One to Grow On

Understanding how food production impacts us and our world

50: Food Rescue with Jess Palmer Transcript

2020-12-08

Listen to the full podcast.

Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.

Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we’re talking about food rescue with Jess Palmer.

[Background music].

Hallie: This week we have Jess Palmer who is a programs coordinator with Keep Austin Fed here in our hometown and I’m so excited to have her on. Welcome to the show, Jess.

Jess: Thank you, guys. I’m really happy to be here.

Chris: I mean, I think the first thing that everyone is wondering, the obvious question is why does food need to be rescued?

Jess: [Laughs]. Well, food needs to be rescued because actually, there’s a lot of food going to waste. I think people may not realize it, but in this country, we waste 40% of the food that is grown and processed and that can be kind of hard to visualize. But if you think about going out and buying a pizza and you come home and you immediately throw away three slices, that’s perfectly good food, but it’s getting tossed and a lot of that food that is getting wasted is happening at home. But there’s still a significant amount that’s wasted at larger distribution points like grocery stores and restaurants and so that’s where Keep Austin Fed comes in. We are based here in Austin, Texas and we’re just a local food recovery nonprofit with the mission of diverting that edible surplus food from the landfill and redistributing it to people who are food insecure in our communities.

Chris: Now, see. That’s the kind of guest you want to have on a podcast is when you ask a dumb question, it’s supposed to sound funny and they give you a real answer that’s perfect.

[Laughter].

Jess: I may have given away all my answers for the whole interview now.

Chris: Yeah, we’re done. The show is sort of over.

Jess: There we go.

Hallie: Yes, that’s it. That’s the show.

[Laughter].

Hallie: I’m really curious, like what a day in your work looks like? How does that function?

Jess: Well, it’s interesting because my title is programs coordinator with an S and that’s because there’s a lot of logistics and coordination that goes into the programming of food rescue. We are a heavily volunteer oriented organization. We have around 200 active volunteers and they all donate their time, their cars and the gas to go pick up the surplus food and drive it to the recipient organizations to drop off. I mean, yeah, there’s no middlemen. Food is getting picked up and directly taken to a recipient organization. There’s a lot that goes into coordinating that kind of stuff. We have a schedule of food pickups that volunteers can register for and those runs happen on a weekly basis. I think right now we have about 75 food runs every week that we have filled by our volunteers. There’s a lot of volunteer coordination both sort of corresponding with current volunteers and then also familiarizing new volunteers with how we work. There’s managing the food run schedule. We use a platform called GiftPulse that was actually developed here in Austin too, but we use them as our volunteer database and our scheduling platform. There’s always some data management to be done and also we have to have places who are contributing food and places to bring that food. So we’re always reaching out to new places to see if they are interested in donating food, if they’re interested in receiving food. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that goes into onboarding those new partners. That’s sort of the basic of our scheduled runs. There’s more on top of that too because we can go into unscheduled food runs.

Hallie: [Laughs]. Peek behind the curtain for listeners, that’s actually how Jess and I met. I was running a program that involves food and she sent me a very polite email asking if we had any surplus that we’d like to donate.

Jess: That’s right.

Hallie: I’d known a little bit about Keep Austin Fed, but I didn’t know that much about it and actually I did not realize until I was preparing for this interview, that one of my sister’s best friend’s moms apparently helped start Keep Austin Fed.

Jess: Oh, really?

Hallie: Yeah.

Jess: Wow.

Hallie: I mean, Austin is such a small town. People always talk about how big and growing it is, but also it’s very small.

Jess: Yes, it is. I’m from Central Texas. I grew up in the very rural Hill Country, but I went to college outside of Austin and lived here for a little while and then left in 2005 and then just came back last year. It’s interesting the city has totally changed, but there’s still pockets. When we first moved back, I was running into college acquaintances in the grocery store. [Laughs].

