Meet the MISFITS: Doug Rauch / by Ann Yang

In June, 2015 Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe's, opened Daily Table in Dorchester, MA.  Daily Table is a non-profit grocery store that seeks to make nutritious food affordable and accessible. We recently spoke with Rauch about how he came to be a fierce advocate for food equity and his practical and scalable solutions to end hunger and wasting food.

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What is your favorite meal at Daily Table?

My favorite meal is a curry chickpea with brown rice because I’m a pescatarian and so I don’t eat chicken or beef.  So they do a curried chickpea and brown rice entrée that I particularly like, and it’s a $1.49 for a beautifully prepared entrée so it’s a great deal.

Why is it that you’re a pescatarian?

Two reasons. One is environmental, the carbon footprint for beef is high and second I wanted to lower my cholesterol, it’s been about five years now.  The paleo-Mediterranean diet, there’s a lot more research and valuable information behind it than a lot of the others things that are out there.

When did you first become an advocate against produce prejudice?

I think it came out of a fellowship that I did at Harvard, the "Advanced Leadership Initiative" designed around taking people at the end of careers that want to use the university to really study some major social challenges and see if they could find ways to tackle them at scale. The one that I was most interested was called "Hunger and Obesity in America." I think it’s becoming an absolutely unacceptable issue because it’s a healthcare tsunami about to hit us in cost and from a moral, justice standpoint, that one in six Americans and seventeen million kids aren’t able to eat nutrition that they need everyday to be able to develop properly, is just sad, particularly in light of how much food we have.  It’s not that we’re short of food, and having coming out of the food industry I knew this.  There is a lot of food.  We are the richest nation in the history of the world in food production. And so the idea that there are people in our society that are not enjoying a nutritious and healthy meal because of economics just does not seem right.

In your Atlantic interview you speak about dignity as a key component to why Daily Table does not function on the same pricing system as a food bank or soup kitchen. As you note, a majority of food insecure are the working poor. Can you speak more about the working poor in relation to dignity and food insecurity?

Well first of all I think that dignity is a fundamental human need that everyone has regardless of your economic status, regardless of what country you’re in.  I think that there’s just a basic need for all of us to feel respect, to feel a sense of dignity, a sense of self-worth. I think there are some structural flaws in a donor-based solution where people are getting handouts.  I think that there are structural problems as far as being able to do that in a manner that people feel a real sense of self-worth.  It is inherently difficult to deliver dignity while you’re giving a handout—not that it’s impossible, just that it’s tough. 

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I think that Daily Table was designed around how do we make certain that we’re not losing a large part of the population that would otherwise use services they need but won’t because of dignity or self-respect.  This came frankly out of conversations I had with the C.E.O and president of Feeding America back in 2010, Vicki Escarra, who at the time told me that 38% of the people in Illinois that qualified for SNAP or could use the services of a food bank didn’t use them and the main reason, dignity.  The feeling of being ashamed, or self-worth, and that’s when I said well, anything we do that’s going to be sustainable, as a solution to 49 million Americans, has got to build up a sense of self-worth and dignity, if it doesn’t do that, we’re kind of coming in losing.

What does an equitable food system pave the way for in our society and our environment?

I don’t think any of the systems we have, food systems, etc. stand-alone.  I think they are all part of an economic system, they are part of an educational system, they are part of a whole class system and so I think that for me what it helps pave the way for is a community that can develop to its full potential.  That when you’re not eating what you should be eating, starting certainly with birth all the way up to age four, if you’re not getting the nutrients you need, you run the high risk of being stunted and of not having neurological development.  And you can eat all of the kale and pomegranates and blueberries from age five on you want and you’ll never catch up. So first of all I think it’s inherent, or incumbent, upon us as a society to make sure that our kids get the nutrition that they need, so that’s one. 

Second, I think that when you don’t eat, here’s basically the way I put it: a really good productive life depends upon good health, if you don’t have good health it’s tough to have a good life.  Good health depends upon a good diet.  You can’t eat things that are horrible for your health day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, and expect not to have negative effects and we’re seeing that all across American society.  Diet is the fundamental basis of good health, which is the basis of a good life.  That diet should be available to six out of six, not five out of six, Americans.  We owe to ourselves as a society, we owe it to each other, and even if you don’t want to do it for the sake of someone else, just do it for the fact that the society, the community we live in, is going to get held back if one out of every six of us can’t live up to our potential.

"Diet is the fundamental basis of good health, which is the basis of a good life.  That diet should be available to six out of six, not five out of six, Americans." 

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What educational resources are necessary to create wiser and more compassionate consumers?

Well first of all if we’re really going to have the quote 'average consumer' care about this issue all of us have got to stop calling it food waste.  Those two words should never be used again.  Because no one in America wants a second helping of food waste—it sounds disgusting.  They don’t get emotionally involved like "Oh yeah!! We got to cut back on food waste! We got to stop flushing less stuff down the toilet!" No one’s going to get excited about that.  So I think of waste is the noun, food is the modifier.  Where does this waste come from? Oh, it came from food.  Oh, okay, that was interesting—but I don’t really care. What it really is, is wasted food.  You take the two words and you flip them and it changes the entire emotional relationship towards it.  How many people are in favor of wasting more good food? Not too many.  And when you do that, you can get more people emotionally involved, like, "Yeah, why are we wasting food?"

