CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL
THE VEGGIE ANGEL
BY CAROL STURGULEWSKI
"No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world." -- From the film "Dead Poets' Society"
One man's generosity toward a group of homeless people leads to charitable efforts throughout Los Angeles and other cities.
Mickey Weiss was technically retired from the family produce business. Even so, he still enjoyed dropping in now and then to check on things.
Early one morning in 1987, he headed over to pay a visit. On the way, Mickey couldn't help slowing his car as he passed a small encampment of homeless people. They were just beginning to stir in the cool Los Angeles dawn. He sighed with helplessness at the sight of such poverty.
Minutes later, he pulled up at the family's vegetable company, one of many located at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. And there, waiting for the garbage truck, were 200 pallets of slightly damaged strawberries.
Mickey exploded. "Why are we throwing away berries when eight blocks away, people are frying stale bread over open fires for their first meal of the day?" he demanded.
That was the beginning of a crusade. In the years that followed, Mickey Weiss helped feed hundreds of thousands of hungry people in California by salvaging edible food destined for trash bins. He once calculated that in just two years, he gave away more than $8 million worth of food.
Every morning in Los Angeles, big semi trucks deliver produce to the wholesalers market. And every morning, food is deemed unfit to sell. Maybe a few tomatoes in a crate are molding, although the rest are fine. Maybe the peaches are blemished, though still sweet and firm. Maybe cartons are improperly labeled, or paperwork is incomplete. Until Mickey came along, nearly all that was thrown away.
Mickey was in his early 70s, but he knew the produce industry inside out. He'd dropped out of college to help his father with a struggling produce business after his brother-in-law gambled away the profits. Together, father and son built up their one-truck business until they served the city's finest restaurants. Then came World War II. The man who knew his fruits and vegetables spent the war in Palm Springs, Calif., working in the officers' mess hall and scouring the L.A. produce markets for the bananas that the troops loved.
After the war, Mickey went back to the family produce business and was soon known as "the mushroom king." After more than 40 years, he handed over the business to his son. Then Mickey was supposed to retire.
Until he saw those strawberries.
Mickey started working the phones. Using his contacts in the industry, he got other wholesalers to donate space at the produce market. He rounded up high-school students to call Los Angeles charities to see who could use produce to feed the poor. He worked with the county agriculture department and other government agencies to cut through the red tape that had kept unsalable food from being given away.
Today, the center is the collection point each weekday morning for unsold fruit and vegetables from market merchants. Then, the donated produce is picked up by charities for distribution to soup kitchens, shelters and agencies that help the needy. Everything from apples to zucchini -- along with more exotic fare like fresh ginger, tomatillos and eggplant -- goes into soup pots and salad bowls for homeless people, poor children, shelter residents and many more.
"Thank God. Thank Mickey," they say.
So much for retirement. Until his death in 1996, Mickey was on the job at the distribution center three or four days a week. He was capturing donations of more than a million pounds of produce a month and passing them directly to charities.
His work didn't go unnoticed. In 1989, President Bush gave Mickey an End Hunger Award. Mickey's dream was to see similar food centers operating in every large produce terminal in America. "I'll be glad to go and help them," he said -- and he did. Los Angeles was first, Houston followed, and other cities fell in line. In 1991, Peter Clarke and Susan Evans were so inspired by Mickey's work that they established From the Wholesaler to the Hungry, a program to teach other cities to set up produce distribution programs. There are now more than 75 such operations around the United States.
Mickey once told an interviewer that the greatest lesson he learned from his charity was that "people give to people, not causes." She described him as a silver-haired angel in shirt sleeves. Mickey Weiss' cause lives on after his death. And to the people who benefit from his legacy of giving, he is now -- and always has been -- a real angel.
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Don't forget to watch the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" TV show on PaxNet on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. PST/EST. Look for the newly released "Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul," "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul 3" and "The Power of Focus." "Chicken Soup for the Expectant Mother's Soul" will be released in July 2000.
© 2000 by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
Distributed by King Features Syndicate