Hallie: Yeah, that happens to me all the time and it’s so weird because it’s like this massive town of like millions of people and it feels like a tiny town.

Jess: It does.

Chris: How did you end up getting into this stuff?

Jess: Honestly, I kind of fell into food systems work and I haven’t done food access work for a long time. This is actually the first time I have worked in food insecurity and food access. My background is actually more in natural resources management. I have a bachelor’s in environmental studies and then I went to the University of Michigan for a masters in natural resources really focusing on land restoration, but food and agriculture has really always had a role in my life. Like I mentioned, I grew up in rural Texas and that was 45 minutes from the nearest ATB. Many of our neighbors, we grew up with a really big garden that helped feed us in the summers and I carried that with me too. Every place that I’ve lived, I’ve always found a way to put in a backyard garden somewhere and throughout school, I was working for student groups that ran community gardens on campuses and things like that and also I just really love to cook. I eventually landed a position at a land trust in Central Virginia about 10 years ago and I started out there coordinating their local food branding and marketing program and eventually turned it into a farm and food program that focused on things like strengthening farmer access to land and capital and training and market access. I was there for about nine years and then we moved to Austin for a change of scenery and work and I started working for Keep Austin Fed and it’s been really exciting to work on sort of the opposite end of the food system spectrum. There’s a lot in food access and food insecurity for me to learn.

Hallie: That is so cool. Can you tell me some of the organizations that you’ve been working with since you started working in food access?

Jess: Yeah, we work with a wide range of organizations actually on the food contributors’ side. Like I mentioned, food waste happens at every point of food distribution, but we’re really focused on the larger scale not necessarily individuals. So we’re working with places like grocery stores Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, AGV. We also work with a lot of restaurants occasionally with caterers. That’s a little bit different now because of the pandemic and then smaller cafes and bakeries and really we’ll talk to anybody who has surplus food that they want to donate rather than toss. Actually, I wanted to mention that when we talk about surplus food, I want to be really clear that we are not out there dumpster diving. [Laughs]. We are picking up perfectly edible food. Food that may be close to an expiration date or it’s just leftover and anybody would be happily willing to eat it. I just wanted to make sure that everybody understood that this is perfectly good food that we’re picking up and redistributing. Tangent, but important. That’s really who we’re working with on the contributor side and then on the recipient side, we don’t distribute directly to individuals. We work with nonprofits who provide services to their clients. We will work with places like foundation communities. They provide affordable housing and we donate food to them and they distribute it to their clients. Other places like family elder care facilities that work with seniors, support organizations for folks facing homelessness, domestic abuse shelters, refugee service organizations, addiction recovery homes. I mean, we will work really with a bunch of food pantries. We’ll work with them. As long as if you’re a nonprofit and you’re serving food to clients for free, then we’re able to try to find a way to work you into our schedules. Right now, we work with about 30 to 40 food contributors and about 50 recipient organizations and that’s on a weekly basis.

Chris: I agree. Wow. That sounds like a lot of people you’re working with. Now I’m wondering, how much food is it that you’re sending through this supply chain that you have set up?

Jess: Last year in 2019, we distributed just over 800,000 pounds of surplus food.

Chris: Wow!

Hallie: That’s amazing.

Jess: It’s like 13,000 meals per week that our volunteers are redistributing to folks in need in the Austin area.

Hallie: How many volunteers do you guys have that run this every day or every week?

Jess: We have probably around 200 active volunteers. You know people take breaks or people come back on and offline, so it just really depends, but I mean, our volunteers are why we can do what we do. They are the heart and soul of this organization. Last year, they made 3,500 food runs to distribute all those 800,000 pounds of food. They are the reason we do what we do and they’re so dedicated. They really are. We have folks who adopt food runs and they are there every week at the same time, same day to pick up food from one place and take it to another.

Hallie: That is so cool. Has Keep Austin Fed always had this many volunteers?

