Ismail & Seidric – Food Rescue Challenge

Author: Shaneice Palmer, Owner of Leah's Gourmet Sauces

September 23, 2019

Tell us a little about yourself and the work you do with the Commonwealth Kitchen and it’s member business.

Ismail: I work to try and scale up businesses through some of our strategic partners, a lot of them in the institutional marketplace. We try and focus on leveraging purchasing power through institutions like hospitals and colleges, and other organizations to offer sales channels for members once they scale through the commissary.


What does food waste mean to you?

Ismail: Food waste means opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to actually re-source the unwanted; and being opportunistic with the unwanted is extremely powerful. I like challenges and I like to figure things out. When I look at the amount of food around that’s not being used, I look at it as wasted opportunity. So, I try to flip it around and try to talk about it from the framework of what could this be. With food being as precious a resource as it is, I try to capture as much value as I can out of it.


Please share with us some of your thoughts on the larger impact that food waste may have on communities and economies.

Ismail: Nationally, it’s about one hundred fifty billion dollars a year that gets thrown away.  You can go to ReFED; ReFED is an organization that does a lot of work around the amount of waste. About forty percent of food produced in this country gets thrown away. There are organizations that are actually beginning to capture the data, sharing the opportunity and beginning to present it as a path for economic opportunities for entrepreneurs.

For me, I’ve owned my restaurant in Putney, Vermont for about seven years now, called the Gleanery. It was opened to focus on post-farmers market food. Post-farm stand and farm products that didn’t get sold. We turn kale into pesto and apples into apple vinaigrette or apple sauce and such. So, I see it as an opportunity to turn it into revenue and to celebrate food for what it was intended for. Also, the opportunity is there, if you look around you with what’s available as resources—you don’t always have to buy new stuff.


Tell us a little about gleaning and how that aligns with Fresh Food Generation’s Farm to Plate program.

Ismail: To glean itself is the recovery things after the first harvest. When the first harvest is done, there’s always leftover things that the gleaners would go out and pick up.  And it was typically for the poor people after the Kings got the best. So, it’s the old-time practice of going out to the fields after the first harvest. Gleaning itself is making sure we’re opportunistic when it comes to the resources that we have access to. It adds economic opportunities to farms, and also adds more benefits to the businesses that participate in the practice of being more sustainable. It’s a way to grow the local economy, to stand up your product on regional resources— instead of external resources.


How have you/are you working with Fresh Food Generation as member business that has is actively working to prevent food waste? 

Ismail: Not as much as I’d like to, my brain has all kinds of ideas.  I sit on the board of the Boston area gleaners, and I’ve talked with both Jackson and Cassandria around what ways we could think about the food truck differently. The gleaners recovered almost eight hundred thousand pounds of produce last year, and so targeting that surplus and neighborhoods that don’t have access to healthy foods. You could now utilize the abundance of surplus and move that food into communities that don’t have access. Now you’re talking about a strategy forward, using the truck differently –we’ve talked about that as an opportunity.

Recently, I did a fundraiser with Three Squares New England, that was around raising awareness with the amount of food waste that happens not only in Boston or New England, but nationally as well. In a dream scenario it would be nice to tap into the surplus market and then we’d have the opportunity get better prices on things as well.


If you had the capacity to change one thing in the food industry at the local level or at a grander scale, what would it be?

Ismail: It would be to consolidate resources. If you think about how many places are underutilized— just in any given area; we have excess capacity in transportation, in production facilities, in retail stores –- everywhere you look around the value chain. So, maximizing the opportunity. It means working with a lot with other companies, sharing resources and pooling resources.

If you think about consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies –- In the back of my brain I’m like, ‘How can we do things differently?’ You would try and figure out how not to adopt the very systems that mimic the very thing we’re trying to change. So, if you have a system that is extractive; capitalism, for example, is an extractive notion. Me, I’m not a capitalist. I don’t believe in that way of extraction. So, if I think about it, we can’t use these colonizing mechanisms to actually make money and work for us, if we’re going to try and change the system.

So, if I have a distributor that’s taking twenty percent off every given product, that means I’m sanctioning behavior that is completely oppressive. And so, how do we change that? By trying to take away what the company charges to do very little; and move that service in house and centralize it and share.  If we know that there are twenty companies among us that need distribution, we need to collectively invest in-house on a distribution system. Therefore, that twenty percent now goes to ten percent, and that ten percent goes to the shared individuals who invested in it.

Those are the things that I would change. You have to begin to think differently if you’re talking about closing the wealth gap. You have to be able to deploy new strategies that don’t lean upon the people that hold the wealth. You have to create the wealth from the beginning. Share the wealth you currently have, grow incrementally, tip the scale and not lean upon the system that is systemically oppressive, and systemically holding all the power. You have to transfer the power back to the people.

You’d have open books; you’d have very clear roles, very clear margins. Everyone knows where their money is going – very transparent. The food system is not transparent at all. We have subsidies coming from taxes that are standing up certain sectors of business, we have the farm bill that is making sure these crops are sustained for mass consumption, and you’ve got advertising that supports the mass consumption – that makes sure everybody buys the same thing.

