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Serving Beautiful Meals in the Neighborhood

New York’s Rethink Food Solves Food Insecurity with Nutritious, Culturally Celebrated Meals


A healthy, no-cost meal option created by one of Rethink Food’s restaurant partners.  ©Rethink Food
A healthy, no-cost meal option created by one of Rethink Food’s restaurant partners. ©Rethink Food

Rethink Food’s logo.  ©Rethink Food
Rethink Food’s logo. ©Rethink Food

Ken Baker is the Culinary Director for Rethink Food (RF), a New York City-based non-profit that delivers sustainable solutions to the city’s problems of food insecurity and food waste. A nourish-your-neighbor evangelist of sorts, chef Ken shared with E&I Editor Jerry Chesnut about his team’s success in bringing nutritious, restaurant-quality, culturally celebrated cuisine to New Yorkers in need.

Together with RF Founder and CEO Matt Jozwiak and co-founder Daniel Humm (chef/owner of Eleven Madison Park), Baker and a small, innovative team have come up with a unique strategy that has already laid the groundwork—and the track record—to achieve RF’s vision of a nourished, neighborly New York.


RF’s “stewardship of care” culture has led to a partnership with the city, helped raise private funding from philanthropic sources, and attracted various “restaurant partners” that raise funds for RF via each restaurant’s ongoing marketing strategies. 


Earth & I: Ken, to my knowledge, Rethink Food’s approach to sustainable food security is unprecedented. How would you respond? 

Chef Ken Baker, RF’s Culinary Operations Director.  ©Rethink Food
Chef Ken Baker, RF’s Culinary Operations Director. ©Rethink Food

Ken Baker: I'm sitting here in our beautiful, sustainable community kitchen at 116 West Houston Street [in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in lower Manhattan]. My team here makes beautiful meals to the tune of 18,900 meals a week from this space, and the balance of our meals—we do almost 400,000 meals a week as an organization—are created by our restaurant partners, these beautiful, diverse, primarily women- and minority-run small businesses that we are empowering to be micro-commissaries, just like we are in this space.


We raise funds and give them to these restaurants to empower them to be of service to their communities. This creates jobs too. All that we endeavor to do is create a broader community for greater human impact.


We are all culinary/hospitality professionals that know the industry, so we've leaned into the [typical] operations where restaurants, between lunch and dinner service, may only do a dozen covers [meals/customers] but still have a culinary team and staff on hand. 


Earth & I: Brilliant.  

 

Ken Baker: It's brilliant and simple at the same time. It's like, “why hasn't anyone else done this?” 

 

Earth & I: So many of New York’s great minority-owned small restaurants serve diverse ethnic cuisines from around the world. Is partnering with them how you're able to offer a wide variety of meals? 

 

Ken Baker: It’s a combination of our diverse restaurant partners and the diverse team here that I have the honor to lead. We intentionally have a diversity of people that reflects the diversity of the population we're serving. The 15,450 meals that go out the door here every week—which ramped up last week to 18,900 meals—that’s all powered by just 15 individuals, including drivers, a culinary team, and management.


Ken Baker (far left) and the Rethink Food team.  ©Rethink Food
Ken Baker (far left) and the Rethink Food team. ©Rethink Food

We intentionally create a variety of meals that celebrate ethnic identity. That's our unique space. Just as people want to be spoken to in a preferred language and identified by preferred names, they also want to be eating food that's culturally celebrated, including our newest New Yorkers due to the migrant crisis.

 

“With our [food collection and delivery] trucks we’re capturing excess from our food ecosystem and adapting [our recipes] to what's coming off our trucks.

                   

We don't want to make one [meal] and blanket the city with it. This is New York and we're chefs who take pride in our ability to adapt within a sustainable model of zero excess waste production. With our [food collection and delivery] trucks, we’re capturing excess from our food ecosystem and adapting [our recipes] to what's coming off our trucks.

 

Our first investment in operations as an organization was into our refrigerated [delivery] fleet. That demonstrates the stewardship of care we want to ensure for our neighbors and partners, a level of dignity through intention that we here at Rethink talk about. We are very intentional about what we're doing.

 

If we're going to collect excess food from all these disparate partners—our retail partners, wholesale manufacturers and growers, big distributors, regular mom-and-pop restaurants, corporate cafeterias, academic cafeterias, and so on—we want to give that stewardship of care to our donors who are donating the food, particularly our retail partners like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's who have very high brand recognition and are incubating their brand in a certain light. We want to ensure that we can lend them that same level of stewardship that they espouse within their own operations but lend it also to our communities [who are receiving our restaurant-quality meals]. We're going to ensure stewardship of care in every process. As our logo suggests [see image above], the process starts with people and ends with people.  