Jess: No, it hasn’t. We actually started in 2004 and our founder is a man named Randy Rosens and I think he was at a fundraising event and noticed that the food that was being catered for the event was going to get tossed and he was like, no, thank you. That’s not going to happen. So he rescued the food right there from the event and delivered it to a woman’s shelter in South Austin and that’s sort of how Keep Austin Fed was born. It’s just a small group of folks who felt that this was really important and they wanted to make sure that people could get involved in doing food rescue and redistribution. Over the last 16 years, we’ve gone from that small group of folks to a nonprofit with two paid staff and this really giant group of volunteers.

Hallie: That’s amazing.

Jess: Yes.

Hallie: I have so many questions that I’m trying to figure out which one to ask.

Jess: [Laughs].

Hallie: I think my first question and I think I know some of the answers to this, but I would love to hear the actual answer. I guess it makes sense if it’s a catering event, but most of the organizations you’re talking about, this rescue from is for profit companies who are trying to make a profit. How does it make sense for a company to throw food out?

Jess: Well, I mean, I think part of it is some folks just want to give back to the community and if they know that they’re going to be tossing food, but there’s another outlet for it through us. A lot of the places that we work with are smaller caterers and food places that just want to give back and also I think too in Austin you have to pay to have composting material picked up, so it’s a way for them to cut down on the amount of food that is getting thrown out.

Hallie: Yeah, that totally makes sense, but I wonder if the food is edible and it’s perfectly fine, then why is it getting tossed out in the first place, whether it’s being composted or given to KAF?

Chris: I was going to say, I used to work at a bakery and they’d make pastries every morning and they wouldn’t necessarily sell them all and so at the end of the day, we’d have to throw them all out, all the ones that we didn’t sell and sometimes people would call us for donations and then they could come pick up what was left in the event that we had any left, but that wasn’t every day. Sometimes we take a couple home, but most of the time we just tossed everything out.

Jess: Like I mentioned, the food is perfectly edible. It just may be close to expiration date. I think with the grocery stores, it’s more about nearing expiration date and just when they’re getting new shipments of food and having to make space.

Hallie:
No, that totally makes sense.

[Background music].

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Chris: K-N-I-C-K-E-Y. Oh man, that is amazing spelling. I love that.

Hallie: Thank you. I worked very hard on learning to spell when I was a child.

Chris: [Laughs]. Well, no, I mean, I love the way they spell their name. That’s very clever.

Hallie: No, that’s also great. It’s great.

Chris: You know who else is great is our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Vikram, Lindsay, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne.

Hallie: Also our newest patron, Jessica. Thank you guys so much for your support of the show. You absolutely make our world go round. If you listener are interested in learning more about Patreon and the tiers that we have, you can go to patreon.com/onetogrowonpod. We do lots of cool and fun stuff over there and we just have a blast. You can listen to outtakes. You can get extra research and bonus content. All of it at patreon.com/onetogrowonpod.

Chris: Back to the episode.

[Background music].

Hallie: You mentioned that you have this massive fleet. I think you said 200 volunteers. I mean, that’s a huge amount of volunteers for a nonprofit with only two employees. I’m just wondering what your perspective is on why people are so excited and compelled by KAF’s work and mission.

Jess: I mean, from conversations that I’ve had with volunteers being able to do something like this, you can do a food run in easily less than an hour. We have it set up to where our pickup locations and our delivery locations are pretty close to each other and we’ve gone through not necessarily trainings, but we’ve gone through an overview with both the contributors and the recipient organizations about how everything’s going to work. So everyone’s pretty well-versed on what a food pickup and drop off is going to entail and so I think that a lot of it is because that in a really short period of a time, a volunteer can pick up. Especially if you’re at a grocery store, you can pick up hundreds of pounds of surplus food and take it to a group of people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. I think it’s really about understanding how food connects us and that by their actions, they’re able to help provide nourishment to our neighbors and really, it just comes down to it. It feels good to be able to give back to our community like that.

