Rock and Wrap It Up! Founder Syd Mandelbaum (INTERVIEW)

I had a chance to speak with anti-poverty activist Syd Mandelbaum to discuss his inspirational non-profit Rock and Wrap It Up! (RWU) is a grassroots organization that was founded by Syd to address the needs of one soup kitchen in Queens, NY. After realizing the potential of collecting food at one concert, Syd expanded the concept into RWU. While the scope of RWU's work has grown in recent years, the core goal has not changed: Feeding needy Americans.

Who were some of the first bands to support RWU and how many total bands have agreed to participate?

Over 160 bands since 1991 have participated in donating food that is prepared and not served from back stage catering. The first bands, in no particular order, were Bruce Hornstein & The Range, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Phish, and Michael Bolton. All of these bands were signed up with us nationally in 1994 but it really was Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis who I first bounced the ideas off of starting RWU. At the time, Bruce was in the Grateful Dead so they were one of the first bands to support us as well.

How many pounds of food do you expect to collect this summer and how many people will that serve?

RWU has expanded where the majority of the food is not just in music; music is a very small part of the RWU model. We now are in professional sports, we have over 40 sport franchises throughout the United States and Canada that give us all food that is prepared but not sold at their stadiums and arenas. We also have hundreds of schools throughout America that give us food and other assets to fight poverty. We also have hotels that give us food as well as when films and television shows are shot, like NBC Universal. We partner with them so we have plenty of opportunities to recover food from other venues other then backstage catering at rock concerts. Also, many rock bands have given us entrée into the arenas themselves so it’s not just the bands who are giving us food, the entire arena, whether the band is signed up with us or not, is giving us food that is prepared but not sold and we have that in a dozen arenas throughout the United States. In a nutshell we will probably feed, just over the summer, about 4 to 5 million people.

Have the recoveries at schools and colleges been successful?

I have to give credit to your mother, Alyssa Greenberg, and Dori Fishban, who were the first group on Long Island, as volunteers, to start a program in the Port Washington school district. We now have well over 200 schools throughout the United States who give food, not even mentioning the schools on the college level. On the college level our largest partners are USC and UCLA, all of the food from the UCLA campus goes to RWU and is recovered by LA mission, our partner in downtown Los Angeles. On the college level we have two programs, one is called College Wrap! and the other is Give and Go Green. These programs were started in the NY area, one of them at Barnard and Columbia, Give and Go Green, where students who graduated began giving all of their room and dorm assets upon graduation.  Instead of taking them home they give them to RWU, where we arrange with agencies to take those mini-refrigerators, microwaves, toaster ovens, televisions, books, clothing, linen, bedding to give them directly to families in crisis that instantaneously use them to have a place to live. That program is huge and we would love to see the supporters of HeadCount, as your motto is Music, Democracy and Action, we would like to see the Action work with RWU so that our mission, which we say is reducing the poverty footprint while still reducing the carbon footprint, can be more inculcated throughout colleges throughout the United States and North America.

Will you be continuing food recoveries at music festivals this summer?

I think we are going to be partnering with HeadCount also where we are going to have, like you coordinated at Mountain Jam, more festivals like Coachella. We coordinated at Bonnaroo, but they had already been setup, yet they continued our work. We have reached out to the people at Lollapalooza and we will be reaching out to other festivals like Gathering of the Vibes to try to arrange that all food that is prepared but not sold or used, feed the hungry in those communities.  We have had great support from the management of the festival themselves.

What other greening efforts are being made?

We are looking to expand our hotel work. So right now, one of the larger projects of RWU is to have bands that travel, and this was started by Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne many years ago, wherever they travel they would encourage their entire tour to take the shampoo and conditioner and soap that was unused, because many of them travel with their own toiletries and they would collect all the shampoo and conditioner and they would send it to RWU. In their first tour we received over 45 shipments from them which was a tour in Europe. This has been continued by bands like Phish, The Zen Tricksters, we have reached out to Vampire Weekend, which is our newest band.

We had the opportunity to go to Bonnaroo and talk to people in the artist hospitality area, the artists themselves, their management to talk to them about the types of things that we want to do and basically spread the word about RWU as an organization. Bands like Temper Tramp and Mike Snow expressed a lot of interest in the types of things we are doing. So we are definitely looking to expand to both established and up-and-coming bands that are traveling throughout the festival scene to raise their fandom which is what they are trying to do at  these festivals. Vampire Weekend has been the most responsive so far, even though they are not touring at large venues so we can’t get large amounts of food, they still have expressed interest in partnering with us to get the message out about RWU.

Some of the things that have been really important are that bands have been looking at the sustainability; RWU was the first green charity according to Sharon Osbourne. We understood 17 years ago that food that could be eaten and kept out of landfills could only be good for the environment but more importantly could help feed the hungry. All these bands we work with believe that through teenagers and kids in their young twenties that that is where the world has changed. So the more we can do to teach people that they themselves -- individually -- can make a difference, the better. It really comes down to re-empowering the individual. RWU has programs that starts as young as working with 5 year olds in our Snack Rap program. The Snack Rap program was started with RWU in 2002, but in 2010 it has been exploding.

Like HeadCount, RWU has a small core group of permanent employees. How does the size of the organization thrive with the limited help?

Because we have been around this long we have very few people who leave us. We are like a big bus that goes on a route and goes a little bit further out each time, but people can get on that bus whenever they want. We have people who have been with us for 16 years who want to make a difference through us. We have a staff of 6 with 3 interns on top of that; however we also have over 6,000 volunteers throughout the United States.

Where does RWU progress to now?

Right now our biggest issue is reducing poverty at a time when this country has never had more people that have had food issues. The economy sucks, where we were making a dent at reducing poverty before 2007. With the economy being so so weak, there are now close to 50 million Americans that are food insecure. Where in 2007 the numbers were dropping to about 35 million Americans. The other positive thing with RWU is that the partners and agencies we deal with are in dire need of the assets that we are able to develop for them. Because, as you know, our mission is very simple, the more assets that we give to agencies that fight poverty, the more money they have to pay for the services that attack the root causes of poverty. I believe we are still in our infancy; we still know we have so much more to do because the need is so great.

To volunteer, donate or find out more, visit the Rock and Wrap It Up! website.