Fighting Child Hunger and Food Waste with Jim Conklin of Cultivate

Full Transcript

Dalia  0:00 

Hey everyone. Thank you for joining me for Episode 10 of School Nutrition Dietitian. You probably remember seeing today's guest all over the news earlier this year. Jim Conklin is the president and co-founder of Cultivate Culinary. Cultivate is a 501 c3, not for profit organization that's devoted to ending the cycle of hunger in local communities of Northern Indiana by providing a Food Rescue Service. The feature that was all over the news was about Cultivate forming a partnership with the local school system to rescue food that had never been served so that food insecure kids could have something to eat over the weekend. Everyone who works in school nutrition is aware that not all children in this country have consistent access to food. So, there was a lot of interest around how can we do something similar in our districts? Is it possible? Do our states allow it? There are so many questions so, I thought it would be a great idea to have Jim Conklin on himself, to speak to what's involved and how we might get started with investigating what options are available to us in our parts of the country. As I mentioned, Jim was being pulled in a lot of different directions for interviews because interest is so high in helping solve this child hunger problem. So I'm really thankful that he took out the time to speak to the school nutrition community in particular, in this interview.

 

Theme Song  1:26 

[Theme music] School Nutrition Dietitian; here on a mission to show you fruits and vegetables can be super delicious. Eating healthy keeps you healthy on the inside, keep your stomach satisfied, and keep a clear mind. Now you're ready for your academics. Focused, time to handle business. Breakfast, you don't want to miss it. Help your body to replenish. Clean food, clear mind; that is the vision. Tune in to the School Nutrition Dietitian. [Fade]

 

Jim Conklin  2:07 

Food Rescue has been happening for a long time, factor is the model that we visited in Indianapolis called Second Helpings, they've been doing for 20 years. So, it's kind of interesting that here we're just this little upstart, you know, food rescue organization. And, you know, and for whatever reason, we've gotten all this attention, but there's been some really good ones that have been in operation for some time now.

 

Dalia  2:33 

Right. Well, let's start there. How did you end up becoming the president and co-founder of Cultivate Culinary? How did you get to this point?

 

Jim Conklin  2:45 

Yeah, so for me, I was working in public accounting- try to get through this pretty quick, but working in public accounting, went to work for one of my clients, small privately owned company, south of South Bend, and this gentleman owns several businesses but one main one. Well, one of the side businesses was this little restaurant, for even Indiana, that just didn't perform all that well, financially speaking. It's hard being in the restaurant industry, it's pretty hard work. It's a hard industry actually to make money in. And so one of the first things I did, I said, "Hey, I know that this is worth all the time, energy and effort that we're putting into this." And because I work for a guy that's pretty generous, he said, "Well, we're gonna close the restaurant. Let's see if we can do something good in our community, right? We've got a chef, we got a restaurant, but let's see if we can do something."

 

Jim Conklin  3:45 

And prior to coming here, I worked on a board for an organization called The Crossing, which is a local, say alternative school just so people know what that is. But we started in the beginning just with this culinary job training program for these local high school dropouts for a quick summary of what they do. But and they had several job training programs, we thought, "Well, hey, we have a restaurant. we have a chef. Let's put these resources to good use, you know, we're going to, you know, spend some money on something."

 

Jim Conklin  4:19 

So, we kind of started off really small. And that's really all we intended on doing. And we went down and visited Second Helpings in Indianapolis, because they had a culinary job training program. And we wanted just to see, you know, "Hey, here's a good model. They were they're really successful. Let's see if we could learn a few things." And in our kind of haste to learn about culinary job training, we kind of missed the fact that their main mission is a food rescue organization. And our chef, Randy V, who's the other co-founder and myself, kind of walked into this huge operation of rescuing food. So, last year, they rescued over 2 million pounds of food, and they feed about 4,000 people daily with the food that they rescue. So, when you walk in this place, it's a huge kitchen. And it was like the Tuesday after the Indianapolis 500. And so there's all kinds of volunteers, there were all kinds of food. And we were just totally distracted from the main reason we visited the place. And we said, "Okay," we left and we said, "We got to do this, we got to see if we can figure out how to do this in our hometown." It was just so impressive, and they were able to eliminate so much waste and that same time did so many people in Indianapolis. We just, we figured we needed to see if we could try it back in our community. and that's kind of how the Food Rescue side of what we're doing got started.

 

Dalia  5:53 

Just seeing someone else model it inspired you.

 

Jim Conklin  5:57 

Yeah. And just I think the timing. I mean, they handle a lot of food every day, but that particular Tuesday was a really busy day for them. And because Indianapolis the population in Indianapolis grows on the 500 weekend, and there's so much special events going around the town. And Second Helpings had all these partnerships with these special events, hotels, convention halls, those kind of things. And so, it was just so impressive and what they were doing, we thought, "Okay, let's bring this back to our hometown."

 

Jim Conklin  6:31 

And we did some research, and we kind of noticed that food rescue organizations that had been around tend to be in the largest cities; Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Philadelphia has a great one called 412. And it's like, all right, so this is a little risky, because I don't see anybody really trying this in a smaller town like South Bend. And so we kind of figured we're going to give this a try. We had some financial support from the person that I worked for. And he said, "Hey, I'll give you know, we shut this restaurant down, we'll invest some money in this concept. Let's see if we can figure this out." So, that's kind of how it all started.

 

Dalia  7:08 

There are so many people that don't even know food insecurity is a problem in our country. How was that already on your radar? Or did you realize that once you visited Second Helping?

 

Jim Conklin  7:21 

Well, and for us, I think what we understood from working with The Crossing students, we got a small glimpse of food insecurity. So, when we're running our culinary class, we kind of came up with of how we're going to do Food Rescue even before we knew we're going to get into Food Rescue. So, we had been teaching classes, cooking food, we knew the kids were going hungry over the weekend. Now, we call that the 68-hour gap from Friday at lunch to Monday morning at breakfast, right?

