Colorful garbage,” Luke Jones

June 9, 2020; Food Tank

Food insecurity is growing all across the US. With 40 million people out of work—many with no resources to fall back on—people are waiting all day in lines miles long to get the food they need to feed their families.

Rethink Food was founded to use America’s food waste to feed the hungry. (About 40 percent of our food gets tossed.) The Brooklyn nonprofit recovers this excess food from groceries and restaurants and turns it into meals for food-insecure New Yorkers. When the pandemic hit, Rethink realized that food insecurity would rise exponentially. At the same time, its business model was in trouble; its largest source of food, restaurants, was no longer available. The nonprofit came up with a new idea: supporting restaurants to make meals for those in need.

“We saw the restaurants around us folding left and right, Rethink Executive Director Megan Savage, told Food Tank. “That’s not only a major source of food for us, but it’s also our community.”

Rethink launched the Restaurant Response Program, funding 30 New York restaurants with grants of up to $40,000 to make meals for underserved communities and for the pandemic’s frontline workers. Participants include neighborhood businesses like Collective Fare, a caterer preparing Afro-fusion cuisine in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, and high-end dining spots like Eleven Madison Park, considered among New York’s top restaurants.

Collective Fare, which primarily serves corporate clients, lost $150,000 in contracts when New York City shut down. But the business was committed to its community and couldn’t fathom just shutting down and sending its workers home. Founder LaToya Meaders and Executive Chef Femi Rodney Frazer set to work providing 400 meals a day to seniors and immunocompromised individuals through Meals for All, an initiative they launched with Brownsville Community Culinary Center General Manager Jorge Castillo.

As a catering company, cooking and packing hundreds of meals wasn’t difficult. “Us being caterers, it was already sort of in our bag, because this is something that we do. We go out, we locate clients, we provide food for them. We provide food in massive quantities, which is easy for us,” Meaders told Bklyner. The only problem, she said, was finding the funding.

More funding came when Rethink reached out to help. With the additional resources, Meals for All is now supplying 800 meals a day to its community.

In Chinatown, Rethink has launched Chinatown/LES Food Initiative, which is preparing and distributing thousands of culturally appropriate meals using donated specialty foods from local markets. With only 15 percent of some 270 Chinatown restaurants open, the community worried about local residents, particularly older people, getting meals. The program depends on volunteers who distribute the food door to door.

World renown chef Daniel Humm, owner of Eleven Madison Park, was deeply disturbed by his own darkened restaurant, particularly with so many people in need of food. He needed to do something. With help from Rethink, Humm rehired 12 of his staff and turned his restaurant into a commissary kitchen, cooking 3000 meals daily for hospital workers and Citymeals on Wheels, which brings meals to homebound seniors.

Humm has been rethinking the restaurant business as he sees what his small staff has been able to do. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he ruminated on the last few months: “In a way it’s a pretty easy lift. So why are we not feeding people all of the time? Why does it take a crisis? Why do we have hunger in this country? There is enough food. There are enough kitchens.” It also can be done cheaply—the meals the restaurant is making cost about $5 each.

Humm doesn’t expect New York’s 26,000 restaurants to return to the business model virtually destroyed by COVID-19 and the economic shutdown. “The world has changed,” Humm told Rolling Stone. “If anyone is out there and hasn’t seen that yet, I hate to break it to them, but it’s changed. This is also exciting. There was a model that we were kind of stuck in. Now we have the blankest canvas you can imagine.”

Rethink is already considering how it can both help keep more restaurants open and provide more free meals to those in need. It wants to replicate what Eleven Madison Park is doing in other parts of the country.

“We want to get restaurants cash,” says Matt Jozwiak, a co-founder of Rethink who previously was a line cook at Eleven Madison Park. “If we can build a baseline revenue stream so a restaurant can keep the lights on and the staff employed, then as things start to open up again they’ll have that structure in place instead of being totally cash-poor.”

With government subsidies, Jozwiak thinks such a program could be self-supporting and continue after the recession. Even after returning to regular dining service, Humm says, restaurants could continue to feed people who are food insecure by having a regular catering shift that prepared individual meals for delivery by social service partners.

The restaurant business is in need of a serious rethink, as is our entire food system. About 37 million Americans experience food insecurity, while so much is wasted. COVID-19, at the same time, has shown the extreme vulnerabilities of industrial production, from images of food rotting in fields to thousands of meat-packing workers falling ill. In the meantime, since March, even with the lights out in most New York restaurants, Rethink has recovered over 600,000 pounds of food and served roughly half a million meals.

“COVID-19 is shedding light on the flaws in our food system,” says Rethink’s executive director Megan Savage. “There’s enough to feed everyone, but the system is broken. It’s up to us to fix it, and there’s no better time than now to get it right.”—Karen Kahn