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Fighting Food Waste in the Capital and at Home

Maggie Borden

August 16, 2017

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Chef Spike Mendelsohn may best be known for his appearances on Top Chef and the Barack and Michelle Obama–tailored burgers at his Washington, D.C.-based Good Stuff Eatery, but the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum is also a committed advocate working to further good food in the nation’s capital and around the country. When he’s not overseeing his empire of restaurants (which stretch from the D.C. metro-area to Saudi Arabia), Mendelsohn clocks hours as a CARE ambassador, and as chair of the D.C. Food Policy Council (FCP). We caught up with the chef and the FCP’s food policy director, Laine Cidlowski, to talk legislation, food recovery technology, and more.

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JBF: You’re a big supporter and promoter of the app Food Rescue. Can you talk about what that app does and how you’re involved in it, individually and at your restaurants?

Spike Mendelsohn: Food Rescue is a platform that allows people to take time out of their day on a volunteer basis and help get food that otherwise would be thrown away and it gives the chance for that food to actually go directly to a human being that is in need of a meal. The gist is that when you open the app, there are all these routes available. You can either volunteer to pick up a route whenever you can—that’s what I do, because my schedule is all over the place, or you can adopt routes, so if you know you’re going to work from Monday to Friday and there’s a route that you pass by every single day, you then have the opportunity to pick up food and just deliver it somewhere. Any given route feeds from 25 to 100 people, depending on how much food you rescued that day. And the app keeps track of your route and what you were able to rescue and give to people. It’s a great way for restaurateurs and small business owners to do their part and make sure extra food is not being wasted. And large corporations use Food Rescue, too: I pick up a lot of the Sodexo route. I always tell people that food is wasted in so many different ways, there’s just not going to be one big idea to come save food. It’s going to be a lot of little things that we just make part of our everyday routine in order to fix it, and this is a great example of that.

JBF: How is Food Rescue’s work related to the Emerson Act?

SM: One of the main things that prevent restaurants and companies from donating food is their concern over potential liability. The Emerson Act, which was passed in 1996, builds on the Good Samaritan Law, and says you’re able to donate food without liability as long as you prepare and package it properly.

I don’t think it really struck a chord back then as much as it could now, so I always just throw it into conversation to remind people that there’s a really important piece of legislation that allows you to donate food.

I was on a panel a few months ago, and I mentioned the act, and afterwards, a man came up to me and said, “I’ve been so bored at this conference, but I perked right up when I heard you mention the Emerson Act. I actually drafted and wrote that.” So I’ve reached out to him to see what possibilities there are to take this existing piece of legislation and improve it.

JBF: Spike, you chair the D.C. Food Policy Council, and Laine, you’re its food policy director. Can you explain how the policy council model works, and how you envision it changing the food system around the country?

SM: I was personally inspired by the Los Angeles and Baltimore Food Policy Councils, but there are a lot all across the country which do really great work. I’m especially excited about the D.C. Food Policy Council because of the fact that, although we’re a little late to the game as far as being formally organized, our community has been involved with individual policy efforts for years, and it’s a huge priority for the city.

Laine Cidlowski: The D.C. Food Policy Council started last August, so we're a relatively new organization and our mission and vision is to create a just, healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system for all by engaging, empowering, and informing D.C. residents by affecting positive policy change. It sounds like we're trying to do a lot at once (and we are!), but really we’re taking a broader approach to looking at the different aspects of our local and regional food system and trying to bring together coalitions of stakeholders, organizations, and community members around these issues to set common goals and help us to push for better policy that supports these things in the city. We have 12 appointed members, including Spike, our chair, and then venture capitalists for food projects, members who work directly with homeless populations, nutrition educators, and more, so it is a really diverse group of people on the council.

SM: I‘d like to see policy councils pop up all over the country to deal with local issues, and then use the fact that we’re located in D.C. to reach out and have us help them lobby on national issues like the Farm Bill.

JBF: Is there any accomplishment that the council has achieved that you’re particularly proud of?

LC: We’re focusing on getting better grocery stores in our low-income areas of the city, in part by developing legislation that incentivizes grocery stores to go into those places. We’re also working on the purchasing policy for sustainable procurement with our public schools.

Building off of what Spike was talking about with the Food Rescue app, there’s a piece of D.C. legislation that local advocates and the Food Policy Council helped to get drafted called the Save Good Food Amendment Act of 2017. That will create a tax credit that businesses, organizations, and people who are having a conference can receive for donating food to non-profit organizations. The legislation isn’t finalized yet, but we think it will probably pass in September. It also includes day-laboring provisions and has some guidance from the Department of Health and our Public Works Department, about date-labeling and good practices for food donation. We’re hoping it helps to remove a bit of the stigma around food donation or some of the fear of liability.

The date-labeling provision sets a unified standard within the district. Right now, our standards are different than Maryland and Virginia, and of course since we’re right in between these two other states there’s a lot of cross-border labeling and food production and movement. So, basically, we'll be saying that date labels will not be required on foods. That there isn't any scientific evidence that there is an increased safety risk if they’re consumed after the date on the label, so it eliminates the need for labels on shelf-stable products.

We also have compost pilots where you can do drop off compost at our farmer's markets as a part of our larger compost feasibility plans for the city. We have a zero-waste goal by 2032, so the pilot is really just one of the first steps towards having us deal with food waste at a much larger scale in the city. They've been going really well so far and we're learning a lot about people’s food consumption choices. I think it’ll help us to take the next step towards getting municipal composting, so we're really excited about it and community members are excited as well.

JBF: How does having your home base in D.C. affect the way you view your role as an chef-advocate?

SM: It’s changed over the years, but right now I feel like what’s really cool about being a chef in D.C. is that because we really don’t have our own representation, we usually end up as the chefs that lead the lobby days and can be there in-person when you’re trying to share a story that’s affecting people across the country.

JBF: What’s the one thing people can do to reduce food waste at home?

SM: Everyone should take the Friday Night Challenge: don’t buy anything, just go into your fridge and your pantry and create meals with what you have on hand. I think that’s really a great way to use up stuff in your fridge. You’ll usually see like a half a red pepper or an onion somewhere, maybe some greens that are nearly wilting, and you just clean out the fridge and make a meal out of it.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.