When its major suppliers suddenly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in early March, Cultivate Food Rescue founder Jim Conklin became worried.
Some of the organizations that have provided nonprofits with least-served food for reuse for the needy, including Notre Dame, Four Winds Field, caterers, schools and restaurants, will now cease operating for an unknown amount of time.
“We thought, oh no, where does our food come from?” Said Conklin.
But he quickly learned that Cultivate suppliers, including some who usually didn’t have much extra to donate, needed to empty their refrigerators and freezers and didn’t want to dump their contents in the trash.
His cultivation went from saving about 30,000 pounds of food every month to 100,000 pounds.
Cultivation has continued to increase the amount of food it handles since Conklin founded it with chef Randy “Randy Z” Ziolkowski in 2017, saving more than 42,000 pounds that year, 98,000 in 2018, and 132,000 last year. That growth prompted a move in January to a larger facility on Prairie Avenue with more cooking and storage capacity.
This year to mid-December, Cultivate has saved more than 756,000 pounds, about 73% of the four-year total of 1.28 million pounds. One might wonder if Conklin, initially afraid of a shortage due to the pandemic, would then worry that things had gone too far in the other direction – leaving him with too much food to process. After all, reducing food waste is at the core of its mission.
But Conklin said that was not a problem because of the growing needs of society this year, with so many people losing their jobs.
Cultivate has also received assistance to adapt to this year’s upgrade from enFocus, a South Bend-based nonprofit that is hiring recent college graduates to provide project consultancy to nonprofits and governments.
“Cultivates know they need to look internally to understand, hey, maybe we should start looking at our internal operations and make sure nothing gets into that gap so we can grow with this new influx of donations,” said Maxx Hamm, an enFocus associate who obtained a Masters degree in non-profit administration from Notre Dame and has been paired with Cultivate. “One of their main principles is that they don’t want any food to be wasted. They can only process that much food. “
EnFocus has helped Cultivate implement a better system for tracking incoming food. EnFocus has also contacted kitchens to ask them how best to receive food.
Conklin said after this year the amount of food going into Cultivate was likely to decline, but he didn’t expect to return to pre-pandemic volumes because Cultivate had formed so many new partnerships. Suppliers are sometimes hesitant to start donating because they fear responsibility or it will take staff too long, but they end up realizing that it is “very simple,” he said.
Community foundations and private donors have also started giving Cultivate money to buy food. During the pandemic, the USDA and Prairie Farms dairy processors have provided Cultivate milk to feed to kitchens and schools.
While enjoying support from more than 125 volunteers, Cultivate has also gone from four employees who were paid at the start of the year to nine now.
“People in trouble, they borrow with credit cards; they take money from their retirement account; they rob Peter to pay Paul; they stop paying their mortgage, “said Conklin. “It takes a long time to recover if you don’t make a lot of money. So, this need for food will last well beyond the tidal wave of the pandemic. “
Surprisingly, for all its costs, the pandemic has helped Conklin’s organization and mission.
“One of the things the pandemic is doing is highlighting food insecurity,” he said. “I think the general public, like I did when I first discussed this, is becoming a little more aware of how people struggle with food every day. This actually gives us a chance to show how we can help an advertising agency that has been around for some time fill in some gaps. “
The pandemic has allowed Cultivate to develop more of its main function, its backpack program, where it prepares a pack of nutritionally balanced frozen meals to send home with low-income elementary school students over the weekend, to distribute more food to the kitchen. Kitchens throughout the St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall usually lacked freezer space for food storage.
“We think we can take odd amounts of food and then slowly distribute it to them because they need it in the quantity and size they need,” said Conklin. “When someone comes into the kitchen, they can’t bring home a 30-pound box of grapes or blueberries, but they can take a pound of blueberries home. It’s kind of a new program that is being perfected in this pandemic. “