 

Earth & I: Everyone should have a beautiful life. 

 

Ken Baker: Absolutely. I anchor my team—as leader of all internal operations, leader of the culinary team and the trucking logistics team—to the idea that we're just people feeding people. It's that shared sacred humanity. We all have to eat. Marginalization shouldn't dictate the quality of food you receive, particularly here in New York City, a food capital with food excess and, yet, where 1 in 7 New Yorkers and 1 in 4 children are food insecure.

 

We exist for those unseen communities. Our location here at 116 West Houston in the Village is in the 22nd wealthiest postal ZIP Code in America. With us being in this street-facing location surrounded by all this excess and luxury, we are a lighthouse speaking for broader New York, reminding everyone that part of the magic of New York City is community, this neighborliness that we've gotten away from.

 

The secret sauce of how we are able to grow is stewardship of care. For instance, we're collecting all this excess, but there are entrenched stigmas around what we do. People have this notion that we're “dumpster diving” or that we are just opening up bags and cans and reheating food. No! We are curating nutrient-dense, restaurant-quality meals. That stewardship of care starts and stops with our logistic teams who have the most external engagement with our Rethink Food network. 

 

“Capturing that excess, making meals and delivering them to New York's most needy individuals with no cost to them—it's beautiful.” 

 

The amazing, donated abundance that we're able to get allows us to provide diverse meal applications because we're picking up and collecting from Eleven Madison Park, for instance, our co-founder, chef Daniel Humm's famous three-star Michelin restaurant. There's something beautiful about those pristine ingredients—whatever they use in their tasting menu—that we are also utilizing. 

 

Capturing that excess, making meals and delivering them to New York's most needy individuals with no cost to them—it's beautiful. 

 

Earth & I: What comes to my mind is “golden rule gourmet.”

 

Ken Baker: Exactly. I think what you're alluding to is making something that you would want to make [for yourself], treating people the way you would want to be treated. Our family meal where we all sit down for lunch as an organization—even our support team in our headquarters on Sullivan Street—the whole organization sits down at noon, and we have a meal comprised of the production my culinary team has been making that morning. That's our commitment to communities that we serve; if it's good enough for us chefs, then it's good enough to go out to our communities.

 

People often ask me what makes Rethink Food different. Our unique currency in this space is that we are delivering a nutrient-dense, restaurant-quality meal that is anchored on a protein component, a carbohydrate component, and a vegetable component that goes out to every community. We're not dumbing down food for any arbitrary KPI [key performance indicator] or arbitrary price point. 


Each no-cost Rethink Food meal includes a carbohydrate, a protein, and a vegetable component.  ©Rethink Food
Each no-cost Rethink Food meal includes a carbohydrate, a protein, and a vegetable component. ©Rethink Food

Earth & I: How do you get all those meals to all those people?

 

Ken Baker: I have the honor of leading our amazing trucking logistics team. Those are the mighty men that move our mission. They're the ones collecting the excess and bringing it back here to our sustainable community kitchen on Houston Street. That allows us to make meals here, but they also move the meals to our CBO [community-based organizations] partners from either our site here or from our restaurant partners. 


We lean into our delivery model of partnering with CBOs because it is hyper-efficient for our operation and allows us to have multiple impacts across the city.

 

“You'll hear chef Daniel [Humm]—our co-founder—always talking about the power of food and how it's this powerful language. We want our food to sing a lullaby of love and compassion and community.”

 

You'll hear chef Daniel [Humm]—our co-founder—always talking about the power of food and how it's this powerful language. We want our food to sing a lullaby of love and compassion and community. So, we partnered with community-based organizations—institutions like nonprofits, faith-based institutions, schools, rec centers—that have already established themselves as an anchor in their community and have credibility in the community as neighbors.   

 

Rethink Food co-founders Matt Jozwiak (left) and chef Daniel Humm. ©Rethink Food
Rethink Food co-founders Matt Jozwiak (left) and chef Daniel Humm. ©Rethink Food

When Henry calls me up from St. John's Bread and Life during Lent and says, “Hey, can you make our menu on Fridays reflect the Lenten traditions of fish and no meat?” “Absolutely,” we say, because that's what dignity looks like.


