The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted so many things, it’s easy to overlook how hard it hit community food pantries. According to Chicago-based Feeding America, its network of 200 food banks provided nearly 6 billion meals from March 2020 to January 2021. Member food banks received more than $326 million in emergency funding for their COVID-19 response efforts. But in 2021, 42 million people in the U.S., including 13 million children, may be at risk of hunger, the nonprofit estimates.
Metal for Meals
Recyclers have been fighting food insecurity at the local level for years through food or financial donations. Venice, Ill.-based Becker Iron & Metal belongs to a partnership that’s benefited the greater St. Louis area for more than a decade. The company works with Operation Food Search (OFS) which serves more than 200,000 people monthly in Missouri and Illinois, to collect and resell metal from businesses; proceeds benefit the nonprofit’s Repurpose for a Purpose metal-for-meals and furniture-for-food program. “Just a small amount of metal that seems insignificant; if that produces $50 or $100 at the end of the day, that feeds families,” says Mike Becker, co-president of Becker Iron & Metal.
He estimates that the company has processed several hundred thousand pounds of metal on behalf of OFS over the years. Becker Iron & Metal has sourced metal from OFS donors in manufacturing (Caleres, the parent company of Famous Footwear, Allen Edmonds, and others), supermarkets (Schnuck Markets), and retail hypermarkets (Walmart).
History of Collaboration
Repurpose for a Purpose has roots in an earlier metal-for-meals effort beginning in 2007 when Skip Spielberg, an OFS board member, toured a warehouse full of unused office fixtures. According to Jocelyn Fundoukos, OFS’ communications manager, Spielberg heard through a friend that warehouse owner Breck Buck had 50 church pews to donate. After the warehouse tour, Spielberg started thinking about ways that items there could be recycled for the benefit of OFS. He was introduced to Mike Becker, who was able to recycle a large store of metal cabinets and donate the proceeds to OFS. Spielberg also learned that there was a great deal of furniture being stored at the warehouse by a law firm. He reached out to Bonnie Wedel, the firm’s facilities manager, who was already looking for ways to make use of their old furniture. She and Mike Becker became dedicated supporters of OFS. Subsequent metal reclamation, along with a furniture repurposing program, resulted in more than $189,000 donated to OFS. The money paid for 756,000 meals before the program lapsed a few years ago.
Flash forward to 2019, when OFS hired Kristen Wild as executive director. “I’ve known Kristen for years; our kids go to school together,” Mike Becker says. “She had heard of the program, and she wanted to hear a little more from me. So we went in and pitched the idea, and she loved it and wanted to reconstitute it. Eighteen months ago we restarted it and gave it a new name.” Becker Iron & Metal handles the metal side of Repurpose for a Purpose. St. Louis-based Warehouse of Fixtures manages used furniture and office fixtures, while Apex Solutions, a technology services business, processes electronics.
“Many businesses are either closing or downsizing their physical offices during the pandemic and shifting to a more virtual work environment, so there is a surplus of office furniture they need to get rid of and scrap metal that has to be removed,” Wild says. “We recreated Repurpose for a Purpose with the current climate in mind, particularly because this recycling program is the ultimate definition of sustainability and fully aligns with our mission to eliminate food insecurity.”
Fundoukos recommends that other nonprofits work with recyclers to develop creative alliances. “The most important thing about this partnership, beyond the practical benefits of providing food for people who need it and keeping metal out of the landfill, has been the development of a ‘hunger-informed’ community and taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to supporting our neighbors in need. People love to help, and this is a wonderful and unexpected way to do so!”
Leveraging Nationwide Reach
Now in its 115th year, Becker Iron & Metal, which moved in 2011 from St. Louis to Venice to accommodate growth, is led by brothers and co-presidents Mike and Dan Becker. Their father, Richard, serves as chairman of the board. In addition to its yard, the company’s Becker Scrap Management Solutions (BSMS) division provides a single-source management of recyclable goods on a full scale, multi-location basis with an emphasis on landfill diversion. As a national back-office provider, BSMS works with a diverse customer base of Fortune 500 companies to maximize value, minimize costs and with reporting of captured metrics.
Mike Becker notes that recyclers don’t often get favorable media coverage, and their facilities may be perceived negatively. Community involvement can turn that around. “These are businesses that care about the communities they are in,” he says. “If somebody were to get involved with a food pantry the way we did, I think that would resonate in any community in the United States.”
Photo courtesy of Operation Food Search. Caption: Becker Iron & Metal estimates it has donated over $100,000 in proceeds from metal recycling to Operation Food Search.