It’s a deceptively simple idea: “Harvest” surplus food and clothing for the needy.

Pleasant Hill’s White Pony Express has spun that Robin Hood-esque concept into a thriving nonprofit serving Contra Costa County. Numerous grocery stores and clothing manufacturers give it their extras, which it distributes through a network of 80 local agencies that serve vulnerable residents.

“We step in as a connector between abundance and need,” said Eve Birge, who became executive director 18 months ago after many years as a volunteer.

Now White Pony is adding a new twist: an app to let its 400 volunteers pick up leftovers from caterers and small restaurants and bring them to pre-selected groups that could use them. The app, which is being tested now, will be rolled out in the late summer.

“It’s like Uber for food rescue,” Birge said. A volunteer “gets a ping, and can claim (the delivery) and get all the details for pickup and dropoff.” The volunteer food runners will have coolers to keep in their vehicle and get trained on food safety.

White Pony Express originated in a garage. In 2013, its founder, Dr. Carol Weyland Conner, and a few volunteers, all followers of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, launched it with $80 and a desire to bridge the gaping chasm between the Bay Area’s prosperity and the many people in need.

The name is a mashup of the Pony Express, which innovated getting items to their destination quickly, and the white horse, a symbol of unity in Sufism.

Food can go to waste because of excess inventory, sell-by dates or its appearance. White Pony “rescues” 15,000 pounds a day from grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants and others. Its food partners include Imperfect Foods, Whole Foods, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks and Sprouts.

“Our partnership with White Pony Express embodies the importance of building a better, kind food system,” said Reilly Brock, associate creative director of online grocer Imperfect Foods, which itself addresses food waste by sourcing items that don’t look perfect — asymmetrical, scarred, too big, too small. It’s donated over 1.6 million pounds of food to White Pony in the pasts two years.

“Attacking hunger is obviously a really complex issue,” Brock said. “They’ve taken a holistic, whole-person approach that we respect.”

Gwen Hamilton, a volunteer for White Pony Express, helps out at a drive-thru giveaway of clothes.

Nina Riggio/The Chronicle

White Pony also recovers clothing — unsold, brand-new overstock, out-of-season and returns that might otherwise end up in landfill — as well as diapers, back-to-school supplies, jewelry and high-end makeup.

“We just received 70 pallets from Ralph Lauren,” Birge said. “Two months ago we got 52 pallets from Bombas socks. We’re trying to get the word out: Please don’t put it in a dumpster; give it to us.”

Prior to the pandemic, White Pony both donated clothes to nonprofits and ran a general store that hosted free pop-up boutiques to distribute the clothing, educational toys and books.

Now for in-person distribution, it offers drive-through events where clients of a nonprofit can arrive in their car, tell a White Pony runner their family’s sizes and ages, and have bundles of appropriate apparel waiting for them at the other end of the line. For Father’s Day, it hosted a drive-through at a Bay Point recreation center that drew about 200 dads referred by local social services agencies, who had their cars loaded with food, chocolate and right-sized clothing.

Cindy Holland, program coordinator for Black Infant Health in Contra Costa, said White Pony supports her group’s purpose of trying to bridge health disparities for Black mothers. Her county program has a tight budget, so donations from White Pony allow them to offer participating moms essential items and some fun things.

“They make lovely care packages with backpacks for the infants,” she said. “They give so many nice baby essentials: diaper bag/baby backpack, diapers, wipes, baby toiletries, several outfits, blankets, books, bibs, bottles. It has been such a godsend, because a lot of our moms have to choose between, ‘Am I going to buy diapers or pay the PG&E bill?’”

Richard Bartley, a father, receives donated clothes, food, and chocolate from White Pony Express.

Nina Riggio/The Chronicle

For Mother’s Day, White Pony sponsored a day in Hidden Valley Park in Martinez to celebrate and nourish mothers in Black Infant Health, with stations for yoga, bubble blowing and journaling. It curated gift bags for moms and their families with jewelry, makeup, skin-care products and clothing.

Antioch resident Deja Gibson, who has a 4-month old and three older children, attended the Mother’s Day event and said it was uplifting. She had to leave her job as a hospice-certified nursing assistant to watch the kids during COVID, so she has her hands full.

“Not only are they welcoming, they make you feel so important,” she said. “Me and my kids had a ball. It was emotional. I felt pampered. I felt almost like a celebrity.”

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @csaid


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