Calif. seniors helping fight hunger and waste

Shirley Elwell
CBS News

(CBS News) SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Shirley Elwell is a 72-year-old great-grandmother. She also happens to operate a forklift.

"Watch out," says Elwell. "The next thing I'll learn how to drive is a semi."

Elwell is part of an army of senior citizens, who volunteer at a 144,000 square foot warehouse in Sacramento. Katherine LaRue, 87, also volunteers there.

"It keeps us moving," says LaRue. "We're not sitting around watching, excuse me, TV."

What these seniors are doing is feeding the hungry. The warehouse they work in collects and sorts millions of pounds of excess food each year.

The food typically comes from grocery stores that would discard it. The food is still safe to eat, but has reached its expiration date. Instead of letting the food go to waste, the food is collected by the seniors and sent off to local food banks.

"This year, we're looking at pushing out over eight million pounds," says Gary McDonald, the CEO of what is known as 'Senior Gleaners.'

Last year, the group fed nearly 100,000 people with nearly 10 million dollars worth of food.

"America wastes 96 billion pounds of food per year," says McDonald. "Not all of that is salvageable, but a lot of that is. If we could salvage the food that's being wasted today, we could feed everyone in America."

The organization got their start 36 years ago by collecting excess produce in fields and backyards. Tony Lampa had more tomatoes in his backyard than he could ever eat.

"Why not give it to someone that will share it," says Lampa.

A crew of four 'Gleaners' picked his vines clean.

Many of the volunteers, like Theta Gilding, live on fixed incomes and need help themselves. The volunteers that need assistance are allowed to take food from the warehouse twice a week.

"We are not just standing in line at a food bank and accepting somebody else's work," says Gilding. "We come here and we work and then we have something to take home with us."

Knowing that they are making a difference is what drives these senior. It's what keeps Shirley Elwell on her forklift.

"We've still got a lot of good years in us and we can help a lot of people," says Elwell.

The 'Senior Gleaners' are using their golden years as a golden opportunity to give back to the community.

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    Ben Tracy is a CBS News White House correspondent based in Washington, D.C.