 

Jim Conklin  7:56 

That's the gap- 68 hours in between where there's so many other kids- 54% of our kids in the nation struggle with food insecurity over the weekend. And so, when we saw the Second Helpings model, and after experiencing it in a very small way with these Crossing students is that we started sending meals home with them, frozen meals, we'd make up food in a week, you know, kind of what we used to do, right? We take our leftovers and the food we're making, and we would freeze that so they get and we'd send it home with them over the weekend. And we hadn't even thought, even heard of Food Rescue at that point. But, that ends up being a big part of how we do Food Rescue, and that's how we kind of can use our backpack program which got so much, you know, excitement and so many views over the internet it was like, "Oh, now we've got something we could put a meal, that we could put in a kid's backpack instead of just a snack that, you know, maybe not the healthiest thing for the kid to take home and eat."

 

Dalia  8:59 

Looking at the website, it looks like Food Rescue might actually be a little bit different from what people assume, when they hear the term. So, can you clarify what type of food you're able to rescue? And whether or not it's actually leftovers? Or what is the process?

 

Jim Conklin  9:19 

Yeah, so it's food from, I always say people that have to estimate how many people are going to eat that day. So, caterers, schools are great examples of that, and the food that's been made by the chefs but never actually served. So, it hasn't seen a buffet table, it hasn't been on somebody's plate, you know, no one's coughed over it or, you know, put their hands in it or anything like that. In a school system, A, you have to plan your meals out way in advance. And then, when you're, you know, you're coming up to whatever is on the menu that day, you have to try to guess how many of these kids are going to show up, what they're going to eat? You know, it's really difficult. And especially like, one of the things we just learned, especially like, there's a difference in what might be appealing in a rural community as far as a menu item and what might be appealing in an urban setting.

 

Dalia  10:15 

Right.

 

Jim Conklin  10:15 

And so, you may have spaghetti and meatballs one day and at your rural schools, you won't have hardly any leftovers, but maybe in your urban schools, it's not nearly as popular of an item. And so, so even when you plan and guess the number right and you know, you still have different tastes that you're trying to figure and that's really difficult for the school, they're not necessarily being wasteful, at all. It's just the challenge that they face every single day. And so for us, you know, the school system food that we're getting, what makes this unique is that I believe we're the first food rescue organization to what we call rescue, hot food from the school system, dirt, share tables that take food to the food bank, you know, the uncooked, individually wrapped, never opened items, right? So share tables exist in school systems, although not very many of them, like less than 1% of schools have share tables, which totally amazes me, but that's what we call kind of the Easy Food Rescue because there's no perceived health risk in taking something that has been individually wrapped and never opened, right? And then taking that to the food bank so it doesn't go into landfill, right? That seems a lot less risky than maybe what we're doing. I would contend that what we're doing is not very, it's riskier, but not that much more risky. We operate many ways, like a food bank, we're just rescuing a different type of food that's already been made. In many ways, it's actually more valuable than food that you get from the food bank, because somebody has put all the time, energy and resources into making it, right? And so we're taking food that's been made, and made by really good people, whether that's, this was University of Notre Dame, whether it's our local casino, our local event center. What's really amazing about the food that we rescue, it's really good food. I don't know what it is, and I don't know what volunteers think, but the first time they come in, and actually volunteer and help us make these meals, their impression of Food Rescue just totally changes. Because I think in their mind, and this is the best description I can think of, they think we go into Golden Corral at midnight and take whatever's left on the buffet, right? And, and that's so not what this is, right? It's everything that's been made by really good chefs and never actually put out there on the buffet. And that comes from places that serve really good food, places we would pay, you know, $12 to $25 a plate for, so we're actually able to rescue food and give it to people that may be living in the poverty community that wouldn't get a meal. Maybe they don't get to normally eat on a day-to-day basis. So, even though it's cooled down and reheated, it's still a good caliber food. It's a better meal than what they typically get most days.

 

Dalia  13:14 

Now, what challenges have been involved in putting procedures in place to keep the food safe? Or was it pretty standard, like the same food safety rules of how long you can leave it in the temperature danger zone and cool it down? What were some of the hurdles that you had to contend with?

 

Jim Conklin  13:37 

So, I mean, A, education and the perception of risk is probably the biggest hurdle that you have to deal with. Educating that it's safe to rescue the food and the ease of it. So there's a four hour window after the food is heated and prepared to be served to actually get that food under 40 degrees. And you have to get that in a four hour time. And that falls on the people that we get this food from. The way I look at it is, those same people are charged with cooking that food and serving our kids that meal, right? So my thought is if they're capable of actually making it from scratch, and actually serving our kids with it, they could probably cool it down properly. It's not hard to do, you know. And really, one of the things for those food donors, is there's this perception that it's going to add a lot of burden to my daily schedule, because restaurants and cafeterias, you're shorthanded especially in a good employment market like we have now, it's hard to find qualified help, and you feel like you're stretched. But really, it's not hard for them to participate, once you get through the planning side of this. We just come in on a daily schedule. Just like any person bringing you food and you have a designated area and refrigerator for food. So, we know exactly where to go, and we kind of walk in school systems, we just kind of walk in, we know where to go, we get the food, and we leave, and they may never even notice we're there. And their part, they're just taking the food instead of taking it and throwing it in a trash can, right? They're taking it, cooling it down properly and sitting in a refrigerator. So, it really doesn't add a ton of burden to their world. Once you kind of get through the initial planning phases, and the first week or two of actually doing the Food Rescue, it becomes somewhat second nature to them.

 

Dalia  15:33 

Has it been easy to get by in your community? How did you basically clarify to people it's not going to increase burden, and it's something essential for the community as a whole?

