GreenSportsBlog could not imagine a better Thanksgiving interviewee than Syd Mandelbaum, Founder of Rock and Wrap It Up! (RWIU), an award-winning anti-poverty think tank that, since 1994, has been collecting and donating unused and still wrapped food from stadia and arenas to feed the hungry and indigent.
While the rock concert was the original RWIU bailiwick, sports soon followed. Now, some 72 NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS franchises partner with the group. Which is incredible. Even more incredible is that RWIU provides 50 million meals annually. And, by doing so, it diverts a significant amount of food waste from the landfill. But most incredible is Syd himself and how he got to Rock and Wrap It Up!
That story involves the Holocaust, measuring the distances home runs travel and…All I can say is sit back and be thankful for Syd Mandelbaum.
GreenSportsBlog: Syd, I know the story of how Rock and Wrap It Up! came to be is, to quote Lennon & McCartney, a “Long and Winding Road,” so take us back to the beginning.
Syd Mandelbaum: This story goes back to 1981. Both my parents are Holocaust survivors. In ’81, dad Joseph and I went to Jerusalem to honor the survivors, and during the trip I had an epiphany to change the world. Sounds cliché, I know, but that’s what happened.
GSB: I can see how that could. So how did you decide you would change the world?
Syd: Well, at the time I was working at Baxter Technology as a Scientist–I had been a high school Earth Science teacher before that. Baxter had been taping scientists talking about a new drug they had developed–Synthroid–a thyroid replacement therapy. I said to myself: “What if we could video Holocaust survivors and their liberators?”
So I started the Second Generation of Long Island project in which we taped hundreds of survivors out on the Island where we lived–dad was the first interviewee. Eventually, in 1993, we gave our project to Steven Spielberg, which he used to start The Shoah Foundation out at USC.
GSB: Amazing! So how did the Shoah lead you to Rock and Wrap It Up!?
Syd: In 1985, Fran Purcell, Nassau County Executive back then, was also a Buchenwald death camp liberator. He heard about the tapings, we met, we taped him and eventually he appointed me to the Human Rights Commission of Nassau County. It was through that role that I met Sandy Chapin, widow of the singer Harry Chapin. And it was through Sandy that, in 1990, I met Ron Delsener…
GSB: …The rock concert promoter?
Syd: The very same. At the same time, I was volunteering as President of a soup kitchen out in Far Rockaway, Queens. Our biggest problem was, of course…
Syd: You got it-money. Delsener tells me there is always uneaten, unused food left over after concerts at the Jones Beach Theater. And, so in 1991, Rock and Wrap It Up! was born at concerts at Jones Beach. We donated 4,000 lbs. of unused food from backstage from 40 concerts that summer from artists like Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis. In fact I played basketball with those guys–I still play in fact.
Syd Mandelbaum, Founder of Rock and Wrap It Up!, which provides 50 million meals per year to the hungry and indigent from unused food at stadiums and arenas. (Photo credit: Rock and Wrap It UP!)
GSB: You still got game?
Syd: Absolutely! You wanna join us?
GSB: Hmmm, I haven’t played in a gazillion years—it wouldn’t be pretty! Anyway, let’s get back to the subject at hand. Rock and Wrap It Up! Actually, before we get back to that–you also mentioned to me that you were involved in creating the technology to measure home run measurements.
Syd: OK, in 1991, at the same time as we were birthing Rock and Wrap It Up! I, yes, developed the algorithms to do home run measurements. I did a Dodgers-Giants game at Candlestick Park in April 1991, refined things, did it for the Mets, Yanks, ultimately the Mariners purchased the technology. That led to doing golf drive measurements for Greg Norman’s Shark Shootout in 1992.
Rock and Wrap It Up! volunteers take unused food from Yankee Stadium for distribution to the hungry. (Photo credit: Rock and Wrap It UP!)
Rock and Wrap It Up! volunteers distribute the unused food collected from Yankee Stadium to people in the Bronx. (Photo credit: Rock and Wrap It UP!)
GSB: Sheesh! Do you ever sleep?? OK, NOW back to Rock and Wrap It Up!
