by Sara Bavar
"Every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is a key to that era."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Rethink Food NYC has one goal, and that is to end food insecurity. With 1.4 million people facing hunger in New York City, Rethink founder, Matt Jozwiak certainly has his work cut out for him.
The Organization recovers excess food from restaurants, grocery stores, and corporate kitchens and transforms it into nutritious meals for those in need. In addition to this, Rethink has also begun supporting restaurants that are in crisis due to the difficult times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their Emergency Food Response program helps provide restaurants with funding as well as assists in developing innovative ways to generate revenue.
The success of their program has not only proven to be effective in solving the problem of food waste, but it is also saving our environment by keeping more waste out of landfills.
DLISH had a chance to speak with Jozwiak about the current challenges facing the hospitality industry, Rethink Food's mission, and how to transform our food system.
Sara Bavar: Before starting Rethink Food NYC you were working as a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park. How did you go from that to Rethink?
Matt Jozwiak: You know, it was a couple of different things that happened. After working at Noma and in France, I decided to go back to fine dining. I realized that it wasn't what I wanted to do so I started working with my friend at his nonprofit in New York, teaching kids how to cook. I wasn't satisfied with that either so I just started working at Eleven Madison Park because it was the type of restaurant, I was accustomed to working in.
SB: Did you enjoy working in fine dining?
MJ: No, but I knew how to do it. I like making really good food and I like making really pretty food, but I don't like the hours, the culture, pay, like all of it. If it was a hobby, it would be great but as a job, it's pretty rough.
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SB: Is that what led to Rethink?
MJ: Yes. I started Rethink to be like, ‘okay, people have a lot of extra food, there's a lot of hungry people - we take the food, we make stuff, and we give it away.’ It was really easy to explain and then it kind of unfolded as it went.
SB: Were you bothered by the amount of food waste you saw while working at restaurants?
MJ: Yeah, for sure. It was weird. When I worked in France we never threw anything away, like ever, we used absolutely every part of everything. We'd use it to cook, we'd make family meals and stocks. In the south of France, we'd even take the fish bones and give them to the cats that ran around.
At the beginning of my career, if you threw anything out - anything - they would come down on you really hard. But then towards the end of my finite experience, people were totally okay with it. I think what happened is that minimum wage went up and the cost of food stayed the same. Ultimately, it was easier to throw it away than to have somebody pickle it or freeze it.
SB: What have been some challenges you faced while starting Rethink Food?
MJ: I didn't really know how to build a nonprofit, I'd only been a cook. So, I think that was pretty hard. Managing was really hard, convincing people to work for us was really hard, fundraising was hard. I mean, there were definitely no easy parts. I didn't think it would be so hard to convince people that they could donate their food without being sued.
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SB: How responsible are chefs in bringing awareness to the problem of food waste? The food system in general?
MJ: I don't think that it only has to be chefs. We have two different supply chains. On one side we have the nonprofit supply chain with amazing community leaders doing amazing things - look at Jilly Stephens at City Harvest who paved the way for how we feed people. On the other side, there are these chefs that are known for their amazing food. Both these groups are successful for feeding the top 1% and the bottom 1%. I think we need to combine these groups. The chefs and community leaders have to shake hands and figure it out. I think that if we combine the two things, we could make something so beautiful.
SB: Are you finding that chefs are willing to do this?
MJ: Yeah, they are. I think that restauranteurs and chefs are generally a little stubborn, but Daniel (Humm) sees a way, he totally gets it. We've been talking to Dominique Crenn and Shawn Brock - they are super amazing.
You know, it's interesting, I thought all of my chef friends would jump on board, but a lot of them were like, ‘I don't know'.
SB: What are some of the dangers or outcomes that are going to be facing the restaurant industry as a result of COVID-19? There are rumors that about 60% of the restaurants will close down. Is that true?
MJ: I think that that's almost the definite reality. And I think 60 is really low. I think that it's going to be more like 80 at least in New York. That's just based off of the restauranteurs that I talked to. Most of them are saying, ‘what’s the point?’.
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SB: Social distancing is probably going to be an issue for a while. How do you think restaurants will handle that?
MJ: It's not worth it financially for restaurants to open or to do takeout and delivery. What I think really needs to happen is as federal dollars are going to come in to help feed the troves of unemployed people that we have now, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) comes in, instead of building a tent in Central Park, where you're making 6,000 to 600,000 meals a day - just give the money to the restaurants. That's the objective of the Rethink Emergency Food Response program - a way to monitor the money coming in and make it work for the restaurants and the people. The program wants to inspire hope. We want to show people that there's something that's going to come out of this. It's hard now but the future is bright.
SB: I love that idea! So, do the grants come from the government?
MJ: No. Right now, all the money comes from Rethink. We're raising money from individual donors and from corporations and it all goes into one pot. We have 14 restaurants in New York right now and we're opening one in Chicago and then in Nashville. What we're trying to prove to the government is that this works. Because the worst thing that could happen, in my mind, the disaster situation, is if everybody is eating FEMA disaster relief food in Central Park, and people line up at 2 o'clock and get their food and it's hot dogs and beans which costs the government $9 a piece.
SB: How would a potential food shortage affect the work that you are doing?
MJ: I think the dairy industry is going to get hurt. I think the meat shortage might actually happen for a little bit. Ultimately, I think that it will be a good thing and I know it's a really bad thing to say but none of this was working in the right way - we all had problems with the system. We all went to the conferences and talked about it and wrote papers, but we all knew it didn't work.
We were talking with our board chair last night saying, ‘let's just shorten the supply chain as much as we can.’ Why are we going to US Foods and Baldor and these guys, let's just go directly to the farms? Let’s get as much produce directly from the farms as possible and develop long-standing relationships, where we're buying the whole farm. We'll then distribute it to the restaurants and the restaurants will put out food.
The system collapsed so quickly because it was so fragile, and it was so fragile because it was unbelievably inefficient – the food system as a whole. Food gets shipped around about six times before it hits your plate! It doesn’t have to be that way. What I think is going to happen out of this is that we are going to be absolutely forced to be more local, which is great.
SB: Are you planning on coming to Europe or anywhere else outside of the United States?
MJ: For now, no, but we are talking about it. We’ll keep you posted.
SB: Any last words or messages you’d like to share with our readers?
Click here to learn more about the work Rethink Food NYC is doing and to donate.