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Food Waste is Fixable (Transcript)

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.

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[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone, this is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Ashley Stanley, founder and executive director of Lovin' Spoonfuls, a food rescue organization based in Boston. Welcome, Ashley, thanks for being on the show.

[00:00:39] Ashley Stanley: Thanks Liz, thanks for having me.

[00:00:40] Liz: Please tell me a little bit more about Lovin' Spoonfuls, your story and your mission.

[00:00:47] Ashley: We are a 10-year-old food rescue organization, as you said, based right here in Boston, we actually just celebrated our 10 years last week. In that time, we have recovered over 15 million pounds of fresh healthy food that would have otherwise wound up in a landfill and been able to upcycle it into the social service stream.

We're a logistics-based company, we work in the nonprofit space, but we really approach this work as a method of food diversion and even waste management. I think the difference with us is that we see this food prior to it becoming categorized as waste in any way, we just see it as excess, most often the food we're working with is post-retail, it's lost his consumer marketable value for a number of different reasons and we're recovering about 75,000 pounds of this food each week and then feeding over 30,000 people each week.

[00:01:55] Liz: That's remarkable. When you first started, you ever dream it would reach this point?

[00:02:00] Ashley: I don't know if I knew enough about what I was doing or really what the need was to sketch out what it would look like 10 years later, I think for me and so many of us, we don't know enough about food production and subsequent food waste.

I think for me this was an entire education around how much food was being produced and how much food was being wasted, how that plays into the food supply and then finally how that plays in what the needs of the community are. Through that time it's really become our founding principle that hunger is not a problem of supply, but rather a problem of distribution. That's really what has shaped and continued to grow and evolve our model.

[00:02:52] Liz: That's great. Take us back a little bit, you have a pretty well-oiled machine now in terms of bringing together the community, the grocery stores, the wholesalers' farms and everything else, but that could not have been an easy task back then 10 years ago. What were some of the challenges you encountered trying to create this model that really hadn't existed before in your area?

[00:03:16] Ashley: It's funny, there are so many different things that were unrelated at the beginning that were challenges. Let me just say that food rescue isn't necessarily unique to Lovin' Spoonfuls, the concept has been around for generations. For us, what it's different and unique is our model and our approach, so much of what we try to do is take a logistics-based approach to make sure that we can guarantee the most consistent and reliable level of service, when generally speaking, food rescue is random, at best.

At the very beginning, some of the barriers to entry just had to do with the fact that we were talking about logistics, distribution and food supply. In that area, not many women were present in that space, so for me, trying to, A, understand what the landscape was and, B, come up with a solution or something that connected all of those different points and facets, that was a difficult space to navigate.

As you say, now our model is pretty well-oiled, if you will. Under our partner umbrella, we have vendors which are the businesses that you mentioned, food retailers, wholesalers farms and the likes. Then our beneficiaries, which are social service entities, large soup kitchens, small domestic violence safe houses, children's programs, senior programs, recovery homes and transitional programs, really anybody that is lacking consistent access to fresh, healthy food for themselves or for their families.

At the very beginning, trying to build that bridge and trying to understand what that disconnect was- I was knocking on doors of local supermarkets, some attached to national brands, but really trying to find out who I should talk to, is the sustainability manager? If the brand had a sustainability manager, is it the produce manager? Is it the store manager? Trying to understand what their operation on a day-to-day level looks like and where a solution like ours could fit in.

On the other side, trying to understand what the needs of the community were and continue to be, is really a hallmark of what we do, what Spoonfuls has never done was walk into a new community or expanded new roots and say, "Here we are and this is what we're going to do for you", or, "This is what you get." The question is always what is it that this community needs and how can we be helpful? We work collaboratively with a number of different stakeholders to identify and meet those unique needs of the community.

We're able to build a consistent model, but be flexible and adaptable enough to be able to bend. Sometimes it's just a geographical adaptation, the service areas between a rural area and an urban area [inaudible 00:06:47] very different, and the way we look into designing our routes, is often dependent on that. Much has changed in the 10 years, but at the beginning, it really was everything happening in one stage, the market landscape, the R&D trying to understand who the test market would be and trying to understand where a solution like this could fit.

[00:07:16] Liz: Right, I like that. Well, you really conquered that in your model and your whole idea of feeding people isn't the problem of supply, it's the problem of distribution. It's really logical and can work for many regions, are you helping others to launch similar programs elsewhere? Are you becoming the model to aspire to?

