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The Good Food Project Prevents Food Waste through Chef-inspired Meals

The Good Food Project is an initiative of 412 Food Rescue, a nonprofit whose mission is food waste prevention and providing access for people who face food insecurity. Food waste makes up about 25 percent of all material in landfills, more than any other single source of waste, and is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., 35 percent of all food that is produced is wasted, while 10.5 percent of households are food-insecure.

Greg Austin

The Good Food Project’s kitchen is located in the solar-powered Millvale Food + Energy Hub, a space transformed from a Moose Lodge by the nonprofit New Sun Rising and shared with other nonprofits. We spoke with Greg Austin, project manager and head chef, about how it is achieving its mission of stabilizing and transforming surplus food into healthy meals for 412 Food Rescue’s nonprofit partners.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the concept behind the Good Food Project?

Greg Austin (Austin): The organization as a whole works with a lot of partners in the food industry and the nonprofit side of things to get this food distributed to people who need it. Some facilities don’t have all the infrastructure they need to prepare some of the food we are dealing with, such as not having a way to prepare surplus food; that was an obvious need we wanted to fill.

We figured out a way to create a sort of commissary kitchen and provide a redundancy for food items in our stream that couldn’t be used immediately with the people we were sharing them with. We receive food here that might not be easily utilized at these partner facilities—we process it and package it into easily transportable, easily reheatable, nutritionally complete meals.

NHM: How did the Good Food Project get its start?

Austin: The Good Food Project came in second, I believe, in UpPrize: the BNY Mellon Social Innovation Challenge for 2017 in what was then the new ‘Healthy Food Access’ category. The program was officially launched in 2018; I came on board in May of 2020.

NHM: What made you want to join?

Austin: I’ve been managing kitchens in Pittsburgh for 10 years now, and working in them for 20—you see a lot of food waste when you’re in that kind of position. It’s either expensive or difficult to lower the level of waste in a restaurant; it’s part of standard operating procedure. I had utilized 412’s services as a chef and it was a wonderful resource for repurposing perfectly good food that we couldn’t use in a restaurant setting. I was always supportive of their mission from that aspect. At some point early in the pandemic, I became aware of this position opening up.

NHM: How does the Good Food Project operate?

Austin: Because we’re positioned with 412 Food Rescue, we have access to a lot of sources of food. We’ve tried a lot of different approaches of how to work with that food and what works best for our program. Currently Gordon Food Service is the project’s biggest donor in terms of food. They have a relationship with 412 Food Rescue—they donate a lot of poundage of pretty usable stuff. That relationship works really well for the program; it takes the burden of sifting through things off my plate. I’d rather work from abundance then scarcity.

NHM: What do you do with the food once you sort through it?

Austin: Our main goal is to produce fully nutritionally sound, balanced and complete meals. When I look through the food, I am looking for what can go together and make sense and be palatable and desirable. That is the main calculation.

NHM: It must take some creativity to create these meals.

Austin: It’s definitely where I rely on my experience the most. There are two things that inform the process—that experience, and the need for these meals to be palatable to a large group of people. I would say it’s creative, but it is limited by reality as well. The important thing is that I am serving what someone wants to eat. Having worked in restaurants, I’m able to think about dishes I’ve seen composed in a wide range of styles, and I draw on that the most.

NHM: How many meals do you prepare in a typical day?

Austin: It varies because of the food, but we’ve been hitting between 700-800 meals a week, and we are trying to double that before the end of this year. Last year we provided over 16,000 meals.

A few weeks ago, I was able to do my first fully vegan meal: that was a chickpea coconut and tomato curry. On another occasion, we were able to do French lamb ribs on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes and herbs. Our vegetables usually become our sides. We try and do a brownie or a fruit-based dessert depending on the season and what they get in, like an apple crumble or crisp, or a brownie.

NHM: Once they are prepared, where are the meals distributed?

Austin: Right now, I’m working with about seven nonprofit partners in Allegheny County—anyone that is servicing a population that could use a meal is who we work with.

NHM: I understand that this kitchen is one of the world’s first zero-waste kitchens—when you say zero waste, does that literally means zero waste?

Austin: Yes, as a production facility. Because I’m working with donated food, I don’t purchase any, so it’s not producing waste on the site. This food comes in packaging to us; I have to throw that away, but I’m not creating extraneous waste because if I can’t use it, it goes to compost or another facility like my own. We are providing those safety nets before the landfill and doing that work that is too expensive or burdensome for a standard kitchen.

NHM: I also read that it is a zero-cost kitchen. How so?

Austin: Because we don’t purchase anything. Every meal that comes out of this kitchen is entirely composed of donated food. I don’t buy any ingredients, and that is hammering that point home that literally there is so much food waste, I can run an entire kitchen on it. And I am capturing a fraction of a fraction.

NHM: What is the most rewarding part of this job for you?

Austin: I don’t know I can pin down just one. I have a really supportive group of coworkers and team. The work itself is rewarding; just the poetic justice of the story we are telling here and the fact that I am finally able to do of reversal of the damage I myself have caused in the food industry.

It feels nice to be empowered in this role to reverse some of this damage. Wouldn’t it be lovely if people in every city were able to work against hunger this way, using resources that are already there?

I also hope that it changes the stigma around what food is usable and what food is valuable and what food is not. So hopefully we can bring that 40 percent down a good bit; it would take reassessing what good food means.

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