Hallie: I love that.

Chris: In such an impactful way as well.

Jess: Right. Because a lot of times this food it’s not going to be going somewhere and sitting. It’s going to be eaten that day or the next morning when you drop it off. It’s not going to sit around and you’re not going to have to wonder where it went or if it got eaten. It will be eaten.

Hallie: We’ve talked about food waste and food loss on the show before and I feel like that is one of the things I don’t know what it is, but it just aches at this inner part of people when they think about the food system. That is one thing that, especially people who are really conscious of the climate and conscious of how we’re going to be feeding people in the future. It tugs at you. You’re like, how are we waiting this food? I don’t know what it is, but it’s just like, there’s something internal. It just drives you crazy about it and I think your mission is so cool.

Jess: I mean, I think too. That’s something that I feel is really important right now that we’re having and it’s largely because of this pandemic that we’re just having a larger national conversation about food access and food insecurity.

Hallie: Totally.

Jess: We’re hearing more and more about individuals and families falling into food insecurity. I mean, we’ve all seen the photos of thousands of cars lined up for a food pantry distribution and there’s multitudes of articles about families struggling to put food on the table and it’s really distressing to see that kind of suffering, right? I think having this kind of topic move into the spotlight, it makes me hopeful that this conversation continues because food insecurity was here before the pandemic and it will be here after the pandemic. It’s a complex problem and it’s tied to a lot of other things. It doesn’t work in a silo. It’s tied to things like affordable housing and income and transportation and it’s so big, but maybe with a larger conversation happening now and being in the forefront, it’s hopefully an opportunity to really tackle the issue.

Chris: Despite the fact that Hallie has said we’re not doing anymore COVID content, how have you seen your operation changed or impacted in any new ways this year?

Jess: This year has definitely been different. Like I said, I actually started at Keep Austin Fed a year ago, next week or two weeks from now.

Chris: Okay.

Jess: So I had about four months under my belt before the pandemic hit. [Laughs]. But I mean, I’ve seen a lot of change just in this amount of time that I’ve been at Keep Austin Fed. We’ve really had to pivot in terms of what kind of foods we’re able to provide our recipients mainly because things like large group dining or buffets or the general congregation of people has really stopped. We would work with catering companies and just pick up large catering size trays of food from them and we could just go take it and drop it off. We had a dozen different recipient organizations who we could go drop it off to and we’re not really able to do that anymore. There’s a huge need for food that is grab and go, individually packaged and very easy to distribute, so we’re not creating groups of people hanging around together and eating. That’s been a really big change and it’s interesting too because at the beginning of the year, we were starting a pilot project, the repack it project where we were going to be bringing together high school college students with senior populations and having them work together to take those large catered trays and repackage it into this individual serving size meals. One, it’s a volunteer opportunity, it’s intergenerational and then also the individual meals are generally easier for us to distribute to our recipient organizations, but obviously, that project got put on hold because of COVID. We’ve seen some changes in the food that we’re able to distribute in some of our programming. We’ve also seen differences in how we can bring on volunteers. Traditionally, we would have an in-person volunteer orientation where we go through a quick training session taught by one of our volunteer trainers and then they would do a shadow food run. So this is basically actually doing a food run together, going through the boxes at Trader Joe’s and divvying it out and then taking it to a recipient organization. But now, we’re having to do trainings online and forego that shadow food run. That’s definitely different. We’re not getting as much contact right now I guess with the recipients and the contributing organizations and even with the volunteers. Those things have definitely changed.

Chris: With all the change that’s been going on, is there anything you see that you’re hopeful about or excited about?

