Rethink Food NYC Coordinates Food Response with Local Restaurants
The organization's restaurant response program strategically grants stipends to expand reach and support restaurants.
We're highlighting the hospitality heroes positively impacting the restaurant industry and our communities amid the coronavirus crisis. Here, ICE alumni collaborate, as a nonprofit that turns food waste into meals for underserved communities converts New York City restaurants into distribution centers.
On a regular week, Rethink Food NYC’s mission is to create a more sustainable and equitable food system by working with various food partners like restaurants and corporate kitchens. Rethink uses these partners’ food excess and surplus at their Brooklyn headquarters to repurpose the food into new, nutritious meals that can be delivered to communities in need. On a normal week, Rethink delivers an average of 10,000 to 15,000 meals.
“Given current circumstances, we’ve had to change that,” says Executive Director Meg Savage. “Now we’re working toward about 25,000 meals a day.”
When Meg’s team saw what was happening in Italy, they realized it was only a matter of time before New York was similarly affected.
“A lot of our distributions were closing down so we had to think quickly, but within the past week we have bulked up our operations to get more food by creating an alliance with a caterer so we can get out those 25,000 meals a day to cover the five boroughs,” Meg says. “We’re also working with God’s Love We Deliver to help expand to those in quarantine or directly impacted.”
What’s been difficult to navigate, besides the operations element, is the unchartered territory and the emotional aspect of the situation.
“I feel like everyone was in shock and is still in shock, but at the office we’ve all come to the agreement that there are people who need our help and in order to do what we do well, which is feeding people, we’re going to max that out to our biggest potential and do that in the safest way possible,” Meg says.
Her team has upped its food safety and sanitation operations, checking temperatures of anyone in contact with standard operations or with the food multiple times throughout the day. And there are only a limited amount of team members, including cooks, working right now, all of whom are masked and gloved.
Meg, meanwhile, has an autoimmune condition called myalgic encephalomyelitis so she’s been staying in her apartment in Brooklyn with her husband and two small children to keep herself and others safe.
But that doesn’t mean the organization isn’t full steam ahead.
“The biggest thing we’re doing is that we created a restaurant response program that is not only to help us with more distribution arms, but it’s also our way of helping the culinary community that is hurting right now,” Meg says. “So we are selecting various restaurants throughout New York City and giving them a stipend of up to $40,000 to stay open.”
Restaurants serve meals based on what food they have coming in, playing to their strengths. For example, Simone Tong’s (Culinary Arts/Management, ’11) Little Tong Noodle Shop in the East Village is working with Rethink to serve meals like kung pao chicken breast with marinated cucumber and steamed jasmine rice or ground pork ragu with a roasted vegetable couscous and creamy lemon sauce.
Alexa, play Hungry Eyes. 👀🥡🥢Spiced pork, pickled cabbage, mixian rice noodles! Available on @seamless @grubhub 📍East Village OPEN until 6pm. Vegan version: butternut-squash & tofu 🔥 ALL proceeds from sales to @rethinkfood.nyc, a nonprofit dedicated to feed those in need. #sendnoods #supportsmallbusiness #supportlocal #noodles #eastvillage #donate #eeeeeats
This stipend helps restaurants convert to Rethink distribution centers, where people can go get a meal at no cost or at a suggested donation of $5. The money is also meant to help restaurants stay open in general and to pay staff during a turbulent time in the industry.
Rethink’s own brick and mortar, Rethink Cafe near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was going to open later this year as a source of revenue. When New York City’s restaurants were shutdown, it opened immediately for emergency food response. Rethink’s chief strategy officer and founding member, Winston Chiu (Culinary, ’13), painted the cafe to get it up and running as fast as possible.
"We help scale the idea of a nonprofit picking up food and utilizing it to help save those in need," Winston says. "The need for food is starting to rise and we’re starting to see people from all walks of life come through who need a meal that’s hot and nutritious. This problem is not biased to income."
Winston was a partner in a catering startup committed to sustainability, Bonbite, when he had the opportunity to pilot Rethink founder Matt Jozwiak's idea for upcycling food waste. That mission of problem-solving is proving to be vital now.
"Restaurants throughout the entire nation are taking a hit. It’s going to change the way we think about how they work," Winston says. "As an organization, we tend to look at the way current NGOs work and challenge ourselves to think outside the box."
Rethink is running completely on sponsorship from its network of foundations. The organization is sourcing more donations, including supplies like bulk to-go containers, and involvement from other restaurants (more than 100 have applied for stipends).
“ICE's mentorship and the network provided allowed me to be able to do what I'm doing today,” Winston says.
More on COVID-19 and the restaurant industry:
Resources for Restaurant Industry Workers
ICE President & CEO Rick Smilow Compels Community to Order In
Six Food Books to Get You through the Shutdown
Food for Boosting Immunity and Calming Nerves