 

Jim Conklin  15:49 

Yeah, it's taken, you know, every bit of two years. We got fortunate here locally because the University of Notre Dame was great timing, about the time we were starting this food rescue organization, the University of Notre Dame just finished the big remodel to the football stadium here, where they added corporate suites and they're going to, you know, they're planning to use the stadium for special events more often. And they wanted to be a sustainable organization. So, literally two weeks after we got started, we had a friend of a friend bring in a representative from Notre Dame say, "Hey, we're looking for an organization that can handle a lot of food that may come from home football games. And so it was really kind of great to start with the University of Notre Dame. And then we have a local catering company called, Milsom Catering & BBQ, who does, oh man, they do, I think over $10 million in catering revenue. They might be one of the biggest caterers in the state of Indiana. And so we literally in the first two weeks started with these two entities, who are our two largest suppliers. So, it was great timing on our part. I can't say that we planned it. But, I think most people if they're considering like, "Hey, can I do this in my community?" I think they could probably identify, "Do I have a college right?" Notre Dame as far as serving students is not the largest in the world here. I think we have 8,000 students. So, there are a lot larger colleges, in our community, in fact I think in almost every college town, you could do a version of what we're doing here at South Bend, just from the food between the public schools and the university that happens being downtown. So, I think you can actually look in your community and go, "Okay, where am I?" Before you spend $1, "Where could I possibly get food from?" And you know, and I think we kind of say, we're building the plane as we're flying it. But looking back, we could do a lot more planning before we take off, you know?

 

Dalia  17:57 

Right. Now, with so many people reaching out to you, and asking for guidance on how to get started, have you thought at all about creating resources, so that other people across the country can attempt to model something similar after what you've already established?

 

Jim Conklin  18:18 

Yeah, and we are. So, the two backpack programs that we have are kind of pilots, we call them. We're doing some research that we think will be, in fact the University of Notre Dame is going to do some analysis of the results of the pilots after they're completed, that we think will be really helpful for the next organization that's considered doing this. In today's world, especially when you're a new not-for-profit, a lot of times, it's hard to get individual donors, right from the get-go. You might be relying on grants to get you started. And when you're writing grants, it's helpful to have some good data in when you apply for those grants, so we're doing two things. One, we want to have that information, before we get out there and kind of help someone to get started. And the logistics of the backpacks, we're still trying to figure out within the school system. I would say both programs are going really well, but there are some things that we want to solve, before we kind of release data out there to people to get started. Hopefully, that it's worthwhile for them, and they won't make those same mistakes. And so, what we're doing is just collecting, everybody's kind of going to our website and submitting a request there. And we're collecting all their contact information. And then we're communicating with them as we go through this pilot, but kind of in a group fashion instead of individually, because to respond to 300 people individually, that's all we would be doing. But, there's been a ton of great questions. So, we're kind of aggregating all of those questions as they come in, and then we're kind of putting everybody into our customer database, so we can respond to people, as we're going through this process, and kind of let them know what the timeline is. I mean, we were kind of overwhelmed, and that caught us off guard that so many people would be interested in starting something similar. And so, we kind of had to kind of scramble, and figure out how we're going to do this, but I think we got a pretty good plan on what we want to do, and it takes some resources, but not a ton. I mean, our budget is about $300,000 a year. So, it's not an astronomical amount of money.

 

Dalia  20:41 

And a lot of volunteer labor, as well?

 

Jim Conklin  20:46 

Yeah, we have probably somewhere around 400 volunteers now. And so, that's part of the learning process that we went through. We have a great app that we use called, Sign Up Genius now that makes volunteering so much easier. And, as soon as we put that app in and started scheduling our volunteer opportunity three weeks in advance, our volunteer database just grew in probably fourfold. And it became so much easier to schedule it for the volunteer and for us to actually schedule them to be there. Because it's on your phone, it links to your calendar, you could pick a day in time that works for you. And so we've gone through this really, you know, immense learning curve over the last two years. And it's, we only have a head start, and I can't, I would say we don't have everything figured out, but we have a head start. And I think we can help people get started which is usually the number one thing that keeps people away from doing anything is, "How do I get started?"

 

Dalia  21:47 

Right. And speaking to that, what would you recommend? Reviewing the website and a few of the interviews, it is pretty clear that you guys are aware that it takes a community approach to address hunger and food insecurity, and you have to identify stakeholders. It isn't something you can do in isolation. So, how would you recommend someone get started?

 

Jim Conklin  22:11 

Yeah, I mean, that's exactly right. And so, you know, we had an organization from Grand Rapids come visit us. And the number one thing is educating yourself, right? Understand that your food donors, and you, have liability protection provided by the federal government, right? And so that's huge, is that you have the knowledge. In Indiana, we're fortunate, and each person would have to check in their state, but in Indiana, the state of Indiana actually has passed guidelines for schools to participate in Food Rescue. Indiana was I think, first to do that. And I don't know how many have followed. So, it might be before you really get too far into this, if you're really focused on working with the school system, you might just be going to your state house or your local representative or senator to lobby for them to pass laws, similar guidelines, similar to Indiana, because that really opened the door for us to get in the school system. Plus, we had some big name food donors, like the University of Notre Dame and our local casino that have legal departments that reviewed all the data that said, "Okay, we want to participate in this." And, so we could always point back to them to say, "Hey, you know, these guys have really good legal departments. They feel like they're safe, you know, you're probably okay, too." So, it helped us to have a little bit but even the next organization, right, they can point to us, they could point Second Helpings, they can point to 412 and Philly, right? There are people rescuing food, in big waves. Second Helpings, 2 million pounds of it, right? And so, they're- just educating yourself. And then, the number one thing I would do, is go out and convince people to give you food. Before you buy the facility, before you hire the people, before you do any of that, right? Go out and sign agreements with people say, "Hey, once, you know, once we get started, right, you'll donate to us." And that would change, that would make this, if I was to look back and start over again, or start in a different community, that would easily save us six figures plus 12 months of time.

 

Dalia  24:31 

Is one of the biggest obstacles, you think for people, the fear of being held liable for something?