[00:07:39] Ashley: I think in some ways I don't know if we're the model to aspire to, but the efficacy of our model has been proven and I think we get a number of inquiries each month from different regions around the country. "Hi, I'm in Alabama and we need something like this in our community", we've got a number of different letters from folks in Connecticut, we've gotten letters from folks in the Midwest and, again, all across the country.

I think the way was when I started there were a handful, maybe less than 10 of established food rescues around the country, but these were folks and organizations that had been around for 20, 30 years and were real true threads in the fabric of those specific communities. These organizations like City Harvest and Food Runners, DC Central Kitchen, So Abundance, they were so kind and so free with me in terms of talking about what worked for them.

I spent some time at City Harvest in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time going back and forth with the folks from Food Runners and trying to understand what the model was like in Northern California, and obviously, those two geographies are very different. What I came to understand and what I came to learn was when you're talking, essentially, about buy and demand and figuring out how to meet those needs at those two, it really is about strategic and deliberate logistics.

The approach for us has certainly evolved over time and add people -I think- understand the value in the benefit of food rescue. We do our best to offer the very basics, not just as starting a non-profit, but understanding, A, if there's anybody already doing this in your area because you never want to be duplicative, you want to let the efforts that are successful continue to be successful and then be helpful where the gaps are.

That's really the first thing, do your market landscape if you will and trying to understand what the space looks like, if there's room not just for improvement but to be helpful and boost whatever the existing effort is, then getting into the practical, how are you able to build the bones of a non-profit and that's everything from fundraising to staffing, for us, everything is about temperature control and compliance.

We talk a lot about valuing our end-user and valuing the health of our end-user, so much about the conversation about hunger has evolved into a conversation about hunger as a public health issue. For us, that means preserving the health of the food and making sure that everything we do is meeting some regulatory compliance and standard of the supply chain. For us, all of those different components really lead to safe, efficient and reliable service connecting where the abundance is and where the need is in the community.

We try and be as helpful as possible, it's really up to the folks in their specific areas to understand the needs of their own community because what's working for us, in Greater Boston, isn't working or isn't going to work the same way for us. In our recently expanded route in Hamlin County which is Western Massachusetts, we certainly had to adapt to that community, that geography and anybody else would have to do the same as well.

[00:11:44] Liz: That makes sense. How are you using technology? Is it helping you scale?

[00:11:49] Ashley: That's a great question and ironic because I'm a luddite, almost. I think I still have the iPhone from six or seven years ago, the small one that still has a button. For us, the evolution of Lovin' Spoonfuls has seen everything from paper record-keeping, to cold packs that caterers use to move food around, to looking at maps and trying to understand from the DOT what the appropriate truck routes are.

All of that has evolved into, I think, a pretty sophisticated suite of technology that helps us with our inventory tracking. We've implemented Salesforce for free use across the organization not just on our fundraising and our donor side, but it really helps us understand who our partners are, additionally helps us understand our ability to help these businesses who are donating and giving us the food.

What their impact in their own organization could be in terms of tax breaks by weighing, measuring, voting and classifying everything that's being given to us. In addition to that, we have logistical technology in terms of route management, making sure that our trucks are where they need to be, finding the easiest and most cost-effective way to get there and back.

Certainly, we're able to employ technology on our fundraising and marketing efforts as well. Across the organization, we really try and keep a high level of technology at the forefront.

[00:13:45] Liz: I bet. Especially since you said it's about the logistics, you have a lot going on, sure it helps in many ways. 

[00:13:53] Ashley: Indeed.

[00:13:56] Liz: I know you alluded to this a little bit and talked about the end-user being your ultimate focus and safety. How are you addressing the idea of food safety? Because we've all heard that food safety is part of what stunts some of this trash delivery to people and organizations in need. How are you guys conquering that?

[00:14:17] Ashley: There are a couple of different ways. My background is not nonprofit, it's not allottee, it was very customer-driven and I think a lot of our collective perspective, our collective viewpoints on business in general, is that the focus is always on the customer.

When you get into nonprofit or when I got into nonprofit, one of the interesting things to me, was that we talked a lot about putting value into the effort that's being made, the ideology or the mission that's being endeavored to be carried out.

For me, this was sort of a shift in the language where most often you talk about doing what you can as a business to deliver exceptional outcomes, and an exceptional product or an exceptional service to your customer, the focus and the value was on the customer. That always stuck with me, as we got started and as Lovin' Spoonfuls has continued to grow, for me, in that way, it's not much different, we value our end-user over anything else and that means that we have to do our best along the supply chain along our [inaudible 00:15:53].

