It was an odd place for an epiphany. Pamela Rainey Lawler had never been inside a Dunkin' Donuts before, but her neighborhood theater in Roxborough was being razed, and she wanted to see what sort of store was replacing it.

So she walked into one of chain's shops on Ridge Pike after work one day in 1983, and found herself wondering what was to become of the wall of soon-to-be-stale sweets.

"We cycle them," she was told, which she took to mean that every few hours they'd bring out fresher doughnuts and chuck the old ones.

She'd been reading local author Loretta Schwartz-Nobel's Starving in the Shadow of Plenty, and was troubled by all the food-wasting she saw in the corporate world.

"I was so struck by the fact that there were people whose basic needs were not met."

What resulted was the food-recovery program called Philabundance, which has become so successful in feeding the hungry.

Too successful, Lawler tells herself sometimes, because it has outgrown what made it famous. If you picture volunteers in station wagons picking up trays of uneaten food from restaurants and bakeries and delivering them to shelters, that's an outdated image.

Cheaper by the truckload

As Philabundance grew, merging with the Greater Philadelphia Food Bank in 2005, its mission changed. Picking up from restaurants and smaller stores was not as cost-effective as going to the producers for fresh food. The organization still works with supermarkets and caterers, but that's no longer the focus.

As Bill Clark, Philabundance's director, puts it, "It's not about saving food. It's about saving people."

Why spend $36 in fuel and staff to pick up a load of day-old bread, he asks, when he can buy fresh bread cheaper? "That's not the best use of the money people donate," he said. Today, the nonprofit feeds about 65,000 people a week, through 600 agencies on both sides of the Delaware River.

I sought out Lawler after reading about a government study that found we waste about 27 percent of the food that's available for consumption - this as grocery bills soar and food-bank stocks shrink. The typical person tosses about a pound of food every day.

"People care about this problem," says Lawler, who ran Philabundance for its first nine years and who still serves on its board. Now she is development director of MicroSociety, a curriculum that allows elementary and middle school children to apply classroom lessons to the real world.

She asks if there's still an opportunity for an organization that's small and quick to respond - something like what she started 24 years ago.

Starting small

Her first pickup was on Mother's Day 1984. She'd lined up three soup kitchens, three shelters, and three church pantries as clients, then drove her light-blue Subaru to an Acme and picked up some fruit and bread that couldn't be sold.

Today, a group in New York manages to make something on that scale work, she said. The City Harvest food rescue manages a core of 300 volunteers called Street Fleet who pick up extra sandwiches and baked goods from places like Starbucks and walk them to social service agencies.

"It's very grassrootsy," said Jen McLean, City Harvest's operations VP. "We don't even have a warehouse." Last year the rescue redistributed 60,000 pounds of food.

You might think of that as small potatoes, Lawler says, but "people who care are getting involved. And other people give money when they see things like that."

She wonders if there's a 21st-century model, where a blog and e-mail could connect those with extra to those who feed the hungry.

"I'm sure there's a need," said Cary Borish, co-owner of the Marathon Grill. "We're always solicited for cash and gift certificates [for fund-raisers], but I have not been solicited for, 'Hey, what are you guys doing with your waste?' "