 

Jim Conklin  24:38 

It is, but it's only a perception. Volunteer food donor, right, I say the person that we trust to make it, we like would go to my local casino I'd eat, right? I'll go to the local century center, the local Events Center for fundraising, or I'll eat there, right? I trust those people to make my food, right? All we're doing it's trusting them to cool it down, right? So, it's not, it's really not that big of a leap to say that they can do that properly, right? And, then you gotta trust the person, us, handling it, that we'll get it, and we get it frozen. We try to, we have it frozen in five days, from it being prepared. And I think the health regulations is seven days. So, we get it frozen, you know ahead of time. So, you have to trust that we do that, and we know what we're doing, but we get inspected by the health department, just like every other restaurant. We have everything dated properly, just like any other restaurant does. So, I mean, there is some, like almost a built-in system to check that, you know, A, the people that you're rescuing food from is handling it properly, and then, B, we're getting inspected by the same people. So, I think you're just kind of dealing with that perception, but the more and more Food Rescue gets popular, the less that you'll have to deal with that, right?

 

Dalia  25:59 

Right.

 

Jim Conklin  25:59 

And, so, like I said, it's kind of the most valuable food. I mean, the food bank can feed a lot of people and they rescue, we use the term rescue, they rescue a ton of food. Tons, tons. Way more food than we possibly can. But they just do it from a grocery store and you know, tends to be in a box and, or already frozen like a protein, right? And, we all accept that in society. So, this is just further up the food chain where the food's already been made, and you're taking something that's a little bit more valuable than what you're going to get at a food bank, and you just have to make sure you're handling it properly, which I don't think it's all that hard to do. We do it at home all the time. So, we have brand new serve-safe, we have several people that are serve-safe certified, so we know kind of what the rules are, and then if we don't, we're going to get in trouble by the health department just like any other place.

 

Dalia  26:54 

Right. And this is such a needed resource. I've volunteered at food banks before, and like you said, it's not the same quality of food. And, you have to think about things being shelf stable. And whether or not the people who are receiving the donation have the ability to cook it or he didn't like there are a lot of other things to consider when it comes to filling in those gaps and taking care of people who don't get to eat every day. Who would you say the typical client is? Is it school aged children generally or the elderly?

 

Jim Conklin  27:31 

Yeah, so we when we first started, we really focused on our local pantry network. So, I don't know if it's true in every community, but I think it's true in most. It's like, you have this loosely tied together pantry network that goes to the food bank and gets a lot of they buy a lot of food, right? There's really not a very well organized hunger relief solution in most communities. I can't say that's true with everyone, maybe there are some communities that there's a super organized effort. But usually you have individual organizations like a homeless shelter, like a low income retirement home, like a food bank. And so but they tend to kind of operate in isolation of each other.

 

Jim Conklin  28:24 

I think hunger is even in the US, I think hunger is such a big deal, that it'd be better to build a local network. And you'd have to decide, like in ours, we say our three counties are I think Mishawaka, Elkhart and Marshall, we're all neighboring counties, and we're all somewhat tied together economically. So, that's how we kind of look at it. That's our local network, right, and our first step was to, because we had places like Nelson's in the university entertainment public schools was they actually get food from them. But we want to add steps even down where we're actually preparing food. We get a lot of food donated to us that's unprepared. So, we want to add, we're actually in the building process now of putting in two kitchens where we can actually start to prepare food to make these individual frozen meals. That way we can increase the capacity that we have, so we can help more people. But, we started off with the local pantry network, because we knew there was a need there. Most pantries are run by really passionate people on low budgets. And so, they typically go to the foodbank and they buy food and they put it on their shelves. We thought, "Well, I wonder if we could just supplement what they're doing with our meals that we could kind of add a pantry here and there and that could grow with as we get more food, we could add more pantries, and it would be something that we could actually manage." But, the newfound interest and the reason the story is gone I think viral is really tied to that backpack program. Because the food bank locally does a lot of great snack programs, and they can help a lot of kids. But even the food bank would say, "How do we make this healthier?" Right? And if you start with the idea that I have to give them a shelf stable product, then you're gonna to revert to canned and boxed items, processed food. And all we do is kind of flip that around. If I start with a meal, how do I make it shelf stable, you just freeze it. And with backpacks and insulation technology, it can actually stay in that backpack for a day and a half, without coming out of the safe food zone. So, it gives you plenty of time to take the food to the school, to put it in the kid’s locker, and then the child takes it home, and puts it in their freezer. And so that's, we just kind of started out with a different premise. If we have food, how do we make it shelf-stable verses, I gotta give away shelf stable food.

 

Dalia  31:03 

Right. That makes sense. That's a good approach. So, for schools that are looking to make sure their kids don't have that huge gap between their last meal on Friday and their meal on Monday, you would recommend that they look for another organization that's kind of trying to start that network; connecting pantries and connecting different food sources, because this definitely doesn't sound like an operation that one school system could take on their own.

 

Jim Conklin  31:37 

Yeah, that's right. I mean, I think you have to have multiple food partners. And I think it's helpful because it means schools are tight on budget, you know, and they have enough struggles and people are stretched enough different ways that it would be really hard for them, I think, to administer a program like this. I think it's helpful to have an organization that's kind of focused, and that's what they do, that's what we do is we work with partners and getting their food and packaging, and we organize as volunteers and so I think it'd be hard for just one school system or one university to do this. Or even if they could, it wouldn't be as effective as organizing, because the way it works from the numbers side is, the more pounds I have, the better because I could take up we have what a lot of kind of cost that doesn't change; salaries and the cost of our building and utilities, right? So, the more pounds of food I have, the more I can spread those fixed costs across. So, it's more if it's just like any other distribution company, you're trying to do what you're doing, and in the most cost effective manner. And the best way to do that is by handling more product. And so, I think if you did it in isolation, you might be able to help kids, but not near as many of them. And I don't think the numbers as far as the cost with, you know, would be as favorable. So, it does take I think an organization and a community, if it's a big city, I mean, like Atlanta or something, right? You probably don't need to get out even to the suburbs. But you know, in a smaller town like South Bend, you might look at your, you know, to your east, west, north and south say, "Okay, is there another community close by where it could really kind of gather all my resources?" For instance, Marshall County, you know, farming is a much bigger resource down there. So we have, you know, livestock farmers down there, right, and then, you know, maybe they can donate livestock. And in Indiana, we've got an organization that will actually pay to have that livestock processed. And we could actually go, literally farm to table from, you know, from the farm to somebody that really could use it in a community. And we're just kind of that middle guy. And I think there's a lot of sense in having a middle guy in there.

