In response to the global pandemic, Cook it Forward was founded in Madison by Joshua Berkson, Patrick Sweeney and Francesca Hong to tackle food insecurity in their community. “Our mission is to create an end-to-end distribution network to produce and distribute healthy, fresh meals for families, seniors, and those with disabilities experiencing food insecurity. We collaborate with local independent restaurants, nonprofits, local food banks, pantries and last-mile distribution partners, and pay each entity a fair market rate for each meal thereby uplifting the entire food system (and the community-at-large) including farmers, distributors, restaurant employees, delivery drivers, local nonprofits, and direct response providers.”
Can you talk a bit about food insecurity in Madison? Statistics can’t paint the whole picture. Food insecurity is especially difficult to characterize as it’s somewhat subjective. Food security is defined as the ability to obtain an adequately nutritious meal for all members of a household for each meal of the day. The City of Madison says, ”Food insecurity, or the lack of that consistent access, is a symptom of poverty. As such, the issue of food insecurity is extremely complex and requires a multifaceted approach to address underlying issues of poverty, such as housing, job access, education, transportation and food access.” In a white pages report from Public Health of Madison and Dane County: “According to the USDA, over one in 10 households (11.6 percent), totaling over a quarter million of all Wisconsin households, are food insecure.” Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap uses slightly different methodology to determine that 12.4 percent of all people and 20.4 percent of children in Wisconsin are food insecure as compared to 11.8 percent and 17.5 percent respectively in Dane County. A recent news report states that one in seven people suffer from food insecurity in Wisconsin. Second Harvest Food Bank asserts that one in six children in South Central Wisconsin suffers from food insecurity and meets nearly 1 million requests for meals a year.
What prompted the start of Cook it Forward? Cook It Forward was launched in June of 2020 as a first-of collaboration in Madison between local restaurants and local nonprofits to create an end-to-end distribution network to tackle food insecurity. We partnered with Madison restaurants to produce healthy, fresh individually packaged meals to local food banks, pantries and other sites, serving as an intermediary. Last-mile distribution partners ensured that the growing number of individuals and families who needed the food, and without recourse to access it, received it. With restaurants in Madison closing in March of 2020 and only reopening at a smaller capacity, we saw an untapped market.
What is the greatest reward in being involved with Cook it Forward? The biggest reward is being able to uplift our community on all ends, from the people getting the meals, to those delivering the meals, cooking the meals, and sourcing the product.
How have the needs of Cook it Forward evolved during the pandemic? Cook It Forward was started in response to the pandemic as a way to fight food insecurity while paying restaurant workers, farmers and delivery drivers who would have otherwise been out of work due to the shutdown. Since we are 100 percent donation-funded, ensuring that we have funds coming in now that restaurants are getting back on their feet and able to turn profits again, we are starting to shift our model so our restaurant partners are donors instead of recipients. With this shift, we are hoping to be able to quadruple the number of meals we are able to get out to our community this year.
What are your goals for 2021? In 2021, Cook It Forward anticipates it will be able to quadruple the amount of free individually packaged, chef-cooked, healthy meals delivered to households, including many families, seniors and those with disabilities who are unable to have access to traditional pantries. We will continue to fight food insecurity while uplifting the entire community food system including farmers, distributors, restaurant employees, delivery drivers, local nonprofits and direct response providers as needed. We anticipate many restaurants will get on their feet with a second round of stimulus, and the restaurant industry will increasingly get stronger as vaccinations become more prevalent and infection rates decrease. At that time, restaurants in our network will pivot from being a Recipient of donor contributions (to support their workers and pay their rent) to becoming a Contributor to Cook It Forward. We are developing criteria for our restaurants in 2021 so that our dollars are used as equitably as possible. This is the essence of what Cooking it Forward is about: cooking to support the entire food system with a focus on serving those in need. The result with this new model in 2021 is that Cook It Forward will fulfill our original mission to produce and distribute healthy, fresh meals for those experiencing food insecurity; increasing our support of nonprofit community kitchens; bringing on more restaurant partners; and producing many times the amount of donated meals thereby creating more impact in the community.
How can readers help? Donate and spread the word! We are on Instagram at @cookitforwardmadison and Facebook at Cook It Forward Madison and our website is www.cookitforwardmadison.com. Any donations help. If you aren’t able to donate, we appreciate a share. We are all launching a Community Cookbook in the late summer or early fall where all sales will be donated so keep an eye out for pre-sales in the next few months.