Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Systems Approach to Hunger



Just before the Thanksgiving holiday I met with the head honchos at Foodlink - Executive Director Tom Ferraro and CEO Jeanette Batiste. Foodlink is probably best known as Rochester's premier food bank but really it's so much more. Tom and Jeanette spent two hours with me showing me around the facility, an old oil refinery on the Genesee River, and telling me about the breadth of work that they do. 

A plain old food bank, as I understand it, takes food donations and then distributes those donations to organizations that feed hungry people. Foodlink does that, for sure. They have a gigantic warehouse, a fleet of trucks, and food sorting system that seems, to me, to operate like a well-oiled machine. 

But then Jeanette and Tom told me about their R&D. This non-profit has some cutting edge R&D that just about blew my mind. For starters, they have a pesticide-free farm just 10 miles out of town called Freshwise. Not only is the farm environmentally-friendly, but it's socially responsible because they employ developmentally disabled folks with farm work. 

Then there is Freshwise Catering. I'm not completely filled in on all that they do. I know that part of what they do is a "backpack" program - they feed kids healthy food when school is not in session and school lunch is not available. I also think they have, or are about to launch, a straight-up catering business. More on this when I find out more. A sustainable catering business is a dream project of mine and Freshwise is way ahead of me on implementation. In addition to healthy locally produced food, Freshwise and Foodlink are very interested in job creation. So I'm curious to find out about who is working in the kitchen. 

And then, just as I was about to leave, Tom walked me over to the warehouse across the parking lot where they've got - get this - a small business called Epiphergy whose founders are turning food waste into fuel. This is fantastic because Foodlink has a fleet of trucks for distribution that need, you guessed it, fuel! And guess what else Foodlink has? Access to a lot of food waste. 

In the sustainability literature, all of this coordination is called "Industrial Symbiosis." But it my mind, it's just effing awesome. Foodlink is way beyond a plain old food bank. It's on the verge of implementing and entirely new system for food production and consumption - a system that not only has a positive impact on the environment but is incredibly sensitive to the needs of people from a wide range of economic and social backgrounds. People at the base of the economic pyramid need good food and they need meaningful work. Foodlink is working on it and they are succeeding. Cheers!

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