 

Dalia  34:00 

Right. Yeah, that does make sense. Is there a national registry of food rescue organizations? Or what's the best way to go about locating one in your area?

 

Jim Conklin  34:12 

Yeah, you know, Internet search, or is it so one of the kind of like, things we talked about what after all this happened is like you go, your mind kind of goes crazy, right? Do you try to franchise where you're doing? No, and we kind of kind of quickly go, "No, it's kind of kind of be a community based model." I think it takes people inside the community to make relationships with other people. So, I think that would be really hard, but what we kind of hope, there is a food rescue organization that we call into once a month. And people just kind of share best practices. So, what we kind of hope is that we can increase the number of people do organizations doing this. And because our video that happened to be the one to go viral, that we can kind of create that national group, kind of like a food bank is, right? There's 211 food banks across the country. Could we create something like that? And maybe we can have, we can share some buying power if we agree to buy packaging from a certain company. Or we can actually create a little bit of political influence because we have, you know, 60 or 100 organizations across the country that's doing this, because one of the things that happened during the Obama administration, is they changed the dietary nutrition guidelines, right, and it really forces schools to plan their menu well in advance. And that sounds great. But there's a real consequence when it comes to food waste with that. It makes it really difficult to repurpose food. So, it limits or handcuffs the school from actually repurposing something that was leftover the day before, because now you're adding it to and that may get you out of your dietary guidelines for the school. So, so sometimes when legislators pass laws, they're well intended, but they have unintended consequences. And I think some of those that got passed during Obama's administration, while they're well attended, has actually probably increased food waste, at schools, in schools.

 

Dalia  36:28 

Yeah, I, you know, I'm really not sure because I came into school nutrition, after those changes were all in place. The dietitian’s perspective, of course, we're all really focused on health outcomes, so that the thought of food waste becoming more of an issue, because it's more difficult to repurpose the food didn't even really occur to me, I know the way we do it in our district is we try and plan the menu you in anticipation of leftovers, like the same ingredient should have multiple uses throughout the week. And some people put their extras out the following day. But, I'm sure if you were actually in the field before that it has been a steep learning curve. And I don't really have any data to support my assumption that there's no additional waste. I know what we do offer versus serve, and we give the kids an option to decline things they don't want. We control plate waste that way. But when it comes to the forecasting, like you said it in any industry where you have to predict how many people are going to eat with you, and what they're going to want to eat, it tends to be, there's always waste there. And that's a good question. I don't know if that went up or stayed the same. But yeah, I'm sure it was less tricky before.

 

Jim Conklin  37:58 

The other thing is that, so, I'm like, I always like things from a numbers point of view, because that's what my background is, is the one thing that amazes me is all the individually wrapped items and I get why that happened. But I also know that it's way more costly, I mean, to buy, let's say a fruit cup that's individually wrapped, verses a number 10 can of mixed fruit. Right? The cost difference to feed the number of kids is enormous. And if you think we're, I think we're, there's 56 million kids in the US our schools feed every single day, over 30 million of those kids are increasing reduced lunch, so 30 million kids in the US rely on the school system Monday through Friday for most of their dietary needs, which is, it's kind of like when you think of it that way, that's a little bit overwhelming. And then you realize you have this gap on Saturday, Sunday, which most of our food service workers in a school system, absolutely know what that looks like, because they deal with it, no matter how wealthy the school system is, right? We've got a local school system that's, you know, our highest, you know, earning zip code, right? They still have students carry issues in the 30% range. So, it doesn't really matter, the demographics, there are going to be kids in that school system that fit that food insecure category. And so in, and we're already strapped on a budget with schools, and we create these things where everything has to be individually wrapped. And that's horrible for the environment, anyway. So it's like, you know, it's there's always this balance, I think it's really hard to find it. And I think, at least what we're doing helps eliminate the waste, food waste is horrible for the environment, 21% of what we put in our landfills, and it creates methane gas, which is horrible for the environment. We can all argue about the degree of the damage that's causing. The reality is it's literally the largest producers of methane gas in landfills. And we all scientifically understand that's bad for the environment. So, I think what we're doing, not only does it help feed our children or adults in our community, it actually helps that equation, if you and you can multiply that cross nation where we serve 56 million kids. That could be a big number,

 

Dalia  40:24 

Right. Yeah, that's a really good point. And, when it comes to the packaging, and with you being eco-conscious, I think I saw one of the fundraisers said there would be water, but there wouldn't be cups. So, it looks like that's something. Actually, I might be thinking about something else. But, how do you keep all of those things in mind? So, we want to address hunger, but we also want to be sustainable. We also want to avoid using a ton of plastic. What solutions do you find to that? Or do you just tackle one thing at a time?

 

Jim Conklin  41:02 

I think you have to try to balance that. And you can't just like cherry pick one thing, right? So like our packaging is made out of I think it's 30% recycled material. And because we freeze it and heat in the microwave, right? You can't be total, at least, we haven't been able to find a packaging solution that's 100% recyclable. And the reality is that we're giving food to people that would have to eat, anyway. So, to say that, okay, we have plastic packaging, and then and that's a, you know, maybe a bad thing. That person is going to get food from somewhere that's going to come in plastic or something, you know what I mean, so you can't just, you have to balance that just a little bit, and not just cherry pick, well, it's made out of plastic. Well, it's made out of as much recycle plastic as we can to still handle the power to so, you do have to balance that with the need that you want to feed hungry people. And, so I think as long as people are reasonable about, I'm fairly certain that we're creating a smaller footprint than what existed before, right? We're able to resource that food and get it to somebody that needs it, you know, and we're using as much recycled material as we can. And if you find another option we'll certainly switch to it. So, it is something that we think about because we anticipate people looking at that, right? And we care about that as well. I think our first concern is feeding people and then the environmental impact, and a lot of our donors and people that support us, it goes the other way around. We don't really care, right? Because we're still all like-minded. For me, I do because my faith says to, other people, they do it because they want to be socially conscious, it doesn't really matter to me, right, we have the same, we have the same goal. Right? Why we're motivated to do it is a little bit irrelevant. So, we tried to balance the environmental as much as we can. If we could find a you know, if we could figure out a way to make it reusable, even if it was reusable, you have to bring it back, wash it and do all those kinds of things. So it's not always, you know, a ARB, it's some combination, and if you choose B, there's still some environmental consequences of choosing B. But, a lot of times when people kind of think, want to pick on you a little bit, they, they just say, "Hey, you're using plastic." Yes, guilty, but we're trying to be as conscious as we can about that.

