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It’s a modern day loaves-and-fishes story: An extreme couponer has found a way to feed thousands of homeless and food insecure people while staying out of debt. She has a goal to feed 30,000 meals to the needy before her 30th birthday next September and says she’s already fed 5,000 in a few months.

Lauren Puryear, 29, is a single mom and a mental health worker with a Ph.D. who was inspired to put an “end to hunger” when she saw a homeless “tent city” in the high-income town of Woodbridge, Virginia, where she now lives.

“I asked them what they needed and they said they needed food,” she said during a phone interview with Credit.com.

She started by providing Thanksgiving meals, and ticking off items on Christmas wish lists. But one day, she found a way to combine coupons to buy 425 cans of vegetables for 4-cents a can at Dollar General.

“I paid $1.70 for all of them. They were stacked up in my apartment floor to ceiling,” she said. She gave many of the cans away, and then baked a chicken and vegetable meal to feed another 300 people.

Puryear didn’t know it, but she was changing a life. On her very first day cooking and delivering meals, it started to snow. The group wasn’t allowed to serve meals inside of one of the shelters in Woodbridge, so they set up on the street and tried to get as many hot meals served as quickly possible. One man in his late forties approached, shivering inside his thin jacket, his jeans wet from the snow. He stopped in front of Puryear and looked at her when she offered him a warm plate of chicken. He was a veteran who, in his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, had recently divorced and lost everything, Puryear said. He reached out a calloused hand, then paused and looked at her again.

“I remembered him because he stopped,” she said. “He said, ‘Thank you so much, this is the first meal I’ve had in three days.'”

She told him to take extra food; whatever he needed. A few weeks later, the same man stopped by.

“He thanked me again, and said he had felt so down and depressed that day. He had prayed for help, “and you were the answer,” she said, recounting his words.

Her Grandmother’s Legacy

Puryear’s passion took wing and she founded ForTheLoveofOthers.net, inspired by her beloved grandmother in Paterson, New Jersey, who passed away at age 86 in 2012.

“It’s my responsibility to carry on her legacy,” she said.

Puryear grew up at her grandmother’s apartment where she says she witnessed a lot of poverty and people trying to rebuild their lives.

“I remember as a kid, I was always making some craft for a nursing home, or doing something to give back,” she said. “My grandmother set the example – she was always giving school supplies to children, cooking dinner and having people eat over, delivering groceries to a drug recovery center nearby. Even during her last days in the nursing home, she’d say, ‘Why don’t talk to that lady over there? She has no family to visit her.’”

Now, besides working a full-time mental health job and raising her 5-year-old son, Puryear spends about 10 extra hours per week clipping coupons at her son’s soccer practice, after work, during her lunch break and on weekends. The community and mailman give her their extra newspapers with coupons, and she prints more from the internet.

“Couponing knocks the price down tremendously,” she said. “I coupon so that I don’t have to spend my salary as a single mom.”

Earlier this month, she fed more than a thousand people on her birthday.

“It’s the most awesome feeling next to childbirth,” she said.

One week, Puryear scored 1,200 hotdogs and condiments by clipping a 55-cent coupon for Ball Park Franks, and finding a Safeway supermarket that doubled the coupon’s value and had a sale on the hotdogs for $1 per pack. The store gave her 10 cents in store credit back for each pack, and she used it to buy the condiments, relish and buns. Then, with the help of about eight friends and family members, she delivered them, hot and ready, to a hungry population in the nation’s capitol.

But her heart broke when, despite feeding 1,200, there were still more people she had to turn away. She’s determined to do more.

“It really does sadden me that we go to bed full every night, while there are some people who didn’t eat. I want to put an end to hunger,” she said.

The Next Steps

Her next goal is to feed a chicken, rice and vegetable meal to 1,500 people, starting with the homeless in Franklin Park in Washington. She’s driven to give them “good hearty meals,” she said. “Now people know my car and come running because they know I have something to give them,” she said. “And they tell us different locations to go to.”

Puryear still spends some of her money on this endeavor, but doesn’t want to fall into debt.  For an upcoming meal, she plans to buy 400 pounds of chicken from a meat factory in Richmond, Virginia, that is generous enough to sell it to her for a discount (the rice and vegetables will all be free.) She rents a storage unit for $89 per month, and foots the bill for some of the essentials in her program, such as cups and plates. People sometimes buy the drinks and donate clothing and supplies. Sometimes they give her cash donations “and, most importantly, they donate their time to help me help others,” she said. She’s seeking her non-profit, 501(c)(3) status, and a way to transport the food in bulk and keep it hot. (The group is currently delivering by car caravan, which “can get really messy,” she said.)

Puryear said anybody can “absolutely” do what she’s doing. She only has one stove with four burners, but posts on Facebook when she needs to amass helpers. Then, she and a small group of people cook the meals, load them into large trays and race off to deliver them hot. Sometimes they set up sterno cookers to keep everything warm. Her son chips in, bagging things, loading the car, passing out the meals, and making sure everyone is wearing gloves.

“He’s like our supervisor,” she said, laughing.

What will she do after she hits her goal of serving 30,000 meals?

“Set a new goal,” she said. “My goal is to end world hunger.”

Image: Lauren Puryear, center, her mother, left, and sister Ashley, right, hosting a free spaghetti and meatball dinner in Paterson, New Jersey. Credit: Aida Montero

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