Food Shift launches a test kitchen for a better food system
STORY AND PHOTO BY A. K. CARROLL
Food-waste activist Dana Frasz was blanching a massive vat of green beans when she first learned of Robert Egger, the man she would later describe as her “soul brother.” Egger is founder and president of DC Central Kitchen, an East Coast social enterprise that recycles food, distributes meals, fulfills catering contracts, and provides job training for unemployed adults.
“I was working at Ashoka [a network of social entrepreneurs who implement systems change on a global scale], and my team of 12 decided to do a volunteer day at DC Kitchen,” says Frasz, who was then in her third year as a project manager. “I was reading the articles on the walls and seeing pictures of Robert that I’ll never forget.” Egger’s combination of feeding hungry people, empowering vulnerable populations, and reducing food waste perfectly aligned with Frasz’s deepest passions.
Shortly after volunteering at DC Kitchen in June of 2010, Frasz told Egger of her plan to start her own project, and he agreed to support and advise her. Frasz went on to become the founder and director of the East Bay nonprofit Food Shift, which helps businesses and organizations reduce food waste. She checks in with Egger on a weekly basis.
“I’ve always been open sourced,” says Egger, a former nightclub manager who made his food-system start while volunteering. In the 25 years since founding DC Central Kitchen, Egger has shared his model with over 60 cities nationwide. His main objective is to feed more people better food for less money. Egger is also adamant about something he calls “value-adding.”
“Giving away free food isn’t fighting hunger,” he says. “Any time you feed someone it’s a good thing, [but] every piece of [donated] food is lost profit. In this new economy, we see an erosion of food going to charities.” Egger insists on doing more than filling stomachs by retrieving day-old bread. By transforming bruised apples into applesauce and overripe bananas into smoothies, the Kitchen gives added life and worth to food that would otherwise be trashed while teaching useful skills to the people it employs.
To date, DC Central Kitchen has prepared over 27 million meals for low-income and at-risk individuals and employed over 1500 men and women. Food Shift’s latest endeavor, Alameda Kitchen, is based on the DC Central Kitchen model, with a focus on taking imperfect and rescued fruits and vegetables rejected by traditional retail stores due to appearance rather than quality and converting them into healthy products. At the same time, it creates a social business that provides job training for the residents of Alameda Point Collaborative (APC), a housing community that helps families and individuals out of homelessness and poverty.
“We have a kitchen as a resource, and we have residents who enjoy cooking,” says APC director Doug Biggs. “Right now it’s not fully utilized, which is part of the reason we were so interested in working with Food Shift.”
“We’ve had this vision of replicating the DC Central Kitchen model for years,” says Frasz. “There’s a lot of food recovery opportunity and certainly people who need that food, but a lot of it needs to be processed.” A crate of misshapen carrots, for example, may not make it to a relish tray, but works wonderfully for soups and sauces. Prior to connecting with APC, Frasz had attempted to find a kitchen elsewhere. “They weren’t quite as innovative and willing to experiment with a new program,” she says.
Though Alameda Kitchen will be following in DC Central Kitchen’s footsteps, it will also be taking an approach unique to the Bay Area and the opportunities that exist here. Specific to the Alameda Kitchen model is the plan to use revenue generated by product sales to subsidize giving away or selling meals at a lower cost to low-income communities.
An Experiment All Around
“A big part of the vision is integrating with the on-the-job training program that APC already has,” says Frasz. Alameda Kitchen will start small, utilizing the kitchen for training people and processing food 18 to 20 hours each week. “We really don’t know [where it will go],” says Biggs. “And that’s fine. This is an experiment all around, and the residents are excited about it.”
Frasz is also looking further down the road. “The goal is to make products that can be sold and generate revenue for the kitchen,” she says. “We’re not just interested in providing food. We need to focus on empowerment and employment.”
As of January, Frasz was still in the process of developing a team structure, securing additional start-up funds, and hiring key positions for the project, but she is eager to launch into the pilot and test phase of the program, which should begin in April.
The project could start as small as five residents slicing imperfect carrots for a value-added soup, but its goal is much bigger. “We have a vision of catalyzing a shift towards a more sustainable food ecosystem that recovers surplus food, has a centralized processing facility, and has new and more effective outreach for getting [food] out to communities who need it,” says Frasz. “We’re interested in innovating all along the pathway, not just coming up with a little kitchen in Alameda, but testing and prototyping models that could be scaled up at a municipal level.”
When Egger agreed to come along as Frasz’s advisor, his only caveat was that she do the same for someone else down the road. Last December Frasz had that opportunity when she shared resources and knowledge with a 17-year-old who is involved in food systems in the Boston area.
For now, Frasz is focused on securing full funding for the kitchen through grants and crowdfunding, but she still has a long way to go. After a springtime launch, she hopes to scale up the program in 9 to 12 months. “It’s a big job to feed people,” she says, “but the resources are out there.”