Is it possible for pizza to make the world a better place? Slice Out Hunger founder Scott Wiener thinks so. In 2008, riding on his self-described obsession with pizza and pizza box artwork — he holds the Guinness World Record for owning 1,600 pizza boxes and wrote a book about it — Wiener started Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City. In 2015, he officially created the charity offshoot, Slice Out Hunger, as a nonprofit despite not having much experience in the nonprofit sector. The organization partners with pizzerias and charities, both locally and nationally, to raise money for campaigns like Pizza vs. Pandemic, Toppings for Texas, Vax and Snacks, and the annual Pizza Across America, which distributes pizzas to soup kitchens and shelters on National Pizza Day (Feb. 9). So far, SOH has raised more than $1 million to fund hunger relief efforts. In this edition of Voices in Food, Wiener talks to Garin Pirnia about the challenges of running a nonprofit and how pizza might just save humanity.
Slice Out Hunger started off as an annual fundraising event every year since I started Scott’s Pizza Tours. Pizzerias I work with offered to give me a few free pizzas to throw a little party and have a good time. I started using those parties as ways to charge my friends, basically, a dollar per slice. Scott’s Pizza Tours would match those funds and send all the money as a donation to a local hunger relief charity. After a few years, Slice Out Hunger became the name of the overall organization when we became a 501(c)(3). We started doing other things that were not just that one event.
It’s the way for the tour to be able to balance out giving back to the community while still being able to treat food like entertainment. It wasn’t so much that I saw anything unexpected in the community. It’s New York City. There’s a lot of people out there who are hungry. After every tour, if there are ever extra slices, we’re always looking for people on the street to give those slices to. But that’s really not enough. It doesn’t really do anything about the problem, and Slice Out Hunger’s mission is way more about the real problem: How do we fight any form of food insecurity and not just give people a slice of pizza? Most people on the street aren’t asking for a slice of pizza. They need a lot more than that — they need jobs, a place to shower, money to run a life. Slice Out Hunger became a way to try and raise funds so those mechanisms could play out. We have a mechanism, but we’re not equipped to provide people with services.
“I think some cities want to dust hunger under the rug and get rid of the issue by making sure we don’t see it. We need to address the mental health crisis in the country because that has more to do with homelessness than just people losing their job.”
People like José Andrés set such a great example that when you have the ability to do something good, you just do it. That’s the way humans should operate, which is, you see something you can help with and then you help. The pizza community is pretty awesome. There are pizzerias everywhere. Everybody talks to each other. People are mostly friendly with each other. I think a lot of people assume pizzerias are secretive enemies of each other, but it’s really a good community. Slice Out Hunger acts as that central pole to bring people in that community together. We lay it out real easy: “Hey, we’re doing this. You want in? Just tell us. You don’t want in? No problem. I won’t bug you.”
Every program that we run, we want to make sure that all the money we raise goes into that program and it doesn’t get used for administrative costs. Of course, we realized we need to pay for our administrative stuff, otherwise we can’t do those programs. Finding funding for that is a really tough part. And to be able to do marketing is really tough because those of us who run Slice Out Hunger are not seasoned pros in nonprofits. We figure things out as we go. Really, everything we do is challenging. In my normal pre-COVID life, I would never really be home. Suddenly [during the pandemic], I was home all day and those free hours got spent doing a lot of the Slice Out Hunger. Time is a real issue, and now that we’re kinda getting back toward some normalcy with tours, it’s gotten even harder to do Slice Out stuff, which is why we’re looking for more funding and to hire seasoned pros.
I think some cities want to dust hunger under the rug and get rid of the issue by making sure we don’t see it. We need to address the mental health crisis in the country because that has more to do with homelessness than just people losing their job. Beyond that, it’s the idea of attacking food insecurity before it becomes a problem. Preventing hunger is way more important than alleviating hunger. We need to teach people about nutrition and cooking … our country has gotten more into food delivery during COVID. It’s about outsourcing our food, and I think we have to reverse that.
“I might not understand the political complexities of a country, but pizza is a way to start a conversation and find common ground.”
Pizza is this great equalizer. It brings everybody together. It’s not exclusive at all. It doesn’t prohibit anybody from participating. You can be vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free and you can participate. You can be rich. You can be poor. It’s like a safe space for everyone. I might not understand the political complexities of a country, but pizza is a way to start a conversation and find common ground. And at a time when people are really looking for ways to throw someone they don’t agree with across the room, and people want to be extreme about their views, pizza is a good way to recognize humanity in each other and to reclaim civility and try to approach problems through a pragmatic point of view rather than just pure emotion, which I think we’ve gotten caught up in.
I get people on my tours whom I’m sure I don’t agree with on everything politically. There’s no use in starting a relationship with someone by understanding the ways that you completely disagree with their views. I know it sounds insane: “You think you’re going to get together and have a pizza party?” But I literally believe it: Pizza bringing people together is a way to turn a potential battle into a conversation, and a conversation is the first step toward solving a problem.