Syd: Yes! So back to Jones Beach Theatre…1993 Things were going well. A big step was the Black Crows requiring in a rider in their contract that pot should be placed for them in their dressing rooms. It dawned upon me that unused food cannot be thrown out and must instead be donated to feed the hungry could be put into contract riders as well. That year and in 1994, 10 bands said yes to the rider including our first bands, the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.
GSB: The food rider, not the pot rider?
Syd: YES, the food rider.
GSB: It seems like there’s no downside to this. Why did any band say no?
Syd: Great question — really, I think they just didn’t understand what we were trying to do.
In any case, we started to get some major media attention…In 1999 Food Network did a feature on us. Dan Rather as well. And then it kept building. Rolling Stone, MTV, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping. By 2001, Rock and Wrap It Up! had become my full time job; by 2003 we were up to 150 bands.
GSB: So when did sports teams come on board?
Syd: Sports…that got going in 2002 through an article in Detroit Hours Magazine. In May 2003, Brooke Maroth, wife of Tigers’ pitcher Mike Maroth, after seeing the article, wrote me, in the interest of serving Christ, asking if Rock and Wrap It Up! can feed the hungry from leftover food generated from Comerica Park.
We jumped at the chance–and soon we were donating food to a 24-hour food pantry across the street from Comerica Park. By 2004, Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch, owners of the New York Giants asked us if we could handle not only the unused clubhouse food but also the unused concession stand food.
GSB: That’s a big jump, no?
Syd: Yes, but we figured out how we could do it and, by 2005, we were handling Big Blue. We saw an opportunity to make a big imprint in the New York area. With the Jets sharing the stadium with the Giants, we added them into the mix. Since the Giants owners knew the Steinbrenners and the Yankees well, we soon made a presentation on poverty in the Bronx and the Yankees were in. David Howard, a senior exec at the Mets, got the Amazins’ to join in over at Shea. In 2006, we locked in Madison Square Garden, the Islanders, Devils and Red Bulls. The Nets came on in 2008.
GSB: Like Sinatra said, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” and you’ve certainly made it in New York. What about college sports? I would think this would be a natural.
Syd: In the mid 2000s we inked the University of Colorado and the University of Florida and have built up our college sports presence from there.
GSB: Have leagues gotten involved or are they leaving this to the teams
Syd: The NHL and Gary Bettman have been big supporters as all 30 clubs participate. We have great relationships with MLB, NBA and NFL but they’re largely delegating this to teams. The US Tennis Association and US Open are our partners–great organization. The PGA as well–with the Greater Hartford Open.
We presently have 72 teams across North America and their stadiums and arenas.
GSB: Syd, what you’ve done is just amazing. Can you give us a sense of Rock and Wrap It Up’s! impact over the years.
Syd: Since 1991, we’ve fed over 1 billion people with leftover food.
GSB: 1 BILLION?
Syd: Yes, 1 billion. But the problem is just as big–in 2010, one in three Americans were in poverty and, in 2014, more than 1 in 10 were food insecure. We’re doing about 50 million meals per year now, with more than 5,000 volunteers, working in over 500 North American cities.
GSB: How much does sports figure in the total Rock and Wrap It Up! effort?
Syd: Sports is about 20 percent as of now. The remainder comes from concerts, entertainment, schools (over 300), hotels and hospitals.
GSB: Finally, since this is the GreenSportsBlog, talk a bit about how Rock and Wrap It Up! benefits the environment.
Syd: We’re making a significant contribution to fighting global warming.
RWIU feeds millions of people each year with food that was destined for the landfill. If that food reached the landfill, it would decompose into, among other things, methane, which is a greenhouse gas (GHG) 72X more potent than CO2. We developed the Whole Earth Calculator (WEC) for the NFL for Super Bowl XLVIII. It is a mobile app, which converts pounds of food into total meals, offers GHG reduction stats and sends the data out as a tweet via Twitter.
The WEC is having a huge impact in all sectors we collect in as we are giving donors a quid pro quo to crow about to their fans and constituents the power to reduce poverty and carbon footprints simultaneously. In addition, many of our partner organizations to which we donate food compost the organic food waste, which furthers our ultimate positive impact.
GSB: Positive impact. What a great way to describe Rock and Wrap It Up’s work, from an alleviating hunger and from an environmental perspective. And positive impact is a perfect way to describe your life Syd Mandelbaum!
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