Everything we do across the organizations, we have to make sure that we can serve our end-user as best we can, because in this space when you're talking about the needs of the community and the needs of people, especially where we are in the world right now, our purpose is to be observers to the community, to the folks who are in transition, to the folks who need help and how do we do that in the best way we can.

One of the things that Lovin' Spoonfuls does not do is take volunteers on a day-to-day basis at the heart of our work, and at the heart of our mission. The reason being is that the majority of the food that we work with is perishable, it's temperature-controlled, so all of our food rescue coordinators are full-time employees, they're serve state-certified, they've been through a number of different trainings.

They are well versed in compliance and safety standards, which means that the food that we are picking up and delivering, we are able to guarantee it once it comes into our possession. None of this is meant to be a knock or criticism on volunteerism, I think it's incredibly important for us as a community, for us as people but when it comes to food, again, I think I said this at the beginning of our discussion. When you're talking about the health of people, you have to make sure you're talking about the health of food, that's not something, in my opinion, that you can leave up to a volunteer because there are things that you cannot control.

If you are in your car, something happens and you have to deviate or you can't make it that day, that means that we would be unable to guarantee service in a way that we're comfortable with. That's something that's driven our model in the way that we work a little bit. The other piece of that is our fleet, everything is temperature-controlled, all of our trucks are refrigerated, and we're working with our vendors to make sure that our service windows are consistent and guaranteed on both sides.

[00:18:20] Liz: That's great. You guys have such a heart, you've approached this out of a need for you to better a community or help and hunger, make the most of the abundance in all of our lives, I love how you approached as a business but never losing sight of end-user, I think that's fantastic so good for you.

[00:18:45] Ashley: I think we have a shortage of solvable problems in the world. I've been saying this for 10 years, I guess, but food waste as its own concept is 100% solvable. When we get into talking about hunger and poverty, fundamentally those are political issues, we are doing our best to create a safety net and fill in the gaps of folks who aren't seen and unfortunately, they fall through the cracks.

For us, it's so important to be able to guarantee our work and make sure that we keep the person at the end of our operation in our minds at all times.

[00:19:34] Liz: That's fantastic. I know on our end too, a lot of people in our industry focus on consumer education, I see that you guys are focusing on that a little bit as well, so can you tell us a little bit about your Plenty program, what that is? And how that helps? 

[00:19:52] Ashley: Yes. We actually have two educational programs. One, as you mentioned, is, "Consumer", I'm using some air quotes on my side of the line over here. Consumer-focused, and then we do vendor training as well, which I think would be of interest to you because what we want to do is start to create some best practices and clear standard operating procedures for our vendor partners.

We go in and our operations team goes into these retailers and the wholesalers, they will spend time with the department heads and their staff, and go through a number of different criteria that the brand would have to meet in order to work within the Lovin' Spoonful's program.

We've created training videos, we've created training collateral, just to help the brand improve their own internal practices. What we've come to understand is because food rescue has been regarded as a little bit of an ancillary service, we talked about composting, we talked about recycling, we talked about AD and general straightforward waste management.

If you really pull from the EPA hierarchy of diversion after you get through source reduction, feeding people and really making sure that we can eat the highest value in the products that we capture, is important not just by the time it gets to us, but helpful for the brand to understand what their inventory looks like, and what their [unintelligible 00:21:37] looks like and what they can do with existing product.

As it relates to Plenty, Plenty was the product of distributing food to a number of different shelters. In Massachusetts we're very lucky, we have an incredibly rich agricultural community all throughout the state and in the growing season, we get a tremendous amount of really wonderful and interesting produce.

This was probably in our second year, we have been delivering crates and crates of kohlrabi and collard greens and Swiss chard, really wonderful locally grown products. We would get into the city, we would get into some of these volunteer-run kitchens and folks who were just so pressed for time and they didn't have the funds to supplement their kitchen operations, and they were just doing the best they can to serve an ever-growing and still growing number of their own constituents.

At any time we didn't bring anything that was, I guess, what you would consider straightforward, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spinach, white bread, non-perishable food, things like that, folks would get nervous and they started to turn some of that food away. I was stumped and I asked one of the fellows who had worked at the Boston Rescue Mission, a great organization in town, "Why won't you take this product? What is it that you don't like about it or that you don't want?" And he said, "I don't know how to cook it".

It was this light bulb that went off and said, "Okay, so we can either just be a distributor of food or we can try and go a step further, deliver this food and distribute this food with some purpose, try and empower our beneficiaries. Not just to do more, but to understand what kind of value and what kind of power that they could then give to their constituents." It took years to evolve this program and we're at a point now where Don Hancock has actually come in to fully support this program.

