On Oct. 9, 2023, an employee of a Mobil gas station in Arlington, Massachusetts was working his usual Monday night shift when a nondescript black car pulled in. The driver, a small elderly woman surrounded by cardboard boxes, rolled down her window and asked him a simple question: “Do you need food?” 

Brenda Lawrence, 67, stands at about five feet tall and loves listening to ’70s music. While Lawrence’s demeanor is unfailingly straightforward, it’s her devotion to the people around her that really defines her character. She has been delivering food since 2012, filling her car and charting out routes  “Whenever they call me.” In a world of TED talks, dramatic origin stories and inspirational messages in colorful graphics on Instagram, Lawrence’s self-perception as a volunteer is refreshingly simple. In her words, “We’re just doin’ a good deed. That’s all.”

A resident of Bedford, Massachusetts, Lawrence works at The Book Rack, a well-established joint selling new and used books. It was at The Book Rack that Lawrence met the founder of Food Link, who was a long-time customer. Food Link is a nonprofit based in Arlington, Massachusetts whose mission is to rescue wasted food and redistribute it to under-resourced communities. When Food Link was still in its fledgling stages, DeAnne Dupont — Food Link’s founder — turned to Lawrence for help in distributing donated food. In Lawrence’s words: “She brought the food to me, and I said, ‘I can’t get rid of this,’ and she says yes, yes you can, Brenda.”

And yes, yes Lawrence could. Her name, written simply as “Brenda,” sticks out among the grocery stores and homeless shelters on Food Link’s daily delivery schedule. Volunteers, whose responsibilities include packing Lawrence’s car with boxes of food, often worry about her ability to see while driving due to the copious amounts of boxes shoved in her car. To volunteers and staff alike, she has become a legend of the organization.

Lawrence, of course, could not attain this status alone. On her second trip delivering food for Food Link, she enlisted the aid of her friend and next-door neighbor, Lorraine. In Lawrence’s words, “She knows where to go.” With the formation of the duo, a seed was planted. Lawrence and Lorraine started out by delivering food to people in their proximity, aided by Lorraine’s connections within the Jehovah’s Witnesses and her community of Lowell, Massachusetts. Over time, their roots spread. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Lowell took in Ukrainian refugees they were added immediately to the route. When half of Lawrence and Lorraine’s apartment complex became unlivable after a pipe burst, the two spent nine months bringing food, water and clothes to the six families who were displaced. Sometimes Lawrence identifies people in The Book Rack who need food, saying “You can just tell” that they need something. After years of Lawrence’s service, everybody knows: If you need help, call Brenda.

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RETAIL: Food from the retail sector accounts for 29% of the 30-40% of food waste in the US.

I shadowed Lawrence on one of her trips to deliver food. As we drove on her usual route, chatting and listening to ’70s tunes, calls from recipients rolled in and out. One could not help but be reminded of the Batmobile or the phone in the Ghostbusters’ headquarters. For these people, Lawrence is the figure in the night bringing much-needed aid.

Our first stop was not one, but two gas stations. Of course, only the first stop of the two was for the purpose of getting gas. The smile on the Mobil worker when Lawrence offered him food was unforgettable, a reaction that Lawrence clearly receives often. She noted casually on the way out that he must have been new, as she is familiar with most of the employees there. The second gas station, a Sunoco, is the workplace of a longtime recipient named Ali. Ali immigrated from Pakistan nine years ago and works alone at Sunoco to support his family. Upon seeing Brenda, his eyes immediately crinkled into a smile. Ali has a firm handshake and is energetic and warm despite being several hours into his shift. He rooted through the back of Lawrence’s car, tossing boxes behind him as he picked out his food. As he did, Lawrence helped him identify which foods were Halal.

Next was Aniece, a Lexington resident who further distributes the food Lawrence brings her. Lawrence met Aniece at The Book Rack, even hiring her when she was looking for work. After pulling into the Walmart parking lot near the church where Lawrence told Aniece to meet — the church’s parking lot did not have sufficient lighting — Aniece got right to work, looking for the right kind of desserts for her patrons. As she rifled through the trunk, Aniece caught up with Lawrence on the newest information about the recipients of the food, talking through who needed what. After loading Aniece’s car with the pudding cups she had chosen, we were back on our way.

The last stop was a family in Bedford living in government-subsidized housing. We spoke with Jean, a father to three kids, two of whom have special needs. Lawrence is intimately familiar with the idiosyncrasies of their nutrition requirements, which she described to me in detail on the drive over. Jean, an immigrant from Nigeria, explained in his native French: “Elle est comme une ange. Elle vient de nous sauver,” meaning, “She [Lawrence] is like an angel. She comes to save us.”

It may come as a surprise that most of Lawrence’s food-insecure recipients are not on the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is designed to help food-insecure populations. Lawrence herself lost her job in 2020 and was told that she was ineligible for SNAP due to having too high of an income. “How can you make too much money when you’re on unemployment?” Lawrence asks while recalling her experience. The Department of Agriculture’s website lists various other reasons people might not qualify for SNAP, including having over $2,250 in assets or being a recent undocumented immigrant who does not receive benefits. While SNAP benefits have been able to assist thousands of Americans, the barriers in accessing it leave a distinct population of people who are food insecure but unable to get help.

On the other side of America’s nutrition crisis, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that 30-40% of food in America is wasted. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2018 Wasted Food Report identifies retail waste — food from restaurants, grocery stores, etc. — as responsible for a whopping 29% of this waste. That statistic does not even cover produce that is discarded for being “ugly” at the industrial level.

It is exactly this kind of “waste” that Food Link aims to repurpose. In 2022, Food Link managed to rescue 1.2 million pounds of food which was repurposed into 1 million meals. These statistics would not have been possible without the aid of community volunteers like Lawrence and Lorraine, who bring the mission of rescuing food to its most personal level. Of course, Food Link’s mission is hardly local: see Food Tank for a list of similar organizations across the globe.

On Oct. 9, 2023, a man in a black jacket nearly tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. He was walking past Lexington, Massachusetts’s Church of Saint Brigid, a stretch of sidewalk dimly lit by nearby streetlamps. The man recovered quickly, walking away as if nothing had happened. What he will never know is that Lawrence — who was waiting for Aniece in her car nearby — worried about whether he was okay. Lawrence’s service is a testament to the fact that it does not take a tragedy to make a hero, but the consistent and unconscious presence of one question: “What do the people around me need?”