If you think about how the food system is set up, it’s set up to make very few people wealthy. It’s not set up to make everyone else share. So, that’s what I would do if I could change it. It’s totally possible. It just means a lot of work, a lot of tenacious conversations, and that’s what I think needs to happen if we’re going to disrupt the power. The food industry is a powerful force in America, and we’re thinking about creating food businesses that make “x” amount of revenue; that means you’re threatening a system that’s very powerful.

When you begin to threaten powerful systems, you have to be prepared. You have to have all the systems in place.  You can’t be a little bit of this, a little bit of that — because you’re always going to end up leaning on that same system. You have to start small, and then incrementally bring in people as you’re growing. You can’t start off bigger or you’re destined to utilize a system that does not want you to disrupt it.

Food itself, all our systems: food, pharmaceuticals — the entire capitalist structure, is based on slavery.  And slavery itself holds capital as being the most sacred thing, and keeps people and earth, and air,  and water as being instrumental; instead of the other way around. Instead of holding people, and the earth, air, and water as sacred and money — capital as instrumental. If you could flip it around, now you’ve got a strategy. I’m not one to tell you that you don’t need money, because obviously you need money; but it can’t be the most sacred thing in the room.


Three Squares New England is a local nonprofit geared towards minimizing and preventing food waste – with initiatives like the Food Rescue Challenge, how impactful do you believe organizations like these are?

Ismail: Honestly, I’m up in the air. It’s really about the education. How you’re really going to change culture is to figure out ways to not just recover food but, adjust how the consumer deals with food as a whole. I think we need to shift a little bit more energy as community members and understand that the forty percent of food we talked about, a lot of that happens at home. You purchase groceries—I remember reading once—if you go shopping, one quarter of your groceries gets thrown away.

When you come home, think about—you bought three pounds of grapes, how many do you throw away? You bought strawberries; how many do you throw away?  We buy in abundance and so we don’t eat it all. It means we’re very picky. I think if we could shift some of our focus on to our communities, and to our homes, to treat food respectfully, we’d reduce the amount of waste as well.

Seidric: It’s hard to really gauge. There are so many different parts to a nonprofit, it can be difficult to quantify how much impact they actually have. But I think whenever people are trying to solve a problem— look for solution, or just do good work without looking for anything in return, I think that’s a good thing. I appreciate the thought and drive to do better.


Tell us about your experience working with/being part of the Food Rescue Challenge.

Ismail: I’ve done it for three years. It’s right in my wheelhouse, I’ve been interested in food waste for a while. It’s just a natural fit for what I care about – and not a stretch. I like to try and support things that I’m interested in, and when you talk about turning food waste into opportunities for healthy food for communities, which is another thing Three Squares is about. They focus on making sure people get their ‘three square meals’ per day. It’s great to support causes like that.

Seidric: My experience was cool. It was my first time doing an event like that. I have done charity events before, but never anything like the Food Rescue Challenge. It was a lot of fun. It’s always fun to be asked to create something off the cuff – on the fly. I didn’t go into the challenge with any preconceived ideas of what I was going to make that day. I just kind of let myself be led by what was available, and what food items were there to be rescued. I was happy with how our dish turned out.


We know you both had the opportunity to work with some other wonderful and creative individuals, talk to us a little about the creative process behind the dish/dishes you had to create for the challenge.

Ismail: It was really nice to see people looking at what other people were doing and asking, ‘Oh what are you doing? Can I use that?’ Just that camaraderie in the kitchen was really nice to be a part of. And just working with Seidric was super awesome. We got to play on each other’s palettes a little bit; It’s always nice to be creative in spaces that facilitate creativity, and it’s really a nice feeling as a chef to be in that environment.

Seidric: I Just kind of walked into the kitchen—the event took place at Coppersmith in South Boston, we got there and there were just boxes of these rescued food items. There happened to be a bunch of melons; a variety of melons – cantaloupe and honeydew and other off-name melon that people may not know as much but all in the same family.

It was summertime and I thought a cold dish would be cool, so I chose to make a melon gazpacho with some grilled vegetable in it. Traditionally, Gazpacho is a cold soup. I believe its Spanish – from the Andalusian region of Spain. It’s essentially a cold soup made of tomatoes, stale bread, onions, herbs and other things. We had some pepper, melons, onions – for this summertime dish. We walked in and I looked at all the boxes, I saw the melons and I immediately wanted to do something with the melons. That is where my chef brain went.

It wasn’t an intense experience — it wasn’t a competition. It was more supportive and being in this cool charity driven event with colleagues. It was fun, because one of my former chefs was actually participating in the event. It was really great to see him, and to be among other top-notch chefs from around the area. I was really happy with the dishes that Ismail and I presented.  And I think the whole event turned out well. I would definitely be happy to participate in it again.


Bonus Question: Does pineapple belong on pizza?

Ismail: [Laughs] I mean I don’t eat pineapple, but if I ate pork and bacon and ham, I could see it being on a pizza. I could see that being good. But because I don’t eat that I’m going to say no.


Fresh Food Generation Participates in Three Squares New England’s Food Recue Challenge

Earlier this year, Fresh Food Generation and other food entrepreneurs participated in Three Squares New England’s Food Rescue challenge. The chefs were tasked with creating unique and delicious dishes utilizing rescued food items as part of the event. See more photos of the event here.