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by Eddie Kim 

ReThink Food is partnering with local eateries to produce more than 50,000 meals a week in the pandemic. But as they fight for a more sustainable future, bigger challenges lie ahead

I learned a lot of lessons in my short years as a cook in my parents’ sushi restaurant in Hawaii, but few edicts rang as loudly as don’t waste food. 

Naturally, my standards needed honing; I couldn’t help but get scolded while doing seemingly rational things. Trimming and trashing the ugly tops off green onions? That was a waste, given that they could be used in the broth for our soup. Tossing the tough, membrane-riddled trim off a hunk of tuna? That was wasteful, too — the meat could be scraped with a spoon and repurposed, usually as a delicious filling for hand rolls.

And at the end of each night, we always gathered up the little plastic containers of pre-packaged sushi, made just a few hours prior for grab-and-go customers. Usually, these untouched leftovers became a late snack for the security guards working the night shift in the building. Other times, we just took it home and ate it ourselves the next day. The only thing we couldn’t do was throw it in the bin.

Every restaurant on Earth confronts a version of this dilemma after each day’s service, and none of them aim to waste food and money. Inevitably, however, they all do — some more than others, tossing out literal trays and garbage bags of edible food that can no longer remain in the restaurant’s inventory but has no place to be dropped off, either. The culprits range from fast-food franchises to upscale buffets to mom-and-pop eateries, but whatever the setting, the impact of the crisis remains staggering: American restaurants trash an estimated 22 billion to 33 billion pounds of edible food each year, with another 7 billion to 11 billion pounds coming from institutional facilities like hotels, hospitals and schools.

This is an especially stark fact in 2020, with millions of Americans out of work and struggling to keep up with their day-to-day needs as a result of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, food insecurity is spiking because of this pressure. Local food banks are seeing major increases in demand across the nation, and it probably won’t subside for some time given the rocky recovery ahead. So given the rising number of hungry mouths, why couldn’t we simply feed everyone with excess food from restaurants?

Matthew Jozwiak wondered the same while watching food get thrown away at every kitchen he worked in, including at high-end institutions like Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Noma in Copenhagen. The task of donating odds and ends like cooked meats, stocks and greens felt more complicated than necessary; again and again, Jozwiak heard replies that felt more like dismissals than answers. “I saw this excess food, and talking to the chef about it, I’d hear, ‘Oh, we can’t donate it.’ So I’d ask around and people would constantly just say, ‘Matt, there are people who already do this.’ Then when I tried to find the organizations that take food, they’d tell me we weren’t big enough of a source and couldn’t give enough food to qualify,” Jozwiak says.

Jozwiak and his team launched the nonprofit ReThink Food in New York City in 2017, with the goal of collecting all kinds of excess food, whether it’s a few quarts of lemon juice or a hotel pan full of roast beef, from kitchens all over the city. Next, ReThink takes that food and works with local restaurants to prepare and distribute cooked meals, usually to local community organizations or other places where hungry people line up for a free bite. Before COVID, the ReThink network was producing around 5,000 to 10,000 meals a week, Jozwiak tells me. Since the pandemic kicked off, the numbers have skyrocketed to an average of 50,000 meals a week today, with a summertime high of double that number.

“It’s all very practical. We work to keep costs low and make delicious food. The end result is your neighborhood restaurants have to make a couple extra hundred meals for the neighbors next door, and if 45 restaurants do that all at the same time, you get 50,000 meals a week,” Jozwiak explains…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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