South Bend chef’s nonprofit rescues food from waste
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Caterers fix more food than they need for an event, and, unless they donate it, the leftovers go in the trash can.
The waste may be painful, but Randy Ziolkowski, a chef and veteran of the food business, said, “It’s an ugly scene when you run out of food.”
He and a partner started a nonprofit effort this summer to rescue leftover food from two local giants in catering — Notre Dame Stadium and Nelson’s Catering & Fundraising — and send the food to local charities.
By early November it had yielded about 35,000 pounds of rescued food, most of which Cultivate School and Catering repackaged and gave to 18 charities, church pantries and low-income neighborhoods.
But there is still a “staggering amount” of food yet to be rescued elsewhere in the community, said Ziolkowski, Cultivate’s co-founder and president, who goes by Randy Z.
What’s keeping them from harvesting more, he said, is the capacity to safely distribute food to charities. The same is true at the Food Bank of Northern Indiana, which so far hasn’t accepted Cultivate’s rescued food.
The Food Bank currently retrieves about 500,000 pounds of prepared and fresh food each year, with a goal of doubling that in 2018, but that’s out of an estimated 3 million pounds across its service area in six counties, said Associate Director Marijo Martinec.
The Food Bank rescues food from at least eight chain restaurants in St. Joseph County alone.
But Martinec said the agency is cautious about food safety and quality standards, as set by Feeding America, a national organization of which it is an affiliate. Over the past two years, she added, the Food Bank has also formed a stricter relationship with another organization that sets global food standards.
“We would consider working with Cultivate,” she said. “They are sincere and ambitious. We are just really cautious right now about input in every aspect of the supply chain.”
Likewise, Ziolkowski said Cultivate is picky about what it receives. The food from Notre Dame Stadium’s suites has all been prepared but never served.
“None of this food has been touched,” he said. If it’s been scooped into by servers, he added: “I don’t want it. I don’t want the health risk. I don’t know who’s sneezed on it. I don’t know how long it’s sat at room temperature.”
Cultivate also doesn’t take food from Notre Dame concessions because of the many volunteers who handle the food.
He and fellow Cultivate founder Jim Conklin are modeling their concept after Indianapolis charity Second Helpings, where officials report 25 employees and 700 volunteers that this year are rescuing 2.4 million pounds of food from caterers, restaurants, hotels and grocery stores. Cultivate is nowhere near that. And the students in its catering school aren’t involved in the food rescue.
Cultivate also draws food from the Century Center, Rise’n Roll Bakery and Fresh Thyme Farmers Market.
Until this fall, Cultivate wasn’t seeking more food suppliers “because we’ve had all we could handle,” said Conklin, Cultivate’s treasurer, a volunteer who used to run a restaurant in Bremen. There will be room for more suppliers early in 2018 as Nelson’s business slows down for a few months and now that Notre Dame football season is over, said Conklin, who also works full time as finance director for a Bremen manufacturer.
Cultivate’s biggest rescue so far was 4,200 pounds of food, including ice cream, from storage at Nelson’s, based in Wakarusa.
The waste factor becomes significant, said Nelson’s General Manager Ryan Miller, as catered events surpass 500 guests. What if 100 of those guests don’t show up? Then think how that grows as Nelson’s caters events across Indiana as large as 12,000 people in Fort Wayne and almost 10,000 people in Lafayette.
Until the program with Cultivate, Miller said, the excess food was discarded. It wasn’t a financial loss to Nelson’s since all of the food has been paid for by the client.
Nelson’s salvaged food is from large, local events — typically chicken, hot dogs, brats and potatoes that, after they’ve been cooked, haven’t been touched or set out for serving, Miller said. Or they are unopened packages.
Miller said the company abides by strict food safety standards to meet restrictions that vary by county and state, since it also serves events in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio.
Conklin said the food business has such a low profit margin that it cannot spare employee time to ferry leftovers to charity. Likewise, the leftovers may be too much for a single charity, as when Rise’n Roll Bakery called Cultivate with 250 pounds of baked goods, all frozen.
Cultivate steps in like a “food broker,” Ziolkowski said. “We take mass quantities of food and get it to a manageable size (for charities).”
Levy, the Chicago-based company that began managing clubs and concessions at the Notre Dame Stadium in 2016, seized that opportunity. It already had a history of donating extra food to Second Helpings in Indianapolis and to a food bank in Ohio.
This fall, on the Monday after each Notre Dame home football game, crews took refrigerated leftovers from the stadium suites and placed them in large plastic tubs and tin trays, which were then driven to the Cultivate kitchen on Niles Avenue in South Bend — the kitchen of the former Madison Center.
Burgers, green beans, macaroni and cheese, biscuits and other items arrived after the North Carolina State game. The Cultivate founders and volunteers immediately weighed, recorded and stashed the food in a walk-in cooler or freezer. They quickly dished brats, scalloped potatoes and cooked vegetables into single-meal plastic trays, sealed them with plastic and popped them in the freezer. Five to six volunteers can repackage almost 500 meals in two hours.
Raw vegetables are often roasted and repackaged for the meals. If there are too many burgers, Ziolkowski said, he’ll add mashed potatoes and vegetables to make shepherd’s pie. About 10,000 pounds have become individual meals this year, Conklin said.
Another 8,000 pounds have been given to charities that can eat them right away — like cold salads that don’t freeze or keep well and fresh fruit. But sometimes that is just a little too old, or it’s leafy greens, so it goes to a local pig farm or to compost or the trash — a total of 6,300 pounds of waste so far.
Stanz Foodservice, a South Bend company that has been using a refrigerated van to pick up Cultivate’s rescued food, will donate such a truck in January, Conklin said.
That will help Cultivate to expand, though he said with a note of caution, “You’ve got to take on what you can handle.”