An Enterprising IdealistSiennah Yang Rescues Leftover Cuisine
One way to fight hunger is to find food where it’s no longer wanted and take it where it’s needed. Siennah Yang ’18 is employing this formula to help churches and not-for-profit agencies feed hundreds of families in Poughkeepsie and several other communities near the Vassar campus.
Yang, a geography major from Taiwan, is the founder and driving force behind the Hudson Valley chapter of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, an organization that recruits volunteers to pick up surplus food from restaurants, supermarkets and farms and deliver it to organizations that feed the hungry. Since she made her first delivery last spring, Yang and about 25 volunteers have provided more than 10 tons of food to local soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries.
Yang became interested in the issue after she watched a Ted Talk about an anti-hunger initiative in England. A subsequent Internet search prompted her to reach out to Robert Lee, the director of the Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC) chapter in New York City. During a telephone conversation, Lee asked Yang if she’d be willing to start a branch of the organization in the Poughkeepsie area. “I said ‘yes’ without really knowing anything about how to do it,” Yang says, “but I thought I could figure it out.”
She started by visiting restaurants and asking the owners if they’d be willing to set aside leftover food for her. “I don’t have a car, so I took a taxi,” she says, “and when I told the driver what I was doing, he took me around for free.”
Yang also reached out to leaders of some churches and synagogues she knew through her affiliation with the Vassar Christian Fellowship, and she asked them how they collected and stored donations to their food pantries. Then she began recruiting volunteers through flyers she posted on and off campus as well as through e-mail and Facebook.
Yang made her first pickup last May—100 pounds of leftover canned goods and other food collected from Vassar townhouses at the end of the spring semester—and delivered it to the Lunch Box, a soup kitchen in downtown Poughkeepsie. Lunch Box manager Margot Schulman says Yang and her volunteers have been steady donors ever since. “In my line of work, I meet a lot of people who want to help, and 90 percent of them have good intentions, but Siennah is one of the most reliable donors I have,” Schulman says. “She’s amazing. When she says she’ll be bringing us food, I can count on her.”
Lori McElduff, an office specialist in the Vassar Grants Office, saw one of Yang’s flyers on a Vassar bulletin board last fall and decided to volunteer. McElduff picks up leftover food once or twice a week from a Poughkeepsie pizzeria and delivers it to a community center or a teen shelter.
McElduff says she was surprised to learn that the RLC chapter, which operates in communities as far as 25 miles from the Vassar campus, was being run by a 19-year-old student. “When I met Siennah, she gave me a very professional presentation, and when she started telling me about herself, I said, ‘Wait a minute – you’re a full-time Vassar student?’ I’ve met some remarkable young people in my 15 years here, but Siennah is just amazing.”
Richard Schiafo, deputy executive director of the Hudson Valley Regional Planning Council, says he met Yang last year when he was doing some volunteer work at a food pantry in northern Dutchess County. Schiafo says he was “instantly impressed” with Yang’s energy and commitment to addressing hunger, not just in the Poughkeepsie area but elsewhere. “The work Siennah has done in so many communities in such a short time is just amazing,” he says. “It’s one thing to want to help; it’s another to have the organizational skills to keep track of all the paperwork that’s involved, and Siennah has done that.”
Yang concedes that the task she’s undertaken can be daunting at times. She maintains elaborate charts and spreadsheets in her laptop to keep track of food pickups and deliveries. But she says she sees encouraging signs that when people are made aware of the need, they respond. “You never know where the help might come from,” she says. “In November we got a call from some people at a wedding reception who wanted to donate their leftover food. We were able to bring 70 pounds of pasta and vegetables to the Lunch Box and the Salvation Army that day.”