With urgency to get food to a growing number of hungry people in our state, it is unlikely that nutritiousness is the top priority. Greg Pavett wants to change that. As founder and executive director of Minneapolis-based Humanity Alliance, Pavett has long been alarmed by the surging number of Americans with diabetes, as well as cardiovascular and pulmonary disease — particularly because so many of them are also food insecure. His nonprofit organization addresses both health disparities and hunger. Its first program rescues food about to be discarded and turns it into high-quality and healthful meals delivered to families who lack access to good-tasting nutrition.
Q: Your previous venture prepared you well for this. Tell us about it.
A: Fifteen years ago, I started “It’s Fresh,” a business that licensed, developed and launched a packaging technology to naturally extend the freshness of fruits and vegetables, keeping waste out of landfills. We were able to reduce waste at a big retailer, preventing up to 44%, giving them a two-to-four times return on their investment.
Q: But eventually your heart was elsewhere.
A: I was no longer in sync with the mission of a big corporation. But I kept thinking about what we had accomplished and the simple cost/benefit equation we used in our previous business. Grocery stores weren’t the only ones dealing with so much food waste. Food banks, food shelves and people receiving the produce also threw a lot in the dumpster. When I learned about the billions of dollars we are spending to care for chronic diseases like diabetes, over $5 billion in Minnesota alone, and as I witnessed the food we were providing to people most in-need, it wasn’t difficult to draw a direct line to a simple solution with measurable social, financial and environmental benefits.
Q: You use the word “catastrophic” when talking about health outcomes related to hunger. Connect the dots.
A: According to a study from Carrot Health, 88% of the newest Medicaid recipients have been found to have undocumented diabetes, cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, which is nearly four times higher than the general population. I served on the board of Venture Academy, a charter school working with entrepreneurs of tomorrow. More than 90% of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. Along with their teacher, Andrew Lawton, we asked them what they wanted to focus on and they said, “We need to tackle nutrition.” They told me their families were falling apart — diabetes and high blood pressure featured in their families. It took the students 10 minutes to decide that reversing chronic disease in their extended families was their No. 1 problem to solve.
Q: Where do you begin to address a massive challenge like this?
A: We don’t have to view this as a big system change. We’re just turning up the dial from a 4 to a 7. The student-inspired program uses excess capacity, in this case food that would have been wasted, to provide access to great-tasting, ready-to-enjoy meals. It started as a small pilot with a grant from Youthprise, and has grown fourfold since COVID-19. It shows what’s possible.
Q: How many meals have you created in total?
A: Since December of 2019, we’ve rescued more than 5,000 pounds of quality ingredients, including fresh fruit, vegetables, turkey and ham. Our chef Kirk Traxler has turned that into more than 3,700 high-quality and nutritious meals: Strawberry banana smoothies with protein powder, breakfast sausage, fresh salads, chicken, wild rice soup, yogurt with granola, turkey and mashed potatoes. While we are currently using what we rescue for this program, we are always looking at ways to showcase the beauty of ingredients and recipes from around the world.
Q: I’m guessing food shelves are relieved.
A: There’s definite relief. Anything we can move out of the dumpster helps them and, obviously, they love our mission.
Q: Aside from food shelves, who else are you working with?
A: We’ve received donations from Lowry Hill Meats, the Elliot Park Hotel and Deli Express, among others. It’s great. I deeply dislike the phrase “Beggars can’t be choosers.” I want to ask instead, how do we bring access, love and dignity forward and help families start to thrive again?
Q: How has the coronavirus complicated delivery efforts?
A: We text in advance and deliver food to their doorstep. They don’t have to come out until we’ve left.
Q: Do you charge for the meals?
A: Right now, our effort is supported by a grant and Venture Academy. Our original intention was to test a pay-what-you-can program. One recipient said, “I don’t have any money but maybe I could help you write grants.” We can elevate each other with this approach.
Q: Your revelatory moment occurred at a shelter when you saw the bags of food being offered to people. What do you remember?
A: I looked inside and it held a can of pumpkin pie filling, one leftover K cup and two packages of mustard. It was not only missing nutritional value but love and dignity. I carry that bag with me today. It’s a reminder of how vigilant we have to be. We have to serve people in the way they want to be served, not the way we want to serve people.