Beyond Recovery – Revealing the TRUE Power of Food

borscht chop veggies

Food Recovery Programs, once outliers in the nonprofit hunger relief system, are now front and center in the global push to limit the amount of fresh foods that are wasted every year, in every country.

In the U.S., the first program to dig deep into the urban food system was New York’s City Harvest in 1982. Its success in recovering prepared food from the city’s restaurants and hospitality industry, and then immediately distributing donations to pantries, shelters and other assistance programs, spawned replication in numerous cities…first in Minneapolis (Twelve Baskets), Philadelphia (Philabundunce) and then in Atlanta (Atlanta’s Table).

For a full roster of prepared food programs, here’s the USDA’s Citizen’s Guide to Food Recovery.

Joining that movement in 1989, I founded D.C. Central Kitchen with the idea that food recovery was important, but it’s system had a significant flaw; it assumed that the front-line agencies that received that food could, with limited staff and volunteers, make sense of hundreds of pounds of random food items.

My belief then (and now) is that if you brought the food back to a central hub kitchen (kind of a FedEx for food) you could process random donations into balanced meals or ready-to-use ingredients that would allow you to serve more people, better food. Plus…if you added a job training program, and offered people a chance to get off the streets, or out of the shelters, you could actually shorten the line of people needing food assistance.

Anyway…a new generation of nonprofits combatting food waste is now rising up. Taking health concerns and availability into consideration, many groups are focusing their attention on gathering fruits and vegetables from farmers markets, small farms and wholesalers.  I urge them to consider employing a similar model of recovery/processing/distributing…and here’s why.

1. Few front-line agencies EVER had the financial capacity to employ the staff or purchase the equipment required to meet the need, and now sequestration and local budget cuts are causing even greater financial pressure. Given the fact that, once picked or plucked, fruit and produce begins to decay rapidly, do small agencies have the refrigeration, storage space or staff required to mange and move a significant influx of food that has a short shelf life?

2. Furthermore, the pantry system used to distribute the majority of food to hungry people was designed in the 1960-70’s to serve people who were able-bodied and unemployed. The face of hunger is changing. While unemployment is driving recent surges in demand, the most common face of hunger today is a working person…most often a working mother. She has to get her kids to school, get to work, pick up her kids from after-care and then get home to serve dinner. TIME is her most precious commodity.

3. Partially due of to this, Americans now spend less than 30 minutes per day for all food preparation, and few have been taught how to best prepare fresh foods. While this must change, it begs the larger question of current food recovery trends…is giving a working person a big bag of healthy, yet often unfamiliar produce that requires significant prep time, the best way to use recovered food, or the most respectful way to help them/her out? And it begs the larger question…how much of the fresh foods we distribute ultimately ends up being thrown away because it went bad for lack of use?

4. Then consider this…the next big wave of hungry people will be seniors. Senior hunger spiked 80% in the last decade, and the oldest of 73 million Baby Boomers turned 68 just seconds after the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve. While this generation will resist being labeled “old”, we must now consider how will older people who will inevitably struggle with mobility and transportation be able to access, let alone prep and cook the food we are valiantly collecting?

That’s why we are building the L.A. Kitchen…to be part of a pioneering new movement to prepare healthy, nutritionally dense, ethnically exciting meals or prepped/ready-to-use products that are either frozen, refrigerated or ready to serve, so that the end user is given a product that is healthy, appealing and appropriate for them and their shifting circumstances.

Globally, there are great examples of programs that are processing foods into meals. Food Cycle in the UK, Feeding the 500, the new social enterprise restaurant Rub & Stub restaurant in Copenhagen, India’s amazing Eco Kitchen and Fare Share in Australia are great examples of international programs that understand the power of food…if used as part of something bigger than just picking it up and dropping it off. Of course, there are numerous “community kitchens” in the US that are also using donated foods to create value added meals….including 34 Campus Kitchens, the school based model we pioneered at the DC Central Kitchen.

In a nutshell….ALL food recovery is cool…but more programs must now pivot to take full advantage of food so that we maximize it’s value to better serve and empower the community.

Food is so much more than gas for the body. It can (and must) be fuel for real change.