Imagine you live in a country so prosperous that more than a third of the food it produces goes to waste, while at the same time, a significant portion of the population — including children — never knows where their next meal is coming from. According to Rethink Food, an outreach program that aims to create sustainable community-based solutions, Americans don’t need to imagine it; they’re living it.
Per the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2021, more than 38 million citizens didn’t have regular access to nutritious meals. At the same time, roughly 40% of the nation’s food supply went uneaten. “There is enough food in the system, but it’s not getting into the hands of those who need it. Rethink Food exists to bridge that gap,” the organization’s website states.
Rethink Food Harnesses Community-Based Resources to Battle Food Insecurity
Rethink Good connects local restaurants and other food-based companies that routinely experience food overages with citizens most in need of assistance. If set into motion on a large scale, the practice could conceivably keep tons of perishable provisions from winding up going to waste each year and ensure that thousands of men, women, and kids receive a decent meal when they need it most.
A simple idea? Perhaps, but it took a forward-looking nonprofit organization, namely Rethink Food — whose mission is to create and maintain an equitable, sustainable food system — and its hospitality sector and nonprofit partners to make that concept into an actionable reality.
Since its inception in 2017, Rethink Food and its neighborhood networks have delivered more than 40,000 nutritious, flavorful meals each week to communities in New York City, Chicago, Miami, and Nashville, Tennessee, at zero cost to the municipalities they call home.
In March 2023, Rethink reached the milestone of 10 million meals provided since 2017. The number is now over 15 million meals and more than $50 million directed to local communities and restaurants — 75% of which are minority- or women-owned businesses.
Rethink Food develops unique relationships with local nonprofits, restaurants, and food service providers and, with funding, offers a safety net for community members who might otherwise go hungry. Rethink Food works with partners throughout the food ecosystem to rescue their excess edibles and transform them into community meals. It deploys its donations and pick-up services to collect surplus food from restaurants, hospitality groups, grocers, and food brand manufacturers for upcycling, while in its sustainable commissary kitchens, chefs transform donated food items into “delicious, culturally celebrated, wholesome meals.”
More than simply creating a means to distribute meals to those in need, these relationships help build a bridge between supply and demand that spans many segments of the populations they serve. The working model Rethink Food has established is a purpose-driven, hands-on, person-to-person process that forges strong community bonds between providers and recipients while, at the same time, dramatically diminishing costly waste by conserving and repurposing perishable food resources.
Community Partnerships Hold the Key to an Equitable, Sustainable Food Model
Danny Meyer, founder and executive chairman of the Manhattan-based Union Square Hospitality Group — which has formed an alliance with Rethink Food — believes the work they do together is a win-win for all concerned. “If there was one part of the pandemic that made me feel good, it is how this community came together for each other,” said Meyer.
“Rethink played an incredible role by not just asking something of us, but helping to save us at the same time. We had the opportunity to bring people who otherwise would have been laid off, bring them into kitchens to cook food for people who needed food, and it was just a brilliant formula. One by one, you saw people like you and restaurants all across the city saying, ‘That makes sense.’”
Rethink Food’s Outreach Programs Pivot to Meet Pandemic Demands
In its corporate blog, top-tier global management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company reported that before COVID-19, an estimated 37 million Americans were unsure where their next meal was coming from. Since the pandemic’s outbreak — due to its impact on jobs — that number increased by nearly 17 million people, a 46% jump.
In the wake of the pandemic, when scores of corporate dining rooms shut down and a multitude of restaurants were temporarily or permanently shuttered, traditional food donations dwindled. The growing shortages that resulted put New Yorkers who relied on charitable outreach programs for at least some of their meals in increasing jeopardy.
At the time, Rethink Food was forced to reexamine its resources. “When COVID-19 began, we wanted to find the best way to use our capital to feed people safely while keeping businesses running,” chef-trained Matt Jozwiak, Rethink Food founder and CEO, told McKinsey.
With McKinsey & Company’s aid, Rethink Food was able to come up with a workable solution to address New York City’s devastated culinary landscape. The Rethink Certified initiative, in which participating restaurants committed to dishing up a certain number of meals each week, raised $10 million in contributions over the initial 12-week period from April through July 2020. Those funds translated to 2 million meals supplied by 40-plus partner restaurants and also helped create more than 100 jobs.
Rethink Food on the Future of Sustainable Food
Since the pandemic, Rethink Certified has been strategically scaled to meet the requirements of a national footprint. To be Rethink Certified, a restaurant must commit to making 50,000 meals per year. In return, Rethink Food grants them $250,000 in funding to cover costs. As a network member, restaurants gain an online presence with food delivery and reservation service platforms. They also become subject to a rating system in which local community-based organizations track their performance record to ensure program standards are consistently met.
“Our goal is to create lasting change in our communities, and the Rethink Certified model will feed those in need while helping to stabilize restaurants — not just in times of crisis,” Jozwiak explained. “As a former culinary professional, I see the benefit of the additional, predictable revenue stream restaurants will receive to prepare meals for their local community-based organizations.”