 

Dalia  43:42 

Right. And then when you think about all of the energy that was already used, and all the fuel that was already used to produce this food to grow it or to feed the animals, whatever it is that you're making sure doesn't end up in the landfill then, clearly, you're coming out in the positive by making sure this doesn't just go in the trash. And I don't think a lot of people realize when things are packed really, really tightly together. It may be one of them biodegradable in your backyard, but it's not going to be able to break down efficiently. And the way that-

 

Jim Conklin  44:16 

In the landfill?

 

Dalia  44:17 

Yeah.

 

Jim Conklin  44:18 

Yes, well in the thing, that's the way I look at it. My actually, I'm a volunteer, I don't, I'm not a paid person for Cultivate, but my actual day job is in the agricultural business. We make equipment for combines. So, I know a lot about the you know, the reaping and sowing, right, and it takes a ton of resources to even get the food planted or the livestock grown. You think about every step of the distribution channel, that when we throw food away, I would tell you it's probably the most wasteful thing we do. Right? Because all the energy and resources, and I don't know that people think this way, right? They just think, "Oh, it's just a piece of chicken." Right? Yeah, but man all the energy and resources from growing the chicken, to getting it to the distributors, get it to the retailer to get it to your hand, right? You're wasting every ounce of resource that went into that piece of chicken. And the only reason it's reasonable is because you're doing it, cost-wise, you're doing it in such mass quantities, right? That the actual cost of throwing that piece of chicken away may not be significant to your personal budget. But the reality is, you just threw away a ton of resources. Plus, you can feed somebody, right? And we can't, we can follow good practices at home. And we all could be better educated about how to do that. We're just trying to target like the foodbank targeted retailers of our canned and boxed, and our frozen items, right? We're just targeting a different source. Right? We're trying to be yet another organization, right? It's trying to reduce waste equation. And I think we have to have much larger farms today, not only because of all the pressures of farming, but the reality is because we waste 40% of the food we make.

 

Dalia  46:13 

That's such a disturbing statistic.

 

Jim Conklin  46:16 

It is. It's really kind of hard to swallow, you know. So, and most of that, you know that quite half of that comes from the home. And we all individually have to do our own thing, and to use our resources there. But a lot of that comes from, I don't know, it's 10 to 15 comes from institutions. And I know the third comes from restaurants, which is where caterers fall into. So, we're just targeting a different part of the food chain, and trying to repurpose that food, plus our cases that we give, we give out cases of 30 of our meals. We actually get our banana boxes, and we get them from Notre Dame. So, we're actually repurposing those boxes, they eventually get thrown away.

 

Dalia  46:58 

Right.

 

Jim Conklin  46:59 

But, we at least get another- Yeah, we get to use them one more time for a really good purpose. So...

 

Dalia  47:05 

Right, that is awesome. I think your mission is wonderful. And like you said, there's a lot of different organizations with different motivations that kind of have similar missions. So. I'm looking forward to seeing how we're all going to be able to collaborate and reduce hunger in our communities, because it is a heartbreaking problem. And I hate to think of how much potential some children have that will never be fully expressed, because they were malnourished at a time that they needed nourishment more than any other point in their life, for them to fully develop cognitively, for them to be able to stay in their seat and focus, like I'm a nightmare when I'm hungry in the afternoon. So, the thought of having to go through the whole weekend without food or never having a snack after school, because there are some schools that aren't funded for after school snacks or they're not funded for supper. But like you said, even if you're in high income area, that doesn't mean there's no hunger in that community. No wonder it's difficult for people sometimes to focus and really thrive academically, because they don't have the tools that they need, a hungry child is just not going to be able to learn efficiently.

 

Jim Conklin  48:26 

Yeah, and it's not just amazing. A lot of people think this is an urban situation, it's a rural situation, too. Our rural communities have anywhere from 30 to 40% of their kids, on. So, it's not just an urban city issue that you're dealing with. It's pretty much all over the country. And like I said, there's 54% of our kids on free and reduced lunch. That is just an amazing stat, that and in fact, one of my interviews on the BBC, the lead in to my discussion was how is the richest country in the world struggling with hunger, their kids struggling with hunger. And that was the lead into my interview. And I'm like, well, that's, that's kind of hard to follow, or, you know, so you know, it was like, wow, you think about it in those terms. And we waste 40% of our food supply. We got to be, I'm an accountant. So, I hate waste. Chef Brandy is Chef so, they don't like waste, either. We got to do a better job than this. And I wonder if you really had a concerted effort here, how much you could, the difference you could make. And I think the food bank was the first step, maybe the easier step when it comes to risk. But there's a lot of additional steps we can take, especially in a school system where we can suffer, as a state we can kind of somewhat mandate participation in these kind of programs. It, like said the share table being less than 1%, that's an outstanding number. There's 98,000 schools and only one at 1% of them are doing share tables?

 

Dalia  50:02 

Right. I think there's a lot of fear around food safety concerns and liability more than anything. So, like you said, people need to be educated about that in a lot of situations, you'll be held harmless when your intentions were clearly positive. You have to check and see what your legal department says. But, I don't-

 

Jim Conklin  50:26 

I guess you can. Yeah, I don't think you can look at that in isolation, to say. So, if we firmly believe we're damaging the environment, there's a liability in that, right?

 

Dalia  50:37 

Right.

