By Mark Winne
There’s a new kid in town, who, like the new kid before him and the kid before her, is stirring things up. He’s saying things differently than those who preceded him, and his new ideas are making some people feel a little uncomfortable. In the parlance of the much-admired entrepreneurial class, he’s a “disruptor.”
The new kid is Dave Rauch, the former president of the beloved Trader Joe’s. His new idea is the Daily Table, a non-profit grocery store that opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts in early June. The Daily Table is located in a low-to-middle income area which has not enjoyed much success attracting conventional supermarkets. Relying largely on the donation of “seconds”—food that is edible and safe, but just beyond its expiration date or a few days shy of the compost pile—Daily Table is, according to CBS News, “on a mission to solve two problems: preventing tons of food from going to waste and offering healthy alternatives to families who may not be able to afford traditional stores.”
The food, befitting its less than top-quality condition, is sold—packaged and fresh, as well as in the form of prepared meals—at prices that are often one-third of those found at conventional retail food outlets. Daily Table sources its merchandise from places as diverse as The Food Project, a nearby non-profit community farm, Whole Foods, and the Greater Boston Area Food Bank. When food isn’t available pro bono, Daily Table will occasionally resort to making cash purchases. And based on the comments of the people I talked to for this story, consumer response has been over the top, leaving Daily Table’s shelves virtually bare at the end of its first opening days.
Some sustainability and waste-reduction advocates are ecstatic, drooling over all that methane-churning matter that might not find its way into metro-Boston landfills. Rauch, who likes to use social math to describe the gulf he’s trying to bridge, says that the U.S. food system is wasting enough food every day to fill the Rose Bowl. The USDA, which favors the old math, reports that about thirty-one percent of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted. This amounts to about 133 billion pounds per year. With respect to what that might mean for the nation’s food-insecure households, Ben Simon of the Food Recovery Network estimates that we could cut hunger in half with just fifteen percent of our food waste.
I have to say that I’ve always been more than a little perplexed by our penchant to link waste reduction to food security. Though I’m an ardent composter—I’ll carry a small handful of overlooked vegetable scraps outdoors on a cold winter’s night to the compost pile rather than drop them in the kitchen waste can—the waste diversion fervor associated with feeding the hungry seems at times like a sanctimonious distraction from the more critical task of a moral society: ending hunger.
As I pointed out in my book Closing the Food Gap, I learned as a child from my Depression-era mother that leaving uneaten food on your plate was a sin tantamount to those she’d try to dissuade me from as a male adolescent. Our national appetite for frugality has found comfortable companionship with our spasmodic efforts to provide meaningful solutions to the fifteen percent of us whom the USDA identifies as food insecure (a number that is probably higher since one-quarter of all U.S. workers earn wages so low that they are eligible for SNAP, formerly food stamps).
With an industrial food system that overproduces by a gigantic proportion, and a food marketing machine that spends billions to convince us to consume more calories than we need (sixty-five percent of Americans are obese or overweight), it seems like the more sensible waste reduction plan would be to tackle the problem at its source. Since the USDA tells us that only ten percent of our waste can be traced to the retail and restaurant segments of our food system, logic tells me to reduce the flow at the spigot rather than catch the spillage over the rim of the bucket.
In one sense, Mr. Rauch is already late to the waste reduction/food recovery game. Boston’s renowned Haymarket has been offering some of the biggest fresh produce bargains in the region since 1830. The greater Boston area already has a robust network of food rescue organizations and schemes. “Food for Free” in Cambridge, for instance, is picking up prepared food from Harvard University’s dining services and working on ways to safely distribute it in portion sizes and forms that will be usable by their clients.
Several area food advocates that I spoke with worried that Daily Table will only exacerbate the competition for “seconds” and further threaten the sustainability of the area’s emergency food system. And since Mr. Rauch has already announced his intentions to open at least two more Daily Tables in Boston, these fears may very well be justified.
In Closing the Food Gap, I deferred to Janet Poppendieck’s summary of the odd bedfellows that our system of not ending hunger has bred. In her important work, Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, she wrote:
[T]he emergency food system has become very useful indeed...The United States Department of Agriculture uses it to reduce the accumulation of…agricultural surpluses. Business uses it to dispose of unwanted product [and] to avoid dump fees…Environmentalists use it to reduce the solid waste stream. A wide array of groups, organizations and institutions benefits from the halo effect of “feeding the hungry.” If we didn’t have hunger, we’d have to invent it.
