Maurice “Mickey” Weiss, wholesale produce dealer and philanthropist who founded the Charitable Distribution Facility to supply discarded but usable food to kitchens that feed the hungry, died Wednesday. He was 81.
Weiss, sometimes called the “mushroom king” for making the item readily available in the Los Angeles area, died of cancer at his West Los Angeles home.
President George Bush gave Weiss an End Hunger Award in 1989, citing his “vision, initiative and leadership in the effort to achieve a world without hunger” because of the center Weiss created and funded from his Mickey and Edna Weiss Foundation.
“I was a point of light. That was the first time I knew what ‘a thousand points of light’ meant,” Weiss told The Times shortly after he received the award.
Weiss got the idea for distributing formerly wasted food in 1987 after he passed a homeless encampment on the way to the docks of his vegetable company at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. Arriving at work, he saw 200 pallets of still-edible strawberries waiting for the dump truck, and yelled: “Why are we throwing away berries when eight blocks away people are frying stale bread over open fires for their first meal of the day?”
Weiss talked managers of the country’s busiest produce market into dedicating 2,000 square feet at the complex at 8th and Alameda streets for his distribution center. He recruited high school students to call Los Angeles charities to see who needed produce to feed the poor.
Soon his center was providing food for more than 44,000 meals a day to 400 charities. The center has become a model for other food distribution operations in more than 15 cities throughout the country.
“I’m a giver,” Weiss typically said in dismissing descriptions of himself as a major philanthropist. “A lot of people are givers.”
Weiss also donated a landmark mural in the Los Angeles produce district, noting: “I wanted to give back to the market some of what they gave to me. But what do you give? You can’t give a hand truck or a forklift.”
Weiss was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his Hungarian parents had moved to sell used clothing to mine workers. The family immigrated to Michigan in 1921 and moved to California 10 years later.
The young Weiss dropped out of UCLA to help his father start a one-truck produce business in a garage at Fairfax and Melrose avenues. Focusing on service, they were soon supplying the city’s top restaurants--Chasen’s, Mocambo, Ciro’s, Romanoff’s.
Weiss’ attempt to start a restaurant failed, and he stuck to supplying produce.
As an Army private during World War II, he never got out of Palm Springs once his quartermaster learned he was adept at supplying bananas.
To combat price manipulations of mushrooms after the war, Weiss decided to focus on that particular item, founding Mushrooms Inc. and earning his nickname. His family firm has now become West Central Wholesale Produce, the area’s biggest mushroom supplier.
Weiss formerly served as chairman of the Los Angeles Public Utilities and Transportation Commission.
His decades of philanthropy recently earned him the Variety Club International Humanitarian of the Year Award. He was a founder of the Los Angeles County Music Center and a major supporter of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to which he has willed $1 million for educational programs. He was also a founder and president of the Medical Center Aids of City of Hope and vice president of the United Way Food Partnership.
“People who give to their community inspire others to give,” he said recently.
Weiss, a recipient of the National Conference of Christians and Jews Award, served as general chairman of the United Jewish Welfare Fund drive, as Los Angeles board chairman for State of Israel Bonds, and as a board member of the Jewish Confederation Council and the Jewish Community Foundation. He was on the international board of governors of the Weizmann Institute and was vice president of its American committee and president and founder of its Los Angeles support committee. He also was a trustee and board member of the Simon Weisenthal Center and founder of the Israel Tennis Centers.
He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Edna; three children, Andrea, Dennis and Ronald, and four grandchildren.
Services are scheduled at 9:30 a.m. Friday at the Stephen S. Wise Temple.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to a charity of the donor’s choice.