When chef Jenny DeVivo arrives at the loading dock at Cronig’s on Friday at 9 am, she finds five large boxes full of food. It’s one of three days a week she “rescues” food there. For close to ten years, local nonprofits have been going to Cronig’s Market to rescue food that used to go to waste. Today, DeVivo finds a wealth of produce in very good shape: collards, broccoli, peas, potatoes, lemons, and more. In this batch, there are a couple of dragon fruits she’ll save and share with the kids for fun in the after-school program at the Martha’s Vineyard Boys & Girls Club, she’ll take the food she’s collected.
She sorts through each box on the spot. First, she checks some green peppers. Most look good or have a spot or two that can be removed when she cuts them up. She doesn’t take anything she won’t use, so she tosses a few into the Cronig’s compost bin. Today, because she knows she has plenty of frozen bread, she leaves a box of Pain D’Avignon multi-grain loaves and baguettes that were tossed to make room for the new bread that comes in daily. There are some yogurt six-packs missing one yogurt and cereal boxes with a tear in the box. The predominant haul consists of some two dozen boxes of mixed baby lettuces, arugula, and spinach. The arugula looks bright green and fluffy. Much of this food has been stamped with “best if used by” or “buy-before” dates, and grocery stores discard items once those dates have been reached. But according to manufacturers and the FDA, these dates indicate peak quality, not safety. (Read more about food labels here.) “There’s so much misunderstanding of what’s good and what’s bad,” says DeVivo. “The waste is mind-boggling.”
Another source of what she and other island rescuers find are so-called “mispicks.” These are deliveries of food the grocery store did not order and does not regularly carry, so the items don’t register in its computerized shelving and pricing system. That’s how six cases of granola bars with a September 6 sell-by date ended up on the back door loading dock to give away. Cronig’s former owner Steve Bernier, now a store employee, says the volume of potential waste has only increased since the pandemic. He points to skyrocketing errors, inefficiency, and lack of employees at distribution sites where food comes from. “We’re trying to make lemonade and to think positively,” Bernier says. “So it’s working in some crazy way to get things to the back door to help people. It feels better.”
Too Good to Go
DeVivo never knows what might be waiting for her from week to week on one of her three assigned pick-up days. “I kind of treat everything a little like an adventure,” she says. Today she finds several Pie Chicks pies, made with care in the bakery just feet away from Cronig’s. Pie Chicks owner Chrissy Kinsman says the pies get stamped with a date four days from when they are baked. After that, Cronig’s employees direct any unsold pies to the back door loading dock. “Jenny is committed to rescuing food, and she is willing to put in the time and effort,” says Carol, a long-time volunteer who helps coordinate the weekly rescue food pickups and deliveries from Cronig’s. “She cares about the quality of food people get, and she cares about food waste.” Steve Bernier is more than happy to see this good food get used, rather than being tossed. “I see Jen with her passion and her drive,” he says. “She and others are leading us down this path, and it’s our job to listen about how to do it. It’s a beautiful journey.”
DeVivo started rescuing food when she was head school chef at the West Tisbury School, a position she held for 10 years. There, she and others helped transform kids’ lunches from canned and institutional foods that arrived on a truck to fresh and nutritious meals cooked from scratch. She supplemented these meals with local and sustainably produced food from Vineyard farms, locally donated fresh fish, and rescued produce — exactly what she now does at the Boys & Girls Club. “Everyday, I love it more,” she says about her mission. “Rescuing perfect, healthy, delicious food is what I love to do.” Some of her instagram taglines tell the story of her food recovery even better: #SavetheFood, #TooGoodtoGo, #RethinkFood, #SustainableFood, and #GoodFoodforGood.
When she arrives back at the Boys & Girls Club, Jenny makes a number of decisions about how the food she’s rescued will be allocated and used. Some of it will go toward the preparation of two snacks for the eighty to eighty-five Island students who come in after school every day. Some will go into the club’s “Blue Door Pantry,” where food is free to all of its 267 members. And some will stock two “Grab & Go” refrigerators at the club entrance; parents who pass by when dropping kids off or picking them up can take fresh foods or prepared meals, free of charge. When Dhakir Warren, a former vice principal at the MV Regional High School, became executive director of the club in 2021, he decided to widen the availability of healthy and nutritious foods not only to the kids when they’re at the club, but also to their families.
On this day, the fresh foods families can choose from include Bolthouse OJ, containers of Camembert cheese, cut up broccolini or cauliflower, and the boxed lettuces. “The best part is that they can get fresh produce they maybe can’t normally afford,” DeVivo says. (Boxed baby spinach and lettuces are priced at $7.49 in the supermarket, and Bolthouse juice retails for $10.99 a quart.) She lets families know what’s available and answers questions daily, passing along her knowledge and experience. “We discuss the sell-by dates, how to reheat, how to freeze, or suggestions on food preparation. It varies, depending on what is in the fridge.”