 

Jim Conklin  50:38 

No one's going to get charged for it, right? We, when we look at anything in any one instance, like, "Oh, wait, I could take this food and somebody could get sick," or something, some kid could get sick in your school already, but you still feed him every day, right? And so, I think sometimes we kind of get in this little isolation, I'm not gonna do this one little thing, because I could get sued over it, right? Maybe, you could get sued over getting somebody sick, anyway. So, it's like, but what's the consequence of not doing it? What's the consequence of school systems across the country, with 56 million kids? What kind of impact does that really cause on our environment? What kind of impact is a cost center school budget? How much does that increase our property taxes, if we're wasting if, as taxpayers if we're only going to pay for the food to be purchased? Might as well get it to the next place that somebody can eat it.

 

Dalia  51:33 

Right

 

Jim Conklin  51:33 

You know? It does, that seems like a wise use of my taxpayer dollar, right? So, I think if people just kind of rethink this problem, and think about the contributions that schools are making, on a daily basis, to our landfills, use it constantly, it'll cost them money up front always does it cost us money up front, several hundred thousand dollars to get this thing started, right. But think about the kind of benefit you could get if it becomes as accepted as the food bank model. You can really have tangible benefit.  I actually do think it's something maybe it's not going to travel to our most smallest rural towns in the country. But I think South Bend is not a very large South Bend, Elkhart & Marshall is not a huge area, I think it could travel to quite a few places in our country.

 

Dalia  52:27 

That I mean, that's a, that's an amazing vision; it's certainly needed. And, the time that I've spent volunteering and do things, I worry about people who already have health problems, who are supposed to be on a certain type of diet, and there's just nothing at the food bank that really is advisable for them to eat. But your option is basic, a little baby now and live another day, or just get completely malnourished because you don't have any other options. But like you said, the school systems are mandated to have foods that meet a certain standard of health. So, it's just, such a shame to be throwing that away, when it is so needed.

 

Jim Conklin  53:15 

You know, as well, too, heart disease is the number one killer in the US

 

Dalia  53:20 

Right.

 

Jim Conklin  53:20 

And when we start with products that are canned and boxed, right, we start with a ton of sodium. And so yeah, it's great. We can feed a lot of people with the food that excess food from our grocery stores that are canned and boxed. And it's inexpensive, right, to do that to warehouse, a lot of canned and boxed items, right? It's probably cost effective to do that in the short term. But, what I wonder is what's the long term impact? You take that senior that's worked their entire life, right? I think there's a little bit of misconception that the people that are receiving the benefits from, you know, a food bank or from us is that they you know, they haven't worked, or they've taken advantage of the system? I don't think that's the case, in most cases, at all, right? We have retired citizens that have worked their entire lives, with the idea that Social Security, Medicare would be enough for them to live on. But, that's not true. And we can argue why or what the motivation is, it doesn't really matter. The reality is too many of our retired citizens are going, do I buy prescriptions? Or do I buy food today? And it's, that's, that's a pretty bad place that we're in. And then, when they do get food, you know, half the people, over half the people that go to a food pantry on a regular basis are retired citizens. And they're putting in and most of their diet is stuff packed with sodium. And if you have heart issues, yeah, man, it's might be really inexpensive. And the other thing is just transportation. So, what I think we kind of lucked into is that we get the food closer to the person that needs it and in almost every poverty situation, logistics is huge, with a person stuck in it. So, that retired shut it, it's hard to get out. It's hard to make it to the food bank. And then if you do, you know, it's all canned and boxed items, you have to actually prepare it. And as you get older, it's a little harder, you know, me you don't have as much energy. So, for us to have something that's convenient, microwavable, way less sodium, right? A meal, I think one of our patrons called it, "Real food?" And that real food comment is something, I was like, "What do they mean by real food?" And they looked at me, "It doesn't come in a can or a box." And it's like, I've never, I never tied the two together. But, it's like, the long term issues of long term cost of giving that older person that much sodium in their diet may cost us way more in the long term than it did to give them something inexpensive up front.

 

Dalia  55:58 

That really makes a lot of sense that we have to look at this issue, and probably we should be looking at all issues, in a more holistic way. And not just focusing on "Oh, I'm saving time and effort and money here." But what is it really going to cost us and it isn't always something you can assign cash value to, but just how valuable are the lives of these people in your community? And how valuable is like human happiness and contentment? Like, you can't really put a price on that? And can we sacrifice that? Is that something we want to do as a society? Because these are most vulnerable community members. What does it say about you if you let people who need you the most just kind of flounder? So...

 

Jim Conklin  56:41 

Well, and if they're relying on it, right, and if they've got hunger issues that you're relying on food, and you get into the cycle of, "I've got to go to the pantry more often, because I'm worried about my prescription costs, and I'm worried about the cost of going to a hospital, if I have to get admitted," and all those things, right? That worry creates more issues, more illnesses, right? More fear. And that brings all kinds of anxiety and problems and health conditions. And so it's like this, like, really bad circle, you start spiraling down. And when you see people in it, it's almost devastating. I mean, the big revelation for me is like, I've seen this firsthand. And I focused on an issue and it may surprise a lot of people by what we're doing. I'm actually a very conservative republican, right? And, but I care about these things. And I think we let our politics and our, whatever issues may be for champions, this or that, we've let all that stuff get in the way. And it doesn't really matter if I'm a conservative republican and you're liberal democrat, we still have the same goals that we don't want these people to go hungry. And we don't want the food to get wasted. And we might argue about the degree in which it hurts. But I think we all kind of agree that it hurts the environment. So like, if we can put that stuff aside and just focus on the real issues, I think we could get somewhere with this, this whole thing. So, that's what we hope. We try to be very apolitical in what we're doing, we've had both sides of the aisle. Because we just believe it's something we all can support if we educate ourselves and get around this perception that it's somehow that much riskier than maybe what the food banks are doing, or any other restaurants because I don't think it's inherently that much more risky.

