Imagine what it’s like not to have enough food, to go to bed with that gnawing pain when you don’t have dinner, or worse, the emotional pain of sending hungry kids to school.

Across Southern California, Providence St. Joseph Health hospitals are helping ease the hunger pangs of some of our most vulnerable neighbors by donating literally tons of excess food each year to food agencies that deliver it to people in need. Recipients include people with developmental disabilities, recovering addicts, victims of abuse and youths who have been in trouble.

Joseph Puentes, a food services worker who transferred from the Torrance hospital to Providence Holy Cross in the northern San Fernando Valley, encouraged his supervisors there to partner with Food Finders. Because of his efforts residents of a sober living facility and a transitional housing program for the homeless receive healthful meals

“I loved how no food went to waste,” Puentes said. “When I moved to Holy Cross and I found out we weren’t partnered with a food agency, I asked if we could work with Food Finders.”

Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank and Providence Saint John’s Health Center, Santa Monica, contribute to meals for the homeless and those with mental illnesses.

Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo and Laguna Beach provided nearly 14,000 meals in 2018, while St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton donated 7,231 pounds of food.

Since partnering in 2016 with Food Finders, Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Centers in Torrance and San Pedro together have donated more than 33,000 meals. 

And now, St. Mary Medical Center in the High Desert is investigating options to donate its excess food.

What makes this region-wide initiative successful is that these food donation partnerships are grassroots. Employees saw waste and turned it into nutrition for the less fortunate by partnering with experts who knew how to make it work.

“We’re in the midst of the holiday season, the time of year we realize our blessings,” said Erik Wexler, regional chief executive, Providence St. Joseph Health. “One of mine is that I work among people with compassion and resourcefulness to help the less fortunate in such a meaningful way.”

Every evening as the kitchen closes down at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, the food that’s left is safely cooled and then wrapped for delivery to people in the area who might otherwise go hungry.

Food Finders, a nonprofit organization that collects unused food, picks up the trays of food and delivers the bounty to a sober living home some days and residents of an apartment building for low-income tenants  on others.

And while hospital food doesn’t sound too appetizing, that isn’t the case.

Recent menus featured such choices as seared salmon with lemon dill sauce, apple and bleu cheese stuffed pork and marinated tri-tip, along with side dishes and dessert. And there are also left-overs among the array of salads, sandwiches and food from the grill.