No one could’ve predicted that a not-for-profit that repurposes food waste from operating restaurants would expand and succeed during a pandemic. However, Rethink Food, based out of New York City, has defied the odds that have been set against them.
After working in the high-end restaurant and catering industries, co-founders Matt Jozwiak and Winston Chiu recognized a greater need for the skills they had to offer. In 2016, their efforts to address larger problems of food insecurity and hunger throughout New York City culminated in what has become Rethink NYC.
Since its inception, Rethink has established itself as a stable and growth-oriented force in the New York area. “Rethink Food built its name on taking millions of pounds of excess food from grocery stores and restaurants and repurposing it for meals for New York City families at low or no cost,” wrote Erika Adams for Eater NY. Rethink has made their services accessible with food trucks and cafes offering inexpensive meals and a delivery truck deployed daily to distribute free meals in different parts of the City.
The huge gap between the amount of food wasted and the number of people who go hungry is one that is recognized by most chefs in the industry. Few, however, have actually taken the leap to commit full-time to solving this problem. “Granted it’s a lot of work, but it still gives us this freedom to actually, truly look at what food waste is,” said co-founder Matt Jozwiak about the work that they are doing. Rethink has alleviated the pressure for those who simply cannot commit all of their time to solving food insecurity. In partnering with restaurants and grocery stores, Rethink offers all of these employees a chance to contribute to their communities without sacrificing their own product or service.
When the pandemic hit last March, the team at Rethink knew they had a lot of work to do. Unemployment spiked, especially in Black and Hispanic communities, throughout March and April, leading to an increase in food insecurity across New York City and the country. Rethink faced these growing needs without their primary resource: food excess from operating restaurants. What originally seemed like a setback for the not-for-profit soon became an opportunity to expand their business model and the people that they serve.
Unemployed chefs, including Daniel Humm of Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park, began searching for ways to use their empty kitchens. Humm set an example for other restaurants that soon followed suit. “The expectation of [Eleven Madison Park] is that they will ‘function as an extension of Rethink’ and work as a kitchen for the nonprofit for at least 45 days,” wrote Adams in her recent article. In addition, struggling vendors at the popular outdoor food market, Smorgasburg, are being offered compensation for partnering with Rethink and donating meals to those in need.
Rethink also shifted their focus in response to the increased recognition of racial injustice and violence. In partnership with Ghetto Gastro, a Bronx-based group of chefs and activists, Rethink aimed to bring nutritious food to “seniors, people of color, low-income families, and formerly incarcerated individuals.” As protests erupted across the city, Ghetto Gastro and Rethink adopted a new approach. “Ghetto Gastro and Rethink NYC recently sent food trucks to feed protesters in Domino Park, Brooklyn, and Washington Square Park,” wrote Elise Taylor of Vogue in early June.
With the success and commitment they have found in New York City, Rethink has sparked nationwide interest. San Francisco-based restaurant Petit Crenn has just recently committed to using their kitchen in partnership with Rethink. “Everybody should be able to have good food and food that is good for you… This is a reality” said Michelin-starred head chef Dominique Crenn in a recent interview. Serving 300 nutritious meals a day, 5 days a week, Petit Crenn is setting the precedent for the future of Rethink NYC.
The uncertainty of the present moment is palpable. However, one thing is for certain: Rethink Food has faithful supporters and an encouragingly strong plan to address food insecurity across this country.