Over a number of years, we've created a full-time position, one of our former food rescue coordinators who's been for a number of years, Kathy, is now the coordinator for Plenty as our education coordinator.

It's such a fantastic piece of our organization and I'm so proud of where it's gone and what it's been able to do because Kathy will go-- and I think this year she's on track for 52 different workshops, that are free of charge to our beneficiaries to say, "When we deliver food charge, you can cook it like collard greens and here are three or four different recipes that will work for this one product", any kind of root vegetable, which would be synonymous with the preparation of potatoes or whatever it is.

It's really meant to get folks to their own first reductions, even in these larger kitchens that are serving, two and three thousand meals on a soup line every day. Beyond that, we've taken these techniques and these ideas, and turn them into recipes and information cards, which we then had translated into six or seven languages of the populations that we serve.

Because what we're realizing about food is that it can be so transformative, it really is a language that's understood by everybody and its own right. But what we really want to do is make sure that it's reaching folks in a way that means something, and if you can't read the instructions, if you don't understand the language, if it's not food that's culturally appropriate for you, we're not really helping anyone. We try to do our best to meet the need in every possible way, and Plenty is one of the ways that we do that.

[00:26:22] Liz: What a great program. People will figure out how to do this for themselves, and that you can't put a price on that, that's beautiful.

Then, Ashely, as you do know, many of our listeners, our haulers, recyclers, landfill owners and composters, they handle the tail end of this issue, the food waste issue. How do you think they can help?

[00:26:48] Ashley: It's funny, we're all working within a system that has set parameters and guardrails work as waste haulers, as recyclers, as suppliers of food, as ancillary services like us, one of the ways that we've found to be helpful beyond our day-to-day hauling, is really understanding our partner's needs.

This shifts back to the vendor side, which is where I think, your haulers are focused with these big brands, understanding more of their own internal guardrails and their own internal criteria, keeping the most value in the food as early as possible.

Now, we read so many stories about folks and companies who are coming out with large digesters, it's an admirable effort, without a doubt. The amount of food that's required to power these digesters through anaerobic digestion it's so massive, that a lot of these companies are often taking food that could otherwise be set, hold raw beautiful products that hasn't lost any nutritional value, but they're taking that to feed the digester to meet the minimum requirements to get it to work.

Where there are conversations to be had about that, I think, it's incumbent upon us in the space to be able to at least start those conversations or get the folks that we all work with to think about that, because without a doubt, somebody who is likely working for that brand, in that store or living down the street, it's likely utilizing the services of a local food pantry.

Once we start making this personal, we start understanding just how far this food can go and just how widespread the need really is, I think it might shape the way that we think about what we can do with excess products.

[00:29:13] Liz: Absolutely. More on the individual side of things, there are a ton of people who want to help and you, your story is great because you started as an individual who saw a solution and just went for it. How can others do the same without necessarily feeling overwhelmed, or that their contribution might not matter?

[00:29:32] Ashley: I think the first place to start for anybody, myself included, is right at home. The individual household is one of the largest contributors to food in the waste stream out of any sector, that's really just a product of folks not being aware of what we can do and what we're probably subconsciously already doing. Sometimes as a matter of convenience, sometimes we're working multiple jobs, we have to feed two kids, take public transportation, all really real and valid factors that go into the choices that we make.

One thing that I am always trying to improve and do better is meal plan and write out a list when I go to the grocery store. Because you can go on a Sunday or early in the week and feel good about buying what you think you need for the entire week.

Then by Wednesday or Thursday, after maybe one round of leftovers or unexpectedly going out for the office of serving extra food, if somebody brings over some food, whatever the case may be, we wind up with excess food that we end up throwing away because we think it's bad, maybe it is bad, maybe it hasn't lasted, maybe it was on its last legs when we bought it, so really being a little bit more intentional about how we approach food at home and planning for that is really important. That's probably the biggest, most significant change that we as individuals can make at home.

The other pieces is then really getting creative with what we're buying. Most often, an ingredient whether it's a whole chicken, a bag of potatoes or a loaf of bread, whatever it might be, you can get a number of different meals out of that. Sometimes it does require a little bit more time, a little bit more preparation, a little bit more creativity but the average savings that we get as households and individuals is significant. I think it's something that improves how we feel about how we are treating food, and what we're doing to put some good back in the world.

