412 Food Rescue’s Good Food Project Homes In and Ramps Up
The nonprofit steps up its meal preparation project under the direction of project manager Greg Austin.
Greg Austin, formerly of Brick Shop and Spirit, took over as 412 Food Rescue’s Good Food Project Manager in May 2020. Now armed with double the kitchen space, a refurbished basement preparation room and a significant increase in freezer storage in New Sun Rising’s Food + Energy Hub, the Millvale building that houses the operation, he’s deep in the process of scaling up the program’s offerings.
The Good Food Project started in June 2019 with a pretty modest output — 30 meals per week for the Millvale Library summer lunch program. Under the direction of chef Edward Anderson, who left 412 Food Rescue in 2020, the program, which repurposes donated surplus food into nutritionally complete, fully cooked meals, eventually moved up to 300 meals per week.
After that “we reassessed the project and came up with a plan about how to scale it and be more impactful,” Austin says.
Over the past year, Austin ramped up production to approximately 700 meals per week, delivered primarily to the North Side YMCA, Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation, Lawrenceville United, Homewood Children’s Village and Millvale Free Fridge.
It started with looking at the supply chain. The Good Food Project used to work with an assortment of ingredients from various sources, but now Austin is working almost entirely with food delivered by Gordon Food Service. “We still get a little bit from here and a little bit from there. But I found that in practice having a focused incoming helps us a lot more with efficiency. Otherwise, most of my time is spent organizing what’s coming in and when, and that doesn’t necessarily happen on a timeline you need to get food out efficiently,” he says.
In a sense, he is now rescuing a rescue. Gordon Food Service drops off food twice a week. Most of what is delivered is designated for another 412 Food Rescue stream called the Grocery Bagging Program, which brings fresh food to 30 Housing Authority of Allegheny County sites. For the most part, Austin takes what can’t be immediately used from the massive delivery — up to six pallets of food at a time — and turns it into meals such as beef and bison chili, creamy spinach dip with toasted flatbread and banana bread pudding.
Repurposing is essential for 412 Food Rescue, which operates the Good Food Project as a zero-waste kitchen. The food that Austin can’t use heads for composting at Ag Recycle and area farms via Pittsburgh-based Zero Waste Wrangler. This might mean the product delivered was already past rehabilitation or, more likely, is what’s left over at the end of a day in the kitchen. “We work to find a destination for as much as we can that comes in. We’re not throwing any food in the trash,” Austin says.
Whole turkeys, for example, would first be cooked for a pulled turkey dish. Then, Austin will use the bones to prepare turkey stock prior to sending them off for composting. “Now we have turkey to serve immediately, stock to have on hand for other uses and the bones go back into the soil,” he says.
Even though the supply now comes on a regular schedule, Austin still needs to be creative and flexible in his meal planning as each shipment varies in content and quantity. Some weeks he might get a bounty of pork shoulder, and he’ll have to figure out how to batch a lot of pounds of one ingredient into a variety of meals. Right now, for example, fresh vegetables are more scarce as the region’s growing season is over. He writes down what he has coming in, what he has stored in the freezer and then, he says, “it’s kind of like when you’re looking at a Magic Eye, and you have to unfocus until the menu item appears. That’s the work, pairing things of appropriate sizes and making them come together.”
In addition to the refocused supply chain, Austin is using that additional cold storage space to package the meals frozen rather than fresh, as they previously were delivered, to allow for greater flexibility in storage at both ends of the process. “It really increases the viability of the meals. If I send something fresh, you have maybe five days to eat it. If I freeze the meal, it’ll last seven to nine months,” he says.
Austin now can welcome more volunteers to help him in the kitchen, too, something he couldn’t do at the height of the coronavirus pandemic when occupancy in the kitchen and the basement prep space was more limited. With all of those pieces coming together, Austin says he aims to double the output of the Good Food Project in the next year.
To acknowledge the kitchen’s progress, 412 Food Rescue is holding a “grand reopening” event for the Good Food Project on Dec. 6 from 5 to 7 p.m. It’s open to the public and will include tours of the Sherman Street food hub and food prepared by Austin.