Last August, I explored food waste in America on the Millennial Trains Project, a crowdfunded, transcontinental train journey for future leaders. We went to seven U.S. cities all innovating to improve various facets of the food system: San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC.
With two years out of a three-year public health fellowship program at UNC Chapel-Hill, I needed inspiration and a direction in which to shape my own professional path. Because Americans throw out an astounding 40 percent of food each year, a value of $165 billion, my goal onboard the Millennial Train was to find ways to improve healthy food access for the 23.5 million people who live in food deserts, or areas that lack fresh fruit and vegetable options. I set out to answer two questions. The first was, “In what ways do people recover food destined for the landfill and reintroduce it to the market in a meaningful way?” And the second was perhaps the more daunting, “Where should I go with my career?”
Visiting pay-what-you-can Table Grace Café in Nebraska
On the trip I met with food policy experts and entrepreneurs striving to improve the food system. In San Francisco I talked with food waste experts at The Natural Resource Defense Council. In Salt Lake City I spoke with an anti-hunger advocate about offering purchase power to low-income families by selling healthy food at an affordable price. In Denver I met with MM Local, a company that partners with local farmers to save farm produce that is blemished and misshapen (and therefore not fit for farmer’s markets), by creating canned items such as peaches and tomato sauce. In Omaha I experienced my first pay-what-you-can restaurant, and in Chicago I met a CEO of a major health food company. I also visited The Plant, a renovated warehouse where small food-based businesses use the certified kitchen to smoke meat, bake bread and brew beer in Chicago's South Side. All the food waste produced by these various businesses are processed in an on-site anaerobic digester, which converts the food into biogas, and then energy used to power the warehouse.
Growhaus, an urban farm and food hub in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood of Denver.
Reflecting from my city tour experience, the on-train lectures and mentors helped me transition from learner to leader. The combination of city-led experiences and on-train leadership training summated into the courage I needed to evolve from thinking to action, because I talked to those on the ground making real world change.
At my home base in North Carolina, I continue to explore local food heroes in my blog, and speak about my experience on the Millennial Train at conferences, events and classrooms. I am committed to starting my own food business that flash freezes farm “seconds” and sells to universities, grocers, and corner stores in rural communities—so that all people have access to local, healthy, and sustainable food. I aim to increase profits for local farmers using sustainable farming practices, and increase the amount of local produce offered in retailers and institutions around the state. After only two months in UNC’s Launch the Venture course, a nine-month business startup class that takes an idea from inception to execution, my project has advanced in encouraging ways, as I will be representing UNC Chapel-Hill in a statewide social entrepreneurship competition.
The Millennial Trains Project propelled me to action – a risky, gray area full of the unknown. Though I am unsure where my project will lead me and what is next, from my vantage point all directions lead up.
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