 

Dalia  58:32 

This, I'm getting so much good information out of this. I also assumed that it might be more risky, but when you explain it, it's not that serious. Like you said, we handle food every day, we know what the regulations are. Every school has a serve-safe certified person there; we know how to cool things. So, it's much less scary when you explain it, I guess it's all a matter of perception. And I appreciate that you brought in the politics a little because you're right, this can easily be a bipartisan issue. And a lot of people do assume that it's people who aren't contributing that tend to need help. But, it could easily be anyone and a friend of ours in another district who's also, she's a director. And sometimes we go to the capital to advocate for our kids, just different school nutrition related things were concerned about usually all, just typical stuff you see in the news, that sometimes doesn't seem bipartisan, but she always makes the point that no kids have jobs. So like, literally every child is financially unstable, because they're beholden to adults to take care of them. And it isn't, it doesn't make sense not to create a safety net for these children, when we will later all be dependent upon them. Obviously, we want them to do well, because their success is our success as a nation. And it's a lot of hard working, working class people who cannot feed their children all the time. And just because you need help, that doesn't mean you did something wrong, or that you're not, you know, doing what you're supposed to do as a hard working American. And we want to remove that stigma, because in some areas where we've had more success with like backpack programs, people are ashamed to admit that they need anything and some kids would rather not eat at all than admit that their food insecure. So really, the stigma has to go.

 

Jim Conklin  1:00:35 

Yeah, it's amazing. And I agree that's the case like, but like with, I can tell you with the two pilots that we have now, they're both 90 plus percent free and reduced lunch. Like three, three really great moments of this whole thing, Friday, being able to be there when the kids actually came and picked up the backpacks and you see their face, right? They're excited, they're excited to have food, right? When they announced at Elkhart community schools, to the cafeteria workers that they were going to do the program, they all applauded, right? And then the Monday after the first weekend, when they saw the kids face, after having been able to eat something over the weekend, we put eight meals in the backpack, assuming there's probably somebody else at home, struggling with food and might even be as a parent. And, so we try to pad a little bit on the food, too. So, if they have to share it, but to actually see the faces of the kids, for even if it is the maybe the parents aren't the most responsible people, right? Still shouldn't fall to the kids. Right? You mean, I just don't know how you can't get behind helping kids even if they happen to have irresponsible parents. That's, that's beyond my ability control. But man, if I could do something to help that child eat, in Madison more. We're, Steve McKenna, we're feeding a hundred kids. They have 700 kids, almost all of them on free reduced lunch. The pride issue is not an issue. They need the food. The food is a powerful motivator, actually. They were running a snack program at the school. And they, when they first started doing the snack program, they would put stars in the lockers. So the volunteers that came in and put the food in locker would know which locker to put it and once the kids started figuring that out, they started stealing stars.

 

Dalia  1:02:41 

Oh, wow.

 

Jim Conklin  1:02:42 

Because the need was so great. And so, the pride issue in the older community is a huge deal. But in a school where there's a ton of poverty, the need for food becomes a powerful motivator. What we kind of hope in this pilot is that, that we see better grades. We hand out the food on Friday, and they have to bring the backpack on Monday. And we did that because Friday, Monday tends to be the days with the highest absenteeism. And really, the only way out of poverty, at least in my opinion, is through education, right?

 

Dalia  1:03:17 

Oh, I think that's definitely true.

 

Jim Conklin  1:03:17 

And so, the kid has to be there. So, we're trying to motivate the kid to be there because he's going to get the food on for and even get the parents to have the kids there, he's going to get the food on Friday. And in order to get the next run, he has to bring the backpack on Monday. It's been a little hard to enforce. And we got to get better at it. But, we're really kind of wanting to look back organically at the data and say, "Hey, did we see it in percent increase in in attendance? Or 15?" And then how well did they do? You know, we have the teachers do surveys? Are you eating the food? How well is that child behaving after getting food, right? And so, what we're hoping is to document, at least on the surface level, that this program had a positive influence on a child's ability to learn, because if we can do that, that will help other programs get started.

 

Dalia  1:04:11 

Absolutely. Well, I look forward to seeing that data published. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I think that's going to be incredibly helpful for other people to hear. So if people want to connect with your organization more, where do we find you online?

 

Jim Conklin  1:04:29 

Yeah, so it's www.cultivateculinary.com, like us on Facebook, because we tend to share things, like information on Facebook, that people that might be interested in starting a program, that we'll share a lot of tips about what we're doing. And so you can organically gather that information. But, we are purposely putting together a package over the next four or five months to say, somehow we think this can help you get started, here's maybe some steps in which to do that. And, we'd probably be willing to have people come up and if they want to take a tour because we just did that. But, we have to kind of measure with that with our own time constraints so and so if somebody wanted to do that, we'll probably do that. But they can email us, that's the best thing to do. It's info@cultivateculinary.com because then we'll put you in our database. And as we purposely release information you'll be included in that release.

 

Dalia  1:05:29 

Perfect. Thank you so much. Thanks again for coming on.

 

Jim Conklin  1:05:34 

Sure. Yeah, appreciate it.

 

Dalia  1:05:36 

Yeah, just God bless you and keep doing what you're doing. I hope more of us follow in your footsteps.

 

Dalia  1:05:45 

So, Jim gave us a lot to think about. I hope after hearing how involved it can be that you're not discouraged but encouraged to reach out to your state agency or health department, to local stakeholders to see how your district or how you personally can be part of the child hunger solution. I'm so glad you joined us for another episode of School Nutrition Dietitian. Remember, we all grow by sharing. The only fee for this show is that you share it with others when you hear something useful. Hopefully, that will be every episode. Also, be sure to rate and review the show on iTunes. That really helps us out with visibility.

 

Theme Song  1:06:23 

[Theme music] School Nutrition Dietitian; here on a mission to show you fruits and vegetables can be super delicious. Eating healthy keeps you healthy on the inside, keep your stomach satisfied, and keep a clear mind. Now you're ready for your academics. Focused, time to handle business. Breakfast, you don't want to miss it. Help your body to replenish. Clean food, clear mind; that is the vision. Tune in to the School Nutrition Dietitian. [Fade]