25 volunteers who help her with food runs.

“She connects with people. She says hello, checks in, asks about their family. That’s why people love to give food to her and they don’t have doubts about her. Rain or shine, she’s there,” said Lee, who ended up meeting Michaels through Food Runners after they separately relocated to Santa Rosa.

At the time, Michaels was serving on a task force advising county officials about ways to reduce waste. A study examining garbage to see what was being thrown away showed that 30% was organic, and 18% of that was food. Tons of it.

Colleagues on the task force who knew of her work in San Francisco encouraged her to do something similar in Sonoma County.

Upbeat attitude

Farmers say they look forward to seeing Michaels at the end of the market for her upbeat attitude and for the convenience of having her donate unsold veggies while still fresh.

Sarah Kochis of Bernier Farm in Geyserville usually packs leftover herbs, greens, carrots and potatoes for Michaels to distribute.

“She’s very sweet and energetic and excited about our work,” Kochis said of Michaels. “I look forward to seeing her.”

Lee Higbee of Farm Sinclair in Guerneville picks his butter lettuce fresh the morning he sells it at the farmers market. Butter lettuce, which has a smooth, mild flavor, is often sold with roots still attached to preserve freshness.

Because Michaels picks up and delivers on the same day, the lettuce remains fresh when distributed, instead of wilting on a shelf for a day.

“She makes it very convenient to give,” Higbee said. “We waste more food than we should in this world.”

Between 30% and 40% of the American food supply is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And more than 6 million tons of food is thrown away annually in California, according to 2017 data by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that one in five kids in the state lack reliable access to food. In the five years since Michaels started Sonoma Food Runners, she has sent more than 100 tons of food to people in need across Sonoma County.

She works with 60 agencies. Donors range from Amy’s Kitchen and Three Twins Ice Cream to Santa Rosa Community Market and the National Heirloom Expo held at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds each September.

Michaels said her drive and motivation stems from a disdain for wasted food when so many are hungry. But she also was raised on an abundance of fresh food and a culture of sharing.

Corporate recruiter

She grew up in upstate New York, where there were local farms and lots of fresh produce nearby. She went to college in Boston and found work as a corporate recruiter, which led to travel around the country.

She was attracted to Northern California for its diversity, she said. Landing a job at the big San Francisco Marriott, now the Marriott Marquis, she was both a corporate trainer and concierge.

Her appreciation for fresh food stems from those years growing up in a country village and she continues to spread the joy of homemade food made with fresh local ingredients. She frequently talks to recipients of her food runs about recipes and how to prepare fresh ingredients.

She recalls how her mother, when cooking, often made extra portions to share, enlisting June to run it over to the homes of various neighbors.

“I call it good neighbor sharing,” Michaels said. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But later on it hits you. I think she planted a seed.”

Miriam Cheng, area director of hospitality services at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, has worked with Michaels for about two years. A member of the hospital’s sustainability committee, she oversees food donations from the hospital to Sonoma Food Runners.

Hospitals have stricter requirements for food, so sometimes they have to discard food before its sell-by or expiration date.

“It’s great that I can give it to June and re-purpose it,” Cheng said. “She makes every effort to make sure it’s timely and safe.”

Michaels usually stops by the hospital two to three times a week, but if there’s a catered event at the hospital, Cheng said Michaels is responsive and quick to get the leftovers to take to a shelter.

“I don’t know how she does it, how she can be in so many places at once,” Cheng said.

“She always has a smile on her face. She’s such a sweet woman.”

Good encounters

If there’s no one that can take leftover catered food immediately, Michaels has parked her van at homeless encampments and delivered food directly to people.

“Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are people who are down and out. I’ve always had good encounters,” Michaels said.

“Everybody deserves to have food that not only tastes good but has the most nutrition, that is not only filling your body but strengthening your body.”

Sonoma Food Runners is a volunteer-run nonprofit, and Michaels said she hopes to grow the organization and be able to hire paid staff.

She anticipates the organization will be imperative to local government due to new regulations outlined in Senate Bill 1383, which was signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016 and will soon require the state to recycle at least 20 million tons of organic waste.

Sonoma Food Runners can help satisfy the waste diversion requirements while creating new local jobs, Michaels said.

Food Runners was active during the string of firestorms, often picking up excess food that had been donated to various shelters and redistributing to shelters that needed it.

During the Paradise Fire last year they participated in relays, picking up food and passing it along up a chain to evacuees.

For Thanksgiving this year they are facilitating a feast for veterans. Residents of the tiny house village will gather with residents of the new Veterans Village in a converted firehouse on Benton Street for their first communal meal, with fresh food for 100 provided by Keysight Technologies.

“We will continue to build relationships and community through our work,” Michaels said. “From the small to the very large food donations, all donations are helping provide food to those in need in our community.”

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