Beyond that, we have a ton of resources listed on our website, if anyone wants to check those out and understand a little bit more about what we do, and how folks can either support us or implement some of this at home or in their business, we are at LovinSpoonfulsInc.org

[00:32:18] Liz: That's great, thank you, I bet a lot of people will check this out. Startups are tough as whether it's a profit or not-for-profit, is there anything, now that you've been in this 10 years, anything you wish you had done differently?

[00:32:32] Ashley: In some ways, sure. I don't think I'm unique as a founder in terms of folks who get some hindsight and say, "Oh, would have been so much better if I had had a business plan when I started doing this", or if I had raised around before I had begun. At the same time, I think because I didn't have a background in nonprofit or a background in food for hospitality. I think I had just the right amount of naivete and rampant optimism to try a number of different things and fail at most of them but the things that step are still in practice at Lovin' Spoonfuls today.

In some ways, absolutely, I wish that I had taken some time to come up with a strategic plan to build a more powerful board right at the beginning, to understand some of my own deficits in terms of my technology prowess, if you will, the lack thereof.

All of those things, I think once you start becoming aware of where your strengths lie and then what your weaknesses are, you can continue to build and plan around that. One of the things that has been so important for me as a founder, as a CEO, as a woman in business, as a member of this team and a member of the community, it's to hire really well. You want to hire folks who are awesome at the things that you're not, that really moves the ball up the field in a pretty parallel line, that becomes pretty bulletproof. For that, I feel incredibly lucky.

[00:34:33] Liz: That's great. It seems like you treat them well, and that's the nature of building and keeping a great team, congrats on that.

[00:34:42] Ashley: Thanks. It's funny, I feel so incredibly confident in my team, in our operations team, in my development team, in our support staff and, of course, in our food rescue coordinators on the road every day, that my focus has really now become fortifying Lovin' Spoonfuls to become the sustainable organization that I think we all want it to be.

We are now moving, 10 years later, I think it differs from company to company, organization to organization but for me now, I get to put my focus back on making the shift from startup to a midsize organizations, and what that means for my staff, for my team, of being a good employer and a decent employer, a decent community partner, and ways to not just incentivize our team, but to take care of them.

The things that are becoming important to me now -always important but where I get to focus now- is making sure that Lovin' Spoonfuls is a job creator, we should be innovating in our field and creating best practice but really be a place where people feel proud and safe to come to work.

[00:36:09] Liz: That's great. What's next for Lovin' Spoonfuls? You answered a little bit in terms of your team, and now that you're approaching that next level organization but, in general, do you have any more growth plan?

[00:36:20] Ashley: We always are thinking about growth because the need is there. I think one of the things that are reflective of some of the shifts and strategy, and the shifts from startup to midsize, we have a waiting list that is always about to burst at the seam, just by nature of what we do, the impulse is just always to say, "Let's put another truck on the road and we'll figure out how to pay for it later". 

I don't know if that feeling will ever go away, but in terms of strategic decision making better forecasting and understanding how to grow the business, we are putting in those safeguards to make sure that we can meet the needs. We can meet the needs sustainably with some strengths as we move forward, we're trying to identify the next area to go.

For us certainly, we want to be serving all of Massachusetts, we want to be serving regionally, there's certainly potential for national replication. I think one of the things about our model -I think I said this at the beginning of our conversation- was that however, we continue to evolve, grow and remain consistent, we never do it with a ceiling that doesn't allow us to bend and that doesn't allow us to adapt.

Because we will find new populations, new geography, new areas, and we're going to have to be flexible and adaptable. I think in some ways, the next 10 years operations wise, I want to continue what we're doing but I want to stay at the front of new and better ways to become aware of food supply, food production to continue to educate.

[00:38:20] Liz: That's fantastic and you're doing such a great job of that, thank you for really humanizing the food rescue work that you're doing, because I think that inspires a lot of people and it certainly, will inspire our listeners. This has been a wonderful conversation, again, thank you for all that you're doing to rescue food.

[00:38:40] Ashley: Thank you for the platform and thanks for giving us a chance to talk about it. I'm excited to know more about [unintelligible 00:38:46] contribution to the conference coming up.

[00:38:49] Liz: We can't wait to see her at the conference, talking in the Food Recovery Forum, I know it's going to be great and folks really walk away from that, especially, probably what she's going to share, ready to make some changes and do good. Thank you, we will keep you posted on that.

[00:39:13] Ashley: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me and I really enjoy talking to you.

[00:39:17] Liz: Me too. Thank you so much and good luck with everything.

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