A Community Effort
Rescued food constitutes between 40 and 100 percent of each day’s prepared snacks and meals at the club. Cronig’s is a prime source, but farms like Grey Barn, Slough Farm, Morning Glory, and others contribute as well. Today’s meal includes Vineyard-raised organic bratwurst donated by the Grey Barn in Chilmark. Farm owner Eric Glasgow contributed the bratwurst, a type of German sausage made from pork, straight from the freezer because he was simplifying the farm’s offerings and discontinuing the bratwurst. “So it was great Jenny was in a position to take all that I had on hand,” Glasgow says. DeVivo combined the bratwurst with rescued kale, potatoes, and sauerkraut — an example of a 100 percent rescued meal. A previous pasta dinner this week featured fresh artichokes and eggplant collected from Cronig’s and then roasted and mixed with pesto. Yesterday’s rescued flatbreads and tomato sauce turned into pizzas (though DeVivo purchased the cheese toppings). Dessert might be a Pie Chicks pie or some crispy, tasty Tate’s-brand cookies from the Katama General Store, which had just dropped off a large unopened cardboard box filled with bags of Tate’s gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. When she gets too much food, DeVivo freezes it – usually all sliced and diced, ready to be roasted or sauteed. “The freezer is my best friend,” she notes. Yogurt or milk with sell-by dates, as well as rescued strawberries or blueberries, get frozen for smoothies. DeVivo thinks on her feet, since each day brings different ingredients. For today’s snack, she decides on French toast with the eggs she’s collected and bread from the freezer, served with some bacon. Tomorrow it could be tacos, depending on what’s come in.
A Tiny Kitchen with a Big Heart
When the Boys & Girls Club started serving Island youth in 1938, its founders probably never imagined 800 to 900 meals would be cooked in the kitchen each week — some 30,000 meals just since last October. DeVivo accomplishes this in a rather tiny, 230-square-foot kitchen, equipped with two portable, plug-in induction burners, a small kitchen sink, and very little counter space. Luckily, it has a commercial oven with multiple shelves.
The chef, staff, and director are all very much looking forward to breaking ground on a new 25,000-square-foot club building, either this coming September or in the spring of 2024. Director Warren says that most everything in the current 11,000-square foot space is outdated and frayed at the edges. The club’s capital campaign raised roughly $10 million for a building estimated to cost $10.5 to $12 million. Now, with an inflated economy and rising construction costs everywhere, the price tag has risen to over $15 million, and the club must scramble to raise the additional money. The new building will have a commercial kitchen double the size of the current one, space to teach cooking classes, and other updates including a STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, Math) lab, a digital tech center, and an arts studio.
The Blue Door Pantry
With food prices soaring since Covid and housing costs climbing, Warren said that he and the staff noticed families becoming even more stretched. After he implemented the Grab & Go fridges, DeVivo helped him launch the pantry when she began working at the club in 2022. “From taking my vision for a food pantry and bringing it to life, stocking, partnering and management, soups to nuts, Jen has played a critical role in taking this food project to the next level,” Warren says.
The Blue Door Pantry, located for the time being in an extra closet space, opens from 4 to 6 pm each Wednesday and Friday for club members to pick up non-perishable food items as well as some essential hygiene products provided to the club at wholesale costs. Warren calls it 1-stop shopping, and says it can help eliminate the choice for some members between buying toothpaste or buying milk. “It’s an added resource for our club members, and it helps support food security among our community,” DeVivo says.
Students and the Future
Along with ensuring good nutrition for kids in the after-school program each day, DeVivo likes to involve the students in any aspects of her work that interest them. In between academic work and sports, they might prep in the kitchen or help set up the pantry. When I offered to process the boxes of fresh strawberries from Cronig’s that day, DeVivo said that’s a task the kids like to do. The few dozen potatoes that came in Friday’s rescue were used in Monday’s cooking class. Students watched as Jenny used a food processor to shred the potatoes, then donned protective gloves to mix in eggs and flour and nestle the mix in muffin trays for “potato bird nests.” After baking, they sampled their work. “I want the parents to feel that their kids are cared for after school,” says DeVivo. And she wants kids to see all aspects of where food comes from, how it’s cooked, and how not to waste food. She and Warren say the club plans next to launch a mobile classroom food truck. They’ll bring the food truck/bus to farms, fish markets, and other food purveyors. “It’s a culinary classroom that’s going to connect children to their local food sources,” DeVivo explains.