Many people experiencing food insecurity don’t have access to the tools to turn raw ingredients into healthy meals. Upcycling Kitchen bridges that gap while addressing food waste.
When I entered the Upcycling Kitchen at Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, I was greeted first by the overwhelming sight and aroma of organic vegetables. Chef Ederique Goudia and her cadre of volunteers were hard at work, turning that produce into something delicious to feed over 200 local Detroiters facing food insecurity every week.
I was surprised to find such beauty amongst the rinds and reclaimed produce; rich oranges and browns of the sweet potatoes and carrots intertwined with a medley of root vegetables, creating a stunning visual display on its way to becoming a nutrient-rich dinner prepared from scratch.
The nonprofit Make Food Not Waste launched Upcycling Kitchen in late 2020 in response to rising food security in the city during the pandemic. Director and founder Danielle Todd and her fleet of chefs and volunteers partnered with the church to create healthy meals for local community members –all fashioned from rescued food donations that would otherwise go to the landfill.
Founded in 2017, Make Food Not Waste’s original mission was to teach the community about sustainable food practices and reduce the amount of wasted food produced at home. The American household generates the majority of food waste. “The average family of 4 waste about $1500-$2000 worth of food every year,” Todd told me.
Not only is food wasted, Todd adds, but plastic and other paper products used in packaging often don’t make it to the recycling bin.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Make Food Not Waste adapted to the changing times by focusing on waste from other food distribution sectors.
“We noticed that food insecurity was going up in Detroit. So we got more involved with our food rescue partner, Food Rescue US Detroit,” she said. “We wanted to stop food from going to the landfills.”
What sets Upcycling Kitchen apart from other food rescue services in the region is its focus on delivering ready-to-eat meals. Often, food pantries operate with ingredients passed along to the people who need them; things like canned goods, bread, fruits, and vegetables.
But many people experiencing food insecurity — defined as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources”– don’t have access to the tools to turn raw ingredients into healthy meals for their families. Some may feel embarrassed about needing to ask for help during these challenging times.
“I want people to have a feeling of dignity when they come in, I want people to feel respected, greeted when they come in the door,” Paul Booker, Chairman of Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church Mission Committee and volunteer, told me. “And to let them know that they have another resource here.”
Every Friday morning, Upcycling Kitchen distributes 50 hand-crafted meals made from scratch. The recipes are based on whatever rescued food donations they were able to garner that week from their network of donors.
Goudia develops the recipes, often bringing in a southern flair from her native Louisiana. Each meal contains 4-6 servings for sharing and leftovers for the next day, depending on family size. She said she’s compelled to take a creative spin as the ingredients change week by week.
“The produce we receive is what inspires me to make my cuisine. For example, one of our fan-favorite meals is vegetable curry over rice. It includes sweet potatoes, collard greens, and root vegetables,” Goudia told me. “We even had some reclaimed apples and bananas, which we made into banana apple bread that people enjoyed.”
Todd points out that most produce rescued by Make Food Not Waste and their partners are plant-based, meaning that each meal is loaded with the nutrients that people need and often miss in their diets. She adds that producing an entire meal mainly from reclaimed plant-based food demonstrates that delicious and nutritious food is within reach, whatever your economic situation.
“We see Make Food Not Waste as pushing the envelope on what can be done with rescued food,” she said. “We’ve shown that it’s possible to make high-quality, tasty food that is chef-prepared for the community. Our feedback shows that our meals inspire people to try new tastes and flavors and encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables.”
Make Food Not Waste first distributed chef-created meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, amidst the uncertainty of a pandemic and social unrest. Goudia and Make Food Not Waste spearheaded an initiative that fed over 5000 Detroit residents facing food insecurity. Local chefs and restaurant workers were also invited and paid for their time.
“We were able to rescue food, provide a source of revenue for the workers, and create a beautiful, traditional, holiday meal when some people were unsure if they would have a holiday meal this year,” Goudia told me.
At Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, chef-made food is “just one arm of our three-pronged distribution system,” Booker told me. “We also distribute boxes that include dairy, meat, and vegetables, and we work with Harbortown Market to distribute reclaimed grocery products from the store shelves.”
People who come in to pick up a meal are also encouraged to take along raw ingredients and educational brochures that help explain how to get the most out of groceries, along with some new recipe ideas, Booker added.
Make Food Not Waste will be expanding its operation this month to include preparing meals for 280 students and their caregivers at Nichols Elementary and Middle School on Detroit’s east side. In addition to reaching more families, the expansion will also allow Make Food Not Waste to hire more chefs to coordinate with Goudia and help increase access to healthy meals for the community.
“If the kids are getting their standard lunches throughout the week, we feel that this will at least make it easier for families to provide meals over the weekend while kids are home,” Todd said.
To see some of Chef Goudia’s recipes and dishes follow her on Instagram @Egomichele