Jess: Yes, I’m excited. Even though we have had to move our volunteer orientations and all this stuff to a virtual setting, I have been so excited to see the number of people who want to join us and start volunteering for Keep Austin Fed. Probably, at the end of the summer, we started bringing on the virtual orientations and every single orientation, there’s 9, 10, 11 volunteers signed up to learn more about Keep Austin Fed and really excited to get involved in the work that we’re doing. I also think too and it’s not necessarily food rescue work, but I am also very excited to see this renewed interest in backyard or victory gardens because I think any opportunity for people to get their hands in the dirt is a good one. Even if it’s just a few container gardens and just connecting people to how their food is grown is always a step in the right direction plus it’s really great therapy right now.

[Laughter].

Hallie: Yes, I totally agree.

Jess: That’s how I got out my initial pandemic anx. I had tackled a plot of my backyard and I was like, well, you get a little bit of sun, you’re going to turn into a garden.

[Laughter].

Hallie: That’s amazing. How’s it been doing?

Jess: It’s doing great actually. It’s been really fun. We had lots of tomatoes and green beans over the summer and now have my little spinach and kale and things are popping up, so it’s great. I love it and it’s really fun to introduce my kids to it as well.

Hallie: Oh my gosh. I love it.

Chris: That’s great.

Hallie: I love it so much. I’ve got my kale out-front. I live in Lincoln, small duplex with no backyard and so my kale is out front for all the world to see.

Jess: There you go. That’s awesome.

Hallie: Stand it up straight.

[Laughter].

Hallie: I love it. Jess, I’m curious. Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for our listeners who might be wanting to take this idea of food rescue into their daily lives?

Jess: Sure. Definitely because like I mentioned before too, like a lot of food waste happens in our kitchens. So how do we help combat all that food waste? I think the number one thing folks can do is meal plan and that’s just a really great way to help you buy only what you know you’re going to use and it cuts down on waste in your kitchen and you can also make sure that you’re storing your food correctly because not all fruits and vegetables should be refrigerated. If they are, where you put them in the fridge matters and knowing those kinds of things can help maximize the freshness. Then also reduce spoilage of that food. If you do have more food that you can eat, try finding ways to preserve it. You could freeze it. You could dry it. You don’t necessarily need to toss an over ripe banana, you could cut it up and freeze it for a smoothie or banana bread later. You can chop up herbs and freeze them in ice cubes so you can use them later. Little things like that. You can also purchase ugly produce. Those imperfect fruits and vegetables so that they’re not getting thrown out. It’s maybe a little bit easier if you shop at a farmer’s market and vendors there will sometimes have those kinds of seconds, fruits and vegetables that they’ll sell for a lower cost and it’s still fresh, healthy edible food and it won’t get thrown out and you can always compost. Either set one up at your home or if your city has a composting program like Austin does, make sure you have a bin.

Chris: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in my life suggest that I should compost before.

Hallie: Oh my God. Jess, we talk about composting here on the show. Almost every episode, I’m constantly trying to talk my dad into starting a home compost.

Jess: [Laughs]. Wait, you have all different kinds of options too.

Hallie: I know.

Chris: It’s true.

Jess: You just have compost [inaudible], Burma composting. One gets some worms.

Hallie: It’s so fun. It’s like a pet, but less work.

Jess: Exactly.

Chris: [Laughs].

Hallie: It doesn’t love you back.

Chris: That is pretty good spam.

Jess: You still have to feed it though.

Hallie: Yes, you do. Definitely, you have to feed it. Well, Jess, thank you so much for your time today. How can people support Keep Austin Fed and where can they find you?

Jess: You can find us on Instagram, on Facebook. You can go to our website, keepaustinfed.org and there, you can learn more about us and you can learn how to become a volunteer and you can also find our donate button on our website, which helps support our daily food pickups in our programming.

Hallie: Fabulous. Thank you so much. This was amazing.

Jess: I know. Thank you guys so much for having me on.

Chris: Loved it.

[Background music].

Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.

Hallie: This show is made by me Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.

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Hallie: You can find all of our episodes and transcripts as well as information about the team and the show on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.

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Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with a friend. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.

Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.

Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.

[Background music].