Food for the Hungry

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on July 2, 2000

David Levitt rarely received a phone call at his part-time car wash job, and a call from Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles was rarer still.

“I thought I was in trouble when the manager called me to the office. Then, I saw the TV cameras and my mom standing there, smiling, and the governor congratulated me on the phone. He even sent me the pen that he signed the bill with.”

The bill was a state law to help alleviate hunger — something Levitt had been working on since age 11, when he needed a way to help the community in honor of his upcoming bar mitzvah. Levitt had read an article about a Kentucky program that transports donated food to the hungry, so he decided to start a similar program at Osceola Middle School in Seminole, Fla., (in conjunction with Tampa Bay Harvest, a local volunteer food network). On the first day of school, he saw his chance.

“I just walked up to the principal, who never saw me before, and asked, ‘Can we donate the leftover cafeteria food to Tampa Bay Harvest,'” recalls Levitt, now 18.

The answer was maybe. The plan had to be approved by the school board. No problem: Levitt wrote letters to each member, followed by phone calls. On his 12th birthday, he addressed the board in person and they approved the idea.

But the school had no funds for the airtight containers needed to protect against spoilage. No problem: Levitt wrote to supermarkets and manufacturers, and kept writing until First Brands Corp., makers of Glad products, promised to deliver Glad-Lock bags on a regular basis.

At his bar mitzvah, Levitt collected 500 pounds of requested canned food from his guests. Shortly before, when the first donation of food was delivered from his school to a local soup kitchen, publicity skyrocketed, and a disc jockey challenged him to expand the program statewide.

No problem: Levitt and his older sister, Jamie, wrote a resolution, and state Rep. Dennis Jones (R-54th District) molded it into the proper legislative format. The resolution would expand Florida?s Good Samaritan law to exempt delivery people, donors, and receivers from liability, and require food suppliers to make every effort to donate leftovers. It passed the House of Representatives 118-0. Sen. Charlie Crist (R-St. Petersburg) prepared a brochure on the resolution for all food producers.

At 16, Levitt had begun work as a page in the state Senate, hoping he would see the bill passed. His chance came on April 9, 1998.

“First, Senator Crist asked me to stand next to him,” Levitt recalls, still elated from the experience. “And then, he asked if I could speak. Before this, no one was allowed to speak on the Senate floor except for senators. I got a standing ovation.”

The resolution, first written by Levitt and his sister several years earlier, passed the Florida Senate unanimously.

When the bill was signed into law, Levitt received the surprise phone call from Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Others also have recognized Levitt’s commitment. He was named one of “Florida?s Finest” by then-Gov. Chiles, and was featured in Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s book, Profiles In Character. Bush describes Levitt as a “big-hearted, enthusiastic, talented young man blessed with a strong desire to help others.” Levitt also carried the torch in the 1996 Olympics, and has won several regional and national citizenship awards.

More importantly, his work has paid off for the hungry. Of 155 schools in Pinellas County (which includes Levitt’s hometown of Seminole), 105 now donate food to Tampa Bay Harvest — an estimated 1 million pounds since Levitt’s first delivery.

“You have to use your age as an advantage,” Levitt advises. “In government, adults face people who complain and ask for things. It’s such a change of pace to hear someone say, ‘We can do this.'”

Levitt plans to major in business at the University of Florida this fall. “Politics will always be a hobby, not a career, (but) I love it. It’s given me a new level of comfort with people, although I’ve never been shy.”

Indeed. When Levitt was invited to the White House for President Clinton’s Point of Light Award, he met Hillary Rodham Clinton and promptly leaned over to whisper, “What do you do with the White House leftovers?”

She leaned over and whispered back, “How old did you say you were?”