‘Everyone Should Have the Right to Affordable Nutrition’

Andrea Barbalich

Tell me about the concept for Daily Table. Where did you get the idea, and why do you feel this is important?
The idea was hatched out of a fellowship I was doing at Harvard, and it came at the intersection of two challenges: One is that about 40 percent of the food we grow in this country is not consumed. At the same time one in six Americans are struggling economically to eat properly. For most of these 49 million people, a shortage of calories is not the problem. It’s a shortage of nutritious food that is affordable. So I thought we could use one problem to solve the other by providing good, healthy, affordable food in a retail setting in low-income neighborhoods.

And the food you sell would otherwise go to waste.
Yes. It’s fruits and vegetables that don’t look perfect and therefore can’t be sold in a conventional supermarket, or it’s food that’s past its expiration date on the package but is still perfectly fine to eat. We get some of the food donated, and we buy some of it at steeply discounted prices. About half of our sales come from produce, bread, dairy, and other groceries, and the other half comes from ready-to-eat meals we’ve made in our on-site kitchen, at an average price of $1.29 per pound. Everything is freshly prepared and meets nutrition guidelines set by the Harvard School of Public Health and other organizations we work with. Everything is also SNAP-eligible, so people who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can pay with those funds. We are a health initiative masquerading as a retail store.

How important is the retail concept to what you’re doing?
It’s essential. One of the largest challenges in hunger relief is dignity. Most people don’t want a handout. Most people won’t go to soup kitchens because they’re too proud. So they’ll buy food that isn’t nutritious instead. In our store people come in and shop as they would anywhere else, and what they find are products that taste good and are affordably priced and convenient.

Photography by Samara Vise for Daily Table

How do you get people to bypass fast-food restaurants and come to Daily Table instead?

Well, we don’t lead with “Hey, come in and get low-sodium food.” We lead with “Come in and get delicious, convenient, affordable food that will help you feel your best.” And when they come in they’re blown away by the prices. They can get a steak entrée with potatoes and vegetables for $2.99, bananas at 29 cents a pound, apples at 49 cents a pound, cereal for 79 cents a box. It’s a clean, bright, upbeat place, and we have a big window that allows people to look into the kitchen and see our chefs cooking. Customers feel emotionally connected and think, “Wow, they’re preparing my meal for me right now.”

The statistics on how much food is wasted while so many people go hungry are astonishing. It’s amazing that no one thought of this before.
One reason for that is that most people call it “food waste.” Nobody wants a second helping of waste. If we turn those two words around and start calling it what it really is—“wasted food”—we can start to get somewhere. It’s not waste. It’s food, and a lot of it is wholesome, healthy, and delicious.

There’s also a lot of confusion about expiration dates. What do you want people to know about them?
Originally these dates were intended to help retailers rotate their stock and offer merchandise at peak quality. But it’s gotten out of hand, to the point where customers are getting confused and thinking they can’t consume a product past the date on the package. Bottles of water now have “best by” dates on them. Cans of tuna that last for 20 years have expiration dates. These codes are completely unrelated to food safety. So what I would tell people is that these are not expiration dates; they are display codes. Some things are trickier than others, of course. People ask me, “If my milk says ‘sell by October 13,’ how long after that can I consume it?” And the answer to that is, “It depends”—on the temperature of your refrigerator, how long you leave the milk on the counter before putting it away, and so on. No retailer can tell you with any definity, but the truth is that if you store it properly it will last past its code. Bread past its code will last weeks in the refrigerator before it starts to get moldy.

You have one Daily Table store open in Dorchester, Massachusetts, right now. How’s it going?
We’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the positive response in the community—it’s been deeply gratifying and humbling. We’re still new, so of course we’re struggling with operational issues—how to be efficient, how to get the word out when we don’t have money for advertising, radio, or billboards. A lot of people don’t know we exist yet. But we do have 6,200 members so far, and we expect that to grow. We’re also looking for a second site in Boston as well as other locations around New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and L.A.

How can people help you achieve your mission?
The obvious way is to go on our website and donate. We’re a nonprofit, and we’re losing money right now. Our needs are primarily operational, and we’re honored to receive anything. But also, I encourage people to work in their own community to help people who are struggling. We need to change the narrative in America. Everyone should have the right to affordable nutrition—and particularly the 17 million kids who are food insecure.

What is your dream for Daily Table and beyond?
My dream would be that poverty ends and affordable nutrition throughout the world becomes like the air we breathe. This isn’t a matter of “We don’t know what causes it and how to cure it.” We know what causes hunger and nutritional deficiencies. We know what’s fueling the rise in diabetes among children. We can solve this, and we owe it to ourselves and our fellow citizens to do so.

To find out more about Daily Table, visit dailytable.org.

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