Respect Poverty

How a Brooklyn nonprofit is rethinking food waste

a rethink worker preparing food in the kitchen

Story at a glance

  • Thousands of people in New York City suffer from food insecurity, resulting in a lack of nutrition.
  • Rethink Food NYC is a nonprofit that rescues food waste and cooks it into nutritional meals for those in need.
  • The nonprofit is opening a donation-based cafe soon to serve low-cost meals, with plans to open more.

Matt Jozwiak knows what it’s like to live with food insecurity. Restaurants, he says, brought him out of poverty. From working as a dishwasher to cooking as a chef in Michelin Star restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Noma, the 32-year-old spent much of his career in restaurants. But he still felt unfulfilled. 

After a stint at a friend’s nonprofit, he realized that he couldn’t go back. 

“I was just really frustrated, back in a place in my life where I felt like I had found something proactive that I wanted to do more than making really little food for rich people,” Jozwiak said.

So he started Rethink Food NYC, a nonprofit that rescues excess food from restaurants and grocery stores to cook and distribute low or no-cost meals to people in need. Since 2016, Rethink Food has collected almost 150,000 pounds of food and served more than 300,000 meals, according to their website. 

More than 12 percent of New York City’s population faced food insecurity between 2015 and 2017. But it’s not because there isn’t enough food. 

“Food distribution is a really challenging thing. A lot of people suffer from food insecurity that are not just people in line at the soup kitchen,” Jozwiak said. 

Some of those people live in food deserts, without access to fresh groceries. Others work around the clock to provide and simply don’t have the time to cook. Many turn to fast food restaurants instead, which Jozwiak says target the food insecure. 

“When you look at [a fast food] menu, it’s almost comically designed to hit somebody who doesn’t have enough money or time to cook at home or buy a good meal,” he said. 

And that can have serious, even deadly, consequences. Studies show that almost 90 percent of Americans are lacking at least some key dietary nutrition. At the same time, 19 percent of young people and 40 percent of adults have obesity, putting them at risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

With this in mind, Rethink employs nutritionists to make sure every meal they make is nutritionally complete. And with experienced chefs such as Winston Chiu on their team, they’re also able to rescue more types of food waste than others, such as Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Produce, who are sending raw products to consumers. 

“If you give me six quarts of lemon juice and that’s all you have, I can take it and make lemon vinaigrette to send out for salads,” Jozwiak said.

The nonprofit’s chefs even spend time in the kitchens of restaurants they’re working with to develop a system that maximizes the amount of food they’re able to collect. 

“There’s a certain amount of food that just simply cannot find a home within our operations,” said Chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern in a video. “So at the end of the day when Matt said I’m interested in that little bit that’s left over from your restaurant, my first response was – ‘Really?’”

Food safety is a priority for the company, which works with their partners to make sure the food is stored and then transported safely. Four nights a week, the Rethink truck collects excess food from restaurants around the city. During the day, they collect food from urban farms, butchers, grocery stores and corporate offices. 

Some companies are investing more in sustainability efforts in response to societal pressure, but they don’t always follow through. A recent investigation by the New York Post found that Starbucks, which announced a goal of rescuing 100 percent of its unsold food by 2020, is still throwing away boxes of food. Jozwiak offered to take the food off their hands — but hasn’t heard back. 

To combat this, Jozwiak and his team are meticulous about itemizing everything they collect, auditing their partners and analyzing what food is still being wasted. The nonprofit has even changed language in their contracts with partners to be more aggressive. 

“One fast casual restaurant has a 38 percent failure rate for packing up their food, which is not only a waste of our money and our time, but it’s a waste of good food,” Jozwiak said.

Later this year, Rethink plans to announce awards honoring the companies who are most successful in rescuing food waste. Right now, they’re preparing to open up their first cafe. Located in Brooklyn, the donation-based cafe will serve a nutritionally complete meal for $3. While there’s no menu, there will be an option for those with dietary restrictions and kids. 

It’s just the first step, Jozwiak said, with food trucks scouting potential secondary locations around the city. But the Rethink founder is looking to expand beyond New York City, with plans to go national and even international. 

“It’s like building a food system layered underneath the current food system,” he said.