Prior to COVID-19, an estimated 37 million Americans were food insecure, with limited and uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods. Since the start of the outbreak—due to the pandemic’s impact on jobs—nearly 17 million additional people now face food insecurity in the U.S., accounting for a 46 percent increase.
The effects of this crisis have been felt across the country, and in cities where larger restaurant cultures exist, they have been particularly grim. Among them is New York City. A shelter-in place-order from mid-March through early June saw thousands of restaurants suddenly close and leave millions of people out of work. “This had an almost immediate trickle-down effect on so many other areas,” says Jill Zucker, a McKinsey senior partner and leader of the New York office. “During April, food pantries and soup kitchens suddenly reported running out of food with a spike in first-time visitors.”
In an effort to support and give back to this community, Jill and other McKinsey colleagues from the New York office quickly formed a team and began pro-bono work with the non-profit Rethink Food. Historically, the non-profit had worked with restaurants and corporate cafeterias to donate their excess food to community-based organizations. “When COVID-19 began, we wanted to find the best way to use our capital to feed people safely while keeping businesses running,” says Matt Jozwiak, founder and CEO at Rethink Food.
To provide immediate short-term support to industry employees, McKinsey and Rethink Food developed Rethink Certified, a program where participating restaurants commit to making a certain number of meals in their kitchens each week, over a twelve-week period, which then get donated to community-based organizations. “As a native New Yorker, it was painful and scary to see the pandemic’s impact on this city—both from a humanitarian and livelihood perspective,” says Tejas Shah, an associate partner at McKinsey. “On a personal level, watching my wife on the frontlines as a physician made me feel even more compelled to find a way to help any way I could.”
From April through July, Rethink Food raised $10 million to fund Rethink Certified. Not only did those contributions support two million meals made across 40-plus restaurant partners, they also helped create over 100 jobs. “Our goal is to create lasting change in our communities, and the Rethink Certified model will feed those in need while helping to stabilize restaurants—not just in times of crisis," says Matt. “As a former culinary professional, I see the benefit of the additional, predictable revenue stream restaurants will receive to prepare meals for their local community based organizations.”
“My background is in cooking,” Matt explains, “so having a team that could help structure what the program would look like and help answer questions about which restaurants should participate, or how to match restaurants with community organizations in an efficient way, was critical.”
In addition to helping scale the Restaurant Response Program quickly, the McKinsey team helped Rethink Food redesign its organizational structure. “To keep up with all the changes they were pursuing, Rethink Food needed to make a number of key hires to give Matt leverage and support the organization's exponential growth,” says Doug Patterson, an engagement manager at McKinsey. “Our team worked with them to define the organizational changes and process improvements that would be required to maintain their momentum.” By early summer, a new COO and CFO had been hired—two new roles to the organization.
Elsewhere, colleagues from Aberkyn, a McKinsey company of change facilitators, worked with Matt to help develop his leadership style, manage his team relationships, and improve ways of working with the board of directors and other stakeholders.
Once Rethink Certified was up and running, the team began work to help sustain its efforts—and create a more equitable food system at large. Doug explains that the certification program established a national "always on" source of meals for those in need. “By having a network of restaurants already in place, operationally set up and paired with community-based organizations for distribution, Rethink Food's partners can mobilize in real-time to meet elevated needs in future crises." Unlike the pressure food banks had from rising meal demands with COVID-19’s onset, scaling this type of program across the country ensures the right infrastructure will be in place for when we’ll need it.
Similar to LEED certification for buildings, being Rethink Certified signifies a restaurant’s commitment towards a more sustainable and equitable food system. “Once you have it, you’re branded as part of the network—visible to consumers on online platforms like food delivery and reservation services,” says Doug. Additionally, the program includes a rating system whereby community-based organizations rate restaurants' performance to ensure they consistently meet program standards.
“We’ve always wanted to bring restaurants and community centers closer to each other and felt this would help enhance the level of transparency between the two and ensure restaurants feel accountable for their actions,” Matt explains. Rethink Certified program participants must commit to making 50,000 meals a year and in return, Rethink Food will fund them $250,000.
Since launching this summer, over 600 restaurants have applied to get certified. The first Rethink Certified restaurant was Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park where chef, owner, and Rethink Food co-founder Daniel Humm has praised the program for enabling restaurants to make feeding their communities a part of a long-term business model. “I don’t want to just cook for the one percent anymore when we know that 10 percent of people may not know where their next meal is coming from,” he says. “Any projects we do in the future will always have this in mind.”
Rethink Food is now focused on expanding into other U.S. cities beyond the existing New York, San Francisco, Nashville, and Chicago locations. “We’re looking at the data that underpins Rethink Certified,” says Tejas. Through data from Rethink Food’s delivery partners, the McKinsey team will be identifying ways to further boost impact and get feedback from participants. One example is matching restaurants with community-based organizations right in their neighborhood to reduce the burden on the delivery component.
“There’s so much excess capacity in restaurants and demand for a more food secure system in a post-COVID world,” says Matt. “Restaurants just need the capital to realize this, but this type of work will always be needed.”