Well we are wasting it because of confusing code dates; we’re wasting it because of perverse meaning of good. You know, we only ship beautiful looking stuff to the grocery store and if the carrot’s crooked, well, you know, or we’ve got supply chains that are so long now that a banana that is just starting to turn yellow, meh, it’s too late! Can’t ship it through the supermarket chain because by the time it gets there it might be yellow and gosh, they don’t accept them at that color.  So I think that we’ve got a lot of challenges that are out there for education, and for the end user, the customer, the consumer. 

Our habits, and what we request, and what we demand, have got to change.  So as long as we’re walking in a grocery store and demanding that they’ve got every perishable product in the world, in stock and looking good, up to five minutes before they close, there’s going to be a lot of wasted food at the end of the day.  Businesses exist to fulfill the needs of the customers.  And if you’re not, you’re doing so at great peril because the marketplace will punish you.  So, having been in the grocery business for a lot of years I can tell you that if you’re store looks gutted in perishables at 8 o’clock at night, you know an hour before you close say, customers complain and will tell you, I’m going elsewhere if you don’t fix this. And you can go oh man we’re juicing the amount of food we throw out isn’t that awesome! And they can say, ‘oh we like that, but we’re here to buy food.’ And if I can’t get my favorite food, or my loaf of bread, or my soup or my this, you know I’m just going to go somewhere else.  So I think there’s a challenge and a conflict between the theoretical of what we’d want to achieve and the actual of how we practice it in our daily lives.

"Our habits, and what we request, and what we demand, have got to change." 

Have consumers made progress in these attitudes and expectations of businesses, and in particular food businesses?

I don’t see it. I mean I read a lot about it, I hear a lot about it, but I still go into restaurants that give me way more food than I should eat, as a portion size.  I still look at grocery stores that filled to the brim on perishables until the moment they close.  If this is something that’s got everyone’s attention, I’m just not seeing it show up in the marketplace yet.

What would you like to foster in the national discussion on food systems and sustainability?

More awareness. No one likes to talk about the main and largest culprit.  The largest amount of wasted food in America occurs in the home—not in the grocery store, not in the fields, it occurs in the home.  Why does it occur in the home?  Well lots of reasons.  Just think about yourself.  I imagine that there are times you don’t use everything you buy—probably for a couple of reasons. One, you went out a few more times than you thought you would.  Or when you go and shop you don’t actually plan your meals out, you just go and get a bunch of stuff—‘that looks like the right amount of stuff.’  You don’t really think—"how many nights will I eat at home this week?" "Hmm.. let me see… do I feel like salad five times this week?" So we don’t do any meal planning, we tend to go out and just shop as general consumers, fill up our grocery carts.  And then we end up wasting a bunch of food because we didn’t really plan it through, we didn’t really think it through, we bought larger sizes, larger amounts than we probably should have.

We also are quite frankly terrified of code dates.  So if honey gets past it’s best by date we’ll throw it out and honey lasts forever, honey has no expiration date.  There is no date at which honey is bad. Yet you go into any grocer, you go to the squeezing bear, the clover bear honey, you’ll see a best-by, a sell-by or a use-by on it, so we’ve gone nuts on display codes, we’ve gone nuts on code dates.  They’re no longer serving, in my opinion, any kind of food safety issue, they’re more rotational display codes.

What is next for Daily Table?  How’s it going? What are you excited about moving forward?

We’ve been open five months.  I’m excited over the fact that the response from the community has just been overwhelmingly positive.  It’s really been great to see how responsive customers have been to the fact that we do offer them affordable nutrition, food that’s really good that’s going to move them forward not hold them back.  We offer both grab and go, ready made meals and then an assortment of dry groceries, dairy, produce and that stuff. Sales have been increasing every month. Our customers count, we’re a membership store, there is free membership, anyone is welcome to shop there, but we track it to make certain that we’re serving predominately our target audience, which is people that are struggling and need some help.  As of the end of October, from the time we’ve opened, 83 or 85% of our consumer base has come from economically challenged areas right around the store, so we are indeed fulfilling that mission and that charter as a non-profit.  I am really pleased. 

"85% of our consumer base has come from economically challenged areas right around the store, so we are indeed fulfilling that mission and that charter as a non-profit.  I am really pleased." 

The challenges are that is tough to recover food. It seems like, "Oh my gosh! There’s so much food! Thirty to forty percent of food in America is being wasted!" Yeah well a lot of that is in homes, we can’t use that, a bunch of it is out in fields in Iowa, tough to get to, a bunch of it is in grocery stores with a label that they don’t want you to sell, cause I don’t want you taking my product down the street and selling it at discount. So there’s a lot of barriers to recover food that are economic or market-based and so we’ve really had our challenges making sure we have enough product. But we put together, a little more than fifty percent of what we sell in our store has been recovered, it’s product that would have been wasted.  The other fifty percent is from relationships we’ve formed, we either buy it at deep discounts as a non-profit or we get from relationships we have with local manufacturers and suppliers.  So our challenge is to get to break even. We’re not there yet. If we do get to break even, we will be quite honestly, that I know of, that is in the hunger relief space that is breaking even.  So it’s a goal that we’ve set for ourselves.  We’re probably about 75-80% of the way there in the first five months now and if we get the rest of the 20% there we will have reached the Holy Land, in my opinion.