Waste not, hunger not
They can’t keep the cucumber-pear-mint smoothies and salisbury steak on the shelves at Daily Table.
The food emporium in Dorchester’s Four Corners has been slammed in its first week, with 300 customers a day, and three times more locals than expected signing up for free memberships. Everybody who works at the store — the managers wheeling out food, the white-coated kitchen staff making carrot soup behind the big picture window, the cashiers in bright T-shirts — looks exhausted, and happy.
The customers are thrilled, too. On Thursday, Leta Bennett pored over the prepared foods in the cheery store with the green and orange walls on Washington Street. A hearty entree of salisbury steak and brown rice for $1.99? Or a tub of curry broccoli soup for $1.29? Bennett has visited the store every day since it opened June 4, delighting in its offerings: tuna for 55 cents a can; a pound and a half of pollock for $2.49; eggs for $1.29.
“It’s a wonderful place,” gushed the retiree. “The prices are phenomenal.”
For Bennett and other locals, who struggle to afford healthy food and who say they usually shop further from home, the store is life-changing. It is also world-changing — an ingenious solution to several of humanity’s most infuriating self-inflicted injuries.
Our forebears, who lived lives of struggle and deprivation, would be spinning in their graves at the obscene amounts of food we discard: As much as 40 percent of food produced in this country is wasted, along with 25 percent of the potable water supply, and the other resources required to produce it.
At the same time, one in six Americans is hungry. And that hunger isn’t just a matter of calories, but of nutrition: Some poor and working-class Americans live in neighborhoods served almost solely by junky fast-food outfits. And some can’t afford alternatives to the cheap, empty calories being pushed by corporations that make bank as we grow fat and sick.
The costs — depleted natural resources, an exploding health care system — fall on all of us.
“So why not use one problem to solve the other problem?” asked Doug Rauch, the former Trader Joe’s president who dreamed up Daily Table. He wasn’t the first person to think of this: The move to use our food surplus to solve our nutrition crisis has been gathering steam for years. Turning unlovely or discarded produce into gourmet fare has become a movement, including at The Gleanery — a restaurant in Putney, Vt., co-founded by Ismail Samad, a visionary young chef who is now the executive chef at Daily Table.
“How do you get people to eat surplus food?” Samad asked. “It’s marketing.”
When Daily Table was first proposed several years ago, some in the community worried that Rauch and others were foisting spoiled food on a poor neighborhood. Samad has helped convince them that most of the food we waste is perfect, falling prey not to rot but to the vagaries of distribution, or crazy aesthetic standards.
He leads a kitchen operation of mind-bending complexity: fielding surplus produce and other foods from local suppliers; tidying some of it up for the store’s fresh produce bins; chopping and freezing some for later; coming up with ways to turn each day’s bounty into ready-made soups, stews, and salads rich in nutrients and low in salt and sugar.
And it’s tasty stuff: The curry broccoli soup had nice kick; the salisbury steak was inhaled by this columnist’s family; the smoothie was peppy and sweet.
The key to making those foods more attractive than the buckets of salt and fat across the street at KFC is making them so cheap customers can’t pass them up.
As Rauch puts it, Daily Table is “a health care initiative masquerading as a retail store.” He plans more stores in Boston. The whole country needs them, desperately.
It is a gorgeous thing to see — the kind of innovation that is every bit as revolutionary as anything Kendall Square has produced. If it thrives, it will be a sign that our profligate generation has finally started to get its act together.
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave incorrect information on other grocery stores in the neighborhood. There are several nearby.