Some of our religious CBO partners … are kosher and practicing Jews themselves. Their services are open to everybody, but they want to have the time to celebrate Passover themselves, so they call us up and say, “Hey, Ken. You know, it's Passover this week. Can you partner us with somebody who can run our services this Wednesday and Friday so that we can celebrate the Passover holidays?” “Absolutely.”


That's all about the broader community we're creating; that's where we allow for the needs of the operators, mostly volunteers, of a CBO. We want to allow them to celebrate. It’s very important to me to be defensive of our vast volunteer network. We need them. That's how we amplify our impact and provide capacity for our partners. 

 

CBO Partners Determine Service Models

The CBOs dictate the unique service to the community. Some of our CBO partners will reheat our food—coming to them in hotel aluminum pans—and put it out buffet style, for instance. Others will take the pans and create individual meals, which allows them to move the meals beyond their location.

 

Oftentimes, CBOs will have their own logistic services. For example, one of our CBOs, North Brooklyn Angels (NBA), retrofitted a defunct food truck to literally take the service to the community of North Brooklyn. Not being affixed in a location also allows them easy access to the church from which NBA distributes. 

 

“We want to put ourselves in that single mom's shoes who has to work 50, 60 hours a week to be able to pay rent.”

 

CBOs are giving those meals out free-of-cost with no barriers to access. People often ask, “How does one qualify for a meal?” We don't do that. The moment you qualify for a meal, it feels like a government program. We want to put ourselves in that single mom's shoes who has to work 50, 60 hours a week to be able to pay rent. If she has multiple children in various schools, after she's done working overtime and then corralling all her kids from various locations, by the time she gets home, the one thing that money can't buy is time. And so, we give space for that.


A Rethink Food CBO partner helping working people make ends meet.  ©Rethink Food
A Rethink Food CBO partner helping working people make ends meet. ©Rethink Food

There's a lot of working-class people receiving our services, just trying to make ends meet. We try to eliminate barriers to access because we want to create a level of dignity because there's a lot of stigma and shame to asking for help, especially if you are working full time and can't make ends meet. 

 

We want to create a space where mom doesn't feel bad to take her kids to St. John's Bread and Life to have a meal because she knows it will be just as good as a nutrient-dense, healthy meal that she’d prepare for her kids. 

 

So, what I'm doing here is pulling back that veil and showing people the truth about this notion that we're back to normal, that we've gone back to this pre-COVID normalcy. This is far from the truth.


Rethink Food’s culinary team makes meals it would serve at home.  ©Rethink Food


Rethink Food’s culinary team makes meals it would serve at home.  ©Rethink Food

Rethink Food’s culinary team makes meals it would serve at home.  ©Rethink Food


Another secret to our sauce is our beautiful team. Individuals on our team are either coming from those communities or they have that same compassion. There’s Rebecca, who is the only single mom on our team, or chef Arturo, who leads the culinary team on a day-to-day managerial level. They are parents curating meals like they would for their children. 

 

We probably have the marquee wage on the market. Those individuals on my team coming from the community, we are empowering them through our partnerships with workforce development programs like Project Renewal and giving them dignity and confidence that come with work. It's a skill set that's affecting other individuals.

 

“We enjoy this amazing environmental upside of collecting viable excess and saving millions of gallons of water on an annual basis. We are [also diverting] tons of CO2.”

 

But in all that we are doing, we enjoy this amazing environmental upside of collecting viable excess and saving millions of gallons of water on an annual basis. We are [also diverting] tons of CO2. That fleet that we are invested in that goes out and captures all this excess, brings it back here, and then moves our meals [has a carbon footprint]. We will [reduce] our carbon footprint and preserve our natural human habitat just by the work that we're doing feeding people. 

 

Earth & I: Any last thoughts?

 

Ken Baker: I often tell people that I grew up food insecure in Baltimore, but it was different. We didn't have much, but we didn't feel like it. There was a lot of love.

 

My grandmother is why I'm in this space. God rest her soul. The archives of history would never speak about Deborah Jones, but the impact she had on me, how she would always have a kind word for our mailman and would make him a cake or give him a plate of food. There's something very powerful about breaking bread with somebody. It breaks down the barriers of separation.


That resonates with the broader sacrifice we need to have for each other. That's the secret sauce at Rethink Food. We all are centered on our four core values that guide everything that we do. First, our mission is to create a more sustainable and equitable food system, but the core values of the organization are kindness, thoughtfulness, inventiveness, and vulnerability.

 

That is why we exist.


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