As the weather warms up and the days grow longer, thankfully, more and more people are getting vaccinated and returning to work. We are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, a time when we can leave the coronavirus pandemic behind and return to our “Before Times” pre-COVID lives: socializing, traveling, and most of all, living healthy lives.
Here at the Berkeley Food Network, we want to ensure that a return these “Before Times” doesn’t necessarily mean “Business as Usual”. We do not want to revert back to a community in which some people are left behind, going to bed hungry, or lacking access to healthy food.
That is why BFN is focused first and foremost on the health of those in our community who are not able to put healthy foods on their tables on a regular basis. During the pandemic, many folks who were already struggling to pay the bills additionally lost their jobs or were stricken with COVID-19, thus heightening their food insecurity and threatening their access to nutritious food options.
Fortunately, because of the generosity of our donors, we were able to address this healthy food gap by increasing our capacity and ability to focus on obtaining and offering our clients healthier food choices. How did we accomplish this? We discovered that focusing on the nutritional quality of food, rather than on simply providing calories, turns out to be more layered and nuanced than we had imagined. We had been, in part, dependent on a food sourcing system that broke during the pandemic. This meant we weren’t always able to provide our clients with the variety and types of foods they needed to stay healthy. We realized that in order to ensure that our clients had access to healthy foods, we had to first ensure that BFN itself was a healthy, resilient organization, largely by diversifying our food sourcing. Therefore, we began to source our foods from a wider range of suppliers. We developed new partnerships and are today continuing to forge new relationships with farms that use organic, sustainable, and regenerative farming methods. We are recovering growing amounts of excess healthy edible food from local food producers. We are purchasing more shelf-stable foods from wholesalers of organic foods. And by sourcing more of our food locally, we are helping to improve the health of our local economy. This shift in the way we source our food in turn has a measurable impact on the reduction of greenhouse gases, improving local air quality.
In short, by focusing on the health of our clients, we are simultaneously playing a role in improving the health of our environment, our local economy, and Berkeley Food Network. Read more to learn how we are sourcing food at BFN.
Farm Field Trip: ALBA, Purveyors of Organic Produce
For several months now, BFN has been purchasing produce from ALBA Farms, a 100-acre parcel of vibrant, mixed-crop splendor in the heart of the Salinas Valley. On a cool, overcast April day, representatives from BFN were able to see first-hand what an alternative to our current food system can look like. ALBA—which stands for Agriculture and Land-Based training Association—aims to develop the organic farming skills of immigrant farm workers to support a more equitable and environmentally sustainable agriculture sector. ALBA provides farm workers with one year of education and training before they undertake a supported multi-year journey to independent farm ownership. Beginning with a single half-acre on the ALBA property, participants work the land, develop crop rotation and cultivation practices, and build business skills in order to secure a more sustainable future for all. At BFN, our fundamental mission is to end food injustice on every level, including but not limited to the inequitable distribution of food, destructive farming practices, and the disenfranchisement of agricultural workers. That’s why we’re proud to invest in the future of farming through our partnership with ALBA. Not only can we bring high-quality, organic produce to our community pantries, we can invest in our regional economy and in local budding entrepreneurs. This is the food system we want to be a part of, and we’re honored to have you on the journey with us.
The Food Recovery Program at a Glance
The vision behind BFN’s Food Recovery Program is twofold: to provide a larger variety of healthy, nutritious food to our clients and to help the environment at the same time. In the United States, one-third of all food that is produced goes to waste. Farms, grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and even farmers’ markets all have ‘food waste.’ For food businesses, it is incredibly hard to predict how many customers they will have in a given day or how much produce their crops will yield in a season. This means that they will often have surplus food that is still perfectly good, but they are unable to sell it or distribute it.
This is where BFN comes in! We work with food businesses and food producers of all sizes and types to rescue any surplus food they have. These donations allow us to other our clients a larger variety of produce, more eggs and protein options, and dry goods. We also share this rescued food with our member organizations, which allows them to give their clients more variety and to have a greater range of food to utilize in their cooking programs. The rescued food also makes our Hub Kitchen Program possible. Here, our Hub Kitchen Manager and a team of volunteers cook with rescued food three days a week to make ready-to-eat, vegetarian meals that are distributed at our pantries—more than 8,000 meals in just the first three months of 2021. Through our Food Recovery Program, we’ve already rescued over 130,000 pounds of food in the first three months of 2021—that’s equivalent to over 109,000 meals. By diverting this food from the waste stream, BFN saved more than 35 million gallons of water and prevented the release of 122 metric tons of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. The impact of our Food Recovery Program, for both our clients and our environment, is enormous.
In Conversation: Marla DeKlotz and Grace Liao
BFN employees Marla DeKlotz and Grace Liao work together closely. Marla manages the Hub Kitchen while Grace is the Food Recovery Manager, responsible, in part, for providing the food Marla and her team turn into tasty and healthy meals. Marla, who grew up on a farm in Idaho, came to California to work for the Forest Service and soon became a cook for backcountry trail crews. Marla began volunteering, then working, at BFN after graduating from UC Berkeley in Spring 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Biology. Grace has been working in food justice for a number of years, first as an undergraduate at Carleton College where she worked with a student group to recover unused food in dining halls across campus and at food assistance organizations in Chicago and New Zealand. Grace joined BFN last year after completing her BA.
What is your role at BFN?