Sadly, we do have hunger, and based on the USDA’s data, food insecurity in the U.S. has actually increased over the past ten years. Food banks have grown significantly in both numbers and size. And a recent research brief, Food Banks: Hunger’s New Staple, prepared by Feeding America, found that “families no longer visit ‘emergency food’ sources for temporary relief, but rely on food pantries as a supplemental food source.” In other words, we’re losing the war on hunger in America, and I’m doubtful that neither the clever merchandising of many Daily Tables nor the massed troops of waste recovery armies will do much more than barely mitigate the effects of food insecurity. After all, hunger is a function of poverty and our nation’s grotesque income inequality.
But in the complex world of attacking devilishly difficult socio-economic problems, it’s not always what you do, but how you do it that counts. In the case of Daily Table and Mr. Rauch’s earnest, hard-driving entrepreneurism, he might consider turning his prodigious talents to devising long-term systemic solutions rather than another variation on a short-term mitigation strategy.
For instance, just down the road apiece from Daily Table, but exactly where yet no one is precisely sure, sits a future home of the still-in-development Dorchester Community Food Coop. Several years in the making, the Coop intends to provide a full-range of healthy and affordable food in a community that is sorely in need of both. Moreover, the Coop will, according to Darnell Adams, the Project Manager, “build community wealth and ownership.” Like any other business, it will also pay taxes, which the non-profit Daily Table will not, a point that prompted one community member to note that Dorchester “is saturated with non-profits that don’t pay taxes.”
Jennie Msall, a member of the Coop’s board of directors told me that, “People in Dorchester are not poor because they’re spending too much money on food; people are poor because there aren’t good jobs, while at the same time social services are being cut.” While she and other Coop members I spoke to did not object to Daily Table—they saw it as one of many options to increasing access to healthy food—they felt that Dorchester, like many economically-challenged communities, needed numerous connected projects that would empower their residents, bring lasting economic benefits and system-wide change, and meet basic community needs.
That’s a tall order, especially in a country that can’t seem to raise its minimum wage above that of Burundi’s. But the fervent hope that better coordination, a vibrant food economy, and a shared vision for ending hunger may be in the works. Provisionally labeled the Massachusetts Food System Plan, contractors working under the auspices of the State of Massachusetts Food Policy Council are putting the finishing touches on a concept that would give communities like Dorchester a comprehensive framework by which to create jobs, reduce hunger, and increase the availability of fresh, healthy food to all residents, and also reduce waste.
In speaking with Jessica del Rosario, who heads up the Food Plan’s Food Access, Food Security and Health Work Group, I was told that, “Daily Table is a niche within a broader frame of what a food-secure community can look like.” Acknowledging that she was generally biased against “seconds” as a food source, especially for lower-income people, she noted that “people I know who are food insecure want to buy food from a regular market.” As such, she and other members of the planning team strongly favor the development of high quality affordable food outlets in the state’s so-called “food deserts,” more food and nutrition education opportunities for consumers, and, ultimately, measures that will increase income to everyone to purchase healthy and local food.
But getting all the players who need to be on the same team to “own” this plan and take responsibility for it will take wisdom, leadership, and, yes, sacrifice. As del Rosario pointed out, the Food Plan recommends a mechanism, i.e. an organizational structure, to “increase communication, foster food-related, cross-sector networks, and maximize existing and future resources.” In other words, a really big sandbox where grown-up, interactive play is the law of the land.
Until all eyes are on the same ball, namely ending hunger, the collection of food projects, agencies, and businesses will be nothing more than a bunch of singles hitters scattering their shots all over the field, but never scoring enough runs to win the game. Absent a shared vision, shared goals and a common mechanism to work together, the field will be open to a big hitter like Dave Rauch who may know how to pound a fastball into the bleachers, but couldn’t hit a changeup to save his life.
About the Author
For 25 years Mark Winne was the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, a private non-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Connecticut area. During his tenure with HFS, Mark organized community self-help food projects that assisted the city's lower income and elderly residents. Mark's work with the Food System included the development of a commercial hydroponic greenhouse, Connecticut's Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, several farmers' markets, a 20-acre community supported agriculture farm, food and nutrition education programs, and a neighborhood supermarket.
Winne now writes, speaks, and consults extensively on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community assessment, and food policy. He also does policy communication work for the Community Food Security Coalition. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared inThe Nation, Hartford Courant, Boston Globe, In These Times, Sierra, Orion, Successful Farming and numerous organizational and professional newsletters and journals across the country. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
To learn more about Mark Winne, visit is web site: www.markwinne.com.