Seeing a Miracle in Every Overlooked Grain of Rice

Working to fix our broken food system, one meal at a time.

When I was growing up in Japan, if I left grains of rice in my bowl, my father would say, “Mind your food,” which in Japanese literally means “Do it proper.” He reminded me that I should appreciate the sequence of events that went into this creation before me: from my mother who remembered to wash the rice a few hours before dinner so it had time to soak, to the rice monger who delivered the bag of rice to our house, all the way to those who grew it back on the farm.

Unlike wheat, rice plants aren’t planted directly into the earth. Farmers must first prepare a paddy where the plot can be flooded with water for rice to grow. The weather and conditions have to be just right: the balance of sun and rain, and the insects in the ecosystem that fertilize the land. In a grain of rice stuck to my bowl, I saw my mother’s love, the rice monger’s care, the farmers’ hard work, and the balance of nature.

My path to Food Shift was non-linear and unpredictable, even in retrospect, taking me from STEM education and co-founding companies to leading a government agency and turning around a nonprofit. Where I practiced and honed my craft varied greatly over the years, but why I practiced — my passion — remained consistent: building capacity in others and fighting for (and with) the underdog. In Food Shift’s intentional programs that span the food ecosystem, from the produce mongers to the kitchen table, I saw the team’s ability to envision a different world, one in which overlooked food and our overlooked neighbors were part of the solution to fix both our broken food and social justice systems.

Working at Food Shift, I live my values. We recover food that would otherwise be wasted and, in cooperation with our partner organizations, redistribute it to our most marginalized neighbors. We reserve some of the overlooked food for our social enterprise kitchen, where we transform surplus food into plant-based artisanal meals. We enlist the help of our apprentices from our culinary education program, who overcome high barriers to employment: our overlooked talent. Together, we address our nation’s food waste, as well as climate change, wellness, and social justice: Almost 40 percent of food produced in our nation is wasted and more than 20 percent of our drinkable water is tied up in producing the wasted food, not to mention the greenhouse gases produced by the decomposition of the food, which accelerates global warming.

Yuka Nagashima Yuka Nagashima lives her values at food Food Shift, recovering, transforming, and redistributing food that would otherwise be wasted. Photo courtesy of Food Shift.

Together, we make fresh produce accessible to all in our community in the San Francisco Bay Area, a long-term investment in the prevention of chronic diseases that disproportionately affect financially distressed communities. Together, we advocate for reducing food waste in our homes and in every step in the food supply chain.

We get to reimagine a food system where solutions are designed for the people (rebuild to uplift our most marginalized neighbors, rather than ask them to lean into a broken system), by the people (we are part of the solution, not the problem), and with the people (we are stronger together).

The ongoing pandemic has exposed the systemic flaws of our monopolized food supply chains that are optimized for bulk rather than efficiency.

Due to the shelter-in-place restrictions that began in March, Food Shift was no longer able to offer its catering services and culinary education program at a time where meal delivery and food-waste prevention education could have contributed to our community. But after seeing that so many grassroots organizations were stepping up to scale their food- and meal-distribution operations, but were unable to secure healthy ingredients, we found our niche. Rather than serving meals directly, we leveraged our existing connections to provide a safe and reliable food supply chain for those organizations to be able to scale up.

Operation Together, our Covid-19 relief effort, is about seeing what our food system needs: minding the overlooked opportunity to serve. As the initiative grew, we started to intentionally look for pockets of people who were not being served by the existing establishments. Feeding people is a hyper-local activity: Not everyone can get to a food bank, or knows about eligibility to qualify for different services. Of the more than 12 organizations we serve, one isn’t even an organization but a grassroots program to assist Oakland’s Mam community, an indigenous group from the Guatemalan highlands. As many among the community’s approximately 10,000 members who live in the area don’t speak English or Spanish, the Mam are further marginalized from the already marginalized Latinx population.

Since April, when we officially launched Operation Together, we have diverted over $100,000 of food that would have otherwise gone to waste to overlooked communities in need, without any program income that usually underwrites our food-recovery program. We will continue to identify and address what our food and economic systems overlook.

I look forward to the day when we can gather around the Food Shift Kitchen table again for lunch crafted by our apprentices, alumni we hired, and our team that oversees the training, production, and food-recovery services.

In my first week at Food Shift, I remember the immense sense of gratitude and humility I felt when, in response to a typical conversation starter, “Where do you live?” an apprentice, after a brief but heavy pause, said she was in transition right now, living out of her car. Regardless of where we come from, we join together to reduce food waste by giving overlooked food a chance to shine with the help of overlooked talent who know a thing or two about opportunities that our food and economic systems squash mindlessly.

We break our metaphorical bread together to fix the broken system one meal at a time, much like how my father taught me to see a miracle in every overlooked grain of rice.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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