Grace: I’m the Food Recovery Manager, so I oversee the Food Recovery Program. That includes doing outreach and sourcing excess food from different businesses as well as managing the receiving of recovered food at the warehouse and working with volunteers to process it for distribution. We also work with many different organizations to distribute this rescued food, such as Dorothy Day House and Food Not Bombs. Marla, what do you do?
Marla: I’m the Hub Kitchen Manager. I take some of the food rescued by the Food Recovery Program and, with a team of volunteers, make individual frozen meals that are all vegetarian, nutrient-dense, and delicious. The finished meals are then distributed to different programs that serve seniors and families through our mobile and on-site food pantries and other BFN partners in the community.
What do you like about working at BFN?
Marla: I like that BFN has a strong vision of what a more equitable food system would look like. There are a lot of new ideas and deep thinking about the type of food we provide and how we can be more sustainable and accessible. I also like the energy of the staff and how every day is different.
Grace: I definitely echo that. Sometimes the unpredictability of our work can be stressful – for example, we never know what types of recovered food we will get – but most of the time it’s fun. One of my favorite things about working at BFN is that we can collaborate with so many people. For example, you and I work together a lot, but I also collaborate with people at other organizations doing food recovery work in Alameda County. I also love working with all our amazing partner organizations who distribute our food. Being able to show them the bounty of food we have in the warehouse and to offer it to them is really exciting—not to mention seeing the joy that food brings them and members of their communities.
How do your roles and job responsibilities overlap?
Marla: We work together on intake and inventory, and determining which program the recovered food is best for. I rely on you, Grace, to find food sources, especially as the seasons change and different sources of food have differing availability. The kitchen uses up food that’s hard to distribute and cooking is a way to add value to food that may not seem exciting or appealing, such as bruised fruit, or something packaged that’s past its “best by” date but is still fine to eat.
Grace: By working so closely with you, I don’t have to guess what you want in the kitchen—I can just ask you! On my end, it’s good peace of mind to know the Hub Kitchen exists and that you’re doing the work you do, because I can say ‘yes’ to a food recovery donation even when I’m not sure how the food is packaged or looks. I know if we can’t distribute that food directly in grocery bags, we’ll at least be able to use it in the Hub Kitchen.
How do you see the broader impact of the Food Recovery Program in the Berkeley community?
Grace: Two ways. First, communicating with volunteers and donors, such as through this newsletter, is a good opportunity to broaden perspectives on what food is considered ‘edible.’ We can teach that imperfect-looking produce is just as delicious as beautiful-looking produce. We hope that by seeing that recovered produce in our warehouse and seeing the ways we transform that produce, people will think about how to reduce food waste in their day-to-day life, such as when they’re grocery shopping or cooking dinner. For example, perhaps if you have leftovers, you save them for another meal instead of throwing them out. The second way we have community-wide impact is on a systemic level: We can play a larger role in improving the local food system by brokering connections between recovered food donors – like farms and grocery stores – and our partner food assistance organizations in Berkeley and Albany. They can form their own relationships and our partners can take ownership of the food being recovered. So, for example, instead of us bringing everything directly into the BFN warehouse, our partner, the Bear Pantry at University Village, can pick up unsold food directly from our food recovery donor, Trader Joe’s, and distribute it themselves.
Marla: I think a lot about how we create relationships, so that restaurants or organizations that have excess food can begin to think of it not just as waste or a problem, but realize it can serve a higher purpose— feeding people who are hungry. I like that we hold high standards, in that we only provide food that is high-quality and high-nutrition to our clients. Yet we are working to get the message across that just because food has a blemish doesn’t mean that it’s trash. Nor does it mean we’re giving it to people as a message that they are not worthy of the best food. Often the most flavorful produce is a little blemished or soft, and cooking with it really shows its value. It’s the same food I would eat at home.
Hub Kitchen Meals: The reviews are in!
“[It’s] nice that they have the frozen meals, those are really cool. On days where we just can’t get it together, throw it in the microwave for kids.
[BFN] always has a pasta which is always a hit for the kids.”
~Robin, Berkeley Technical Academy
“Food in the tray, the frozen meals— it’s so good. You guys do a good
job. I just like some of the stuff that’s healthy, you got a lot of healthy choices. I’ll definitely be going down there at BFN, gotta be careful as a diabetic.”
~Kim, University Village
Hub Kitchen meals are prepared from 100% recovered food and are always vegetarian. They are great options for folks who don’t have the time or facilities to cook from scratch. They can be picked up at any of our on-site or mobile pantries.
Volunteer Spotlight: Katherine Wong Lam
UC Berkeley senior Katherine Wong Lam began interning at Berkeley Food Network last summer to fulfill a requirement as a Political Economy major with a minor in global poverty and practice. Little did she know that this internship could be life-changing. “I have always been interested in food, but until I got to BFN I didn’t think it was going to be part of my career,” Lam says. She adds that it has been eye opening to learn that an organization can both make a huge difference on the ground, in this case feeding people, and at the same time promote social justice through its work. “I really love the BFN food health model—the way we receive food from local farmers and other food recovery sources, and by distributing that food we are addressing all kinds of social issues. In my research, those two things don’t necessarily intersect—some organizations and movements focus on small farming, or on food recovery, but they don’t also distribute that food to the community like BFN does.” Lam, who usually volunteers at the BFN warehouse prepping food for distribution, says that she is impressed by BFN’s broad impact in the community. “In class, or going around town, I hear about or see groups we have supplied with food. I love to see that and say ‘Oh we give food to that group!’ It’s so inspiring.”