Whether You Call It ‘Rescued’ or ‘Expired,’ Old Food Is a Tough Sell

Boston’s Daily Table is trying to curb food waste and provide affordable groceries in a low-income neighborhood.

(Photo: Steve Holt)

Jun 11, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Doug Rauch is the first person to tell you that bringing to life his idea to resell “rescued” foods—items that, with their sell-by date passed, might otherwise be called “expired”—in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood has been anything but easy. The former Trader Joe’s vice president opened his new venture, Daily Table, to big crowds last Thursday and even ran out of some items during the first day. But getting the doors open took nearly four years of fielding community questions and pushback, as well as bureaucratic complications. Despite the early crowds, the criticism hasn’t stopped.

On Monday, the line at the door waiting for the shop to open was five or six deep. Genesis Langham, who lives two blocks away, was there for the third time in four days, this time with her husband, Rajhi. “I loved it,” she said of her experience thus far. “I love that it seems to be all healthy food, and that it’s appropriately priced—more than appropriately, unbelievably priced—and they’re friendly and helpful.”

If the Dorchester shop is successful, and Rauch said early indications suggest that it will be, he plans to replicate it in other Boston neighborhoods and in other cities around the country. However, not everyone in the community is thrilled with the venture—or with the symbolism of the project. Why should a poor neighborhood have to eat food that’s been passed up by more affluent, more white communities?

Back in 2011, the idea seemed simple—a matter of demand and unused supply. Rauch was a fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute, which trains former executives to work on social issues, when he came up with the concept behind Daily Table. He’d apply knowledge gleaned from more than three decades in the grocery business to tackle the complex problems of food waste and food deserts.

“I knew that there was this large amount of food that’s perfectly good that’s just not being consumed,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m getting mailers from Feeding America that one out of six Americans are hungry.”

The plan was to open in a low-income neighborhood a small, nonprofit grocery store that would take excess and short-dated food from other retailers and sell it to residents at a deep discount. He found a space in Codman Square—a low-income area nearly two miles from the closest grocery store—owned by a neighborhood health center and adjacent to a nonprofit fitness club. It seemed like the perfect location, so in 2013 he started to tell neighbors about the plan.

The response was not what Rauch had hoped for. “Confusion” is how Ernest Duke Bennett, a longtime activist in the neighborhood, described the initial reaction to Daily Table. Rauch said there was some anger as well. He remembers a woman standing up after he’d completed a presentation at a neighborhood council meeting and forcefully objecting to his core business model on principle.

“ ‘You seem like a nice guy, but I really don’t like this idea,’ ” Rauch recalled the woman saying. “ ‘Why do we get hand-me-downs of everything?’ ”

Bennett said some in the community put an even finer point on their skepticism, addressing what they considered the elephants in the room: race and class.

“They said, ‘Here’s a millionaire from a different community coming into a community of color and telling them he’s going to set up shop and sell them other people’s garbage, basically,’ ” Bennett said.

Rauch, who lives in an affluent Boston suburb, said he was asked at different points why he wasn’t starting Daily Table in his town. “My neighbors don’t have a need,” he would respond. “They can afford to shop at Whole Foods. This isn’t about the nature of what we’re doing but about trying to go where the market and need is.”

Related: Forget ‘Whole Paycheck’—This Grocery Chain Now Beats Many Competitors’ Prices

He amended his plans in places based on early meetings with locals. For instance, residents working multiple jobs asked for affordable and quick ready-to-go meals, so Rauch changed his model to sell low-price prepared foods at Daily Table—cooked on-site by a staff of neighborhood residents—in addition to traditional groceries.

Simultaneously, Rauch and his team were in a wrestling match with the IRS trying to get its 501(c)(3) designation, which was finally secured this year. To keep it, Daily Table must prove it is primarily serving customers who reside in the neighborhood, regardless of income. To track those metrics, Rauch said the store is setting up customers with free memberships, so they can learn who lives where; customers who too frequently come to shop from outside the neighborhood will be “politely” asked not to come back. That’s raised some privacy concerns, and Rauch has had to respond to concerns over the store’s relationship with the Codman Square Health Center and whether customer information would be shared between the grocer and the health center. Rauch said it would not.

That hasn’t been enough for Bennett, who is reaching out to a handful of Boston city councilors to call for a hearing on the safety of the short-coded food being sold at Daily Table.

But food safety hasn’t seemed to be an issue with Daily Table’s customers. The crowds have been big each day. Shopper Langham said she hasn’t seen any sell-by dates within three days, and regardless, the dates are of no concern to her: “When I buy it, I’m cooking it right away.”

“It’s not just this community that needs to get educated, but all of America needs to get educated that sell-by dates are not expiration dates,” Rauch said about the question of health risks. “These dates are unrelated to food safety. At best, they’re indications of peak quality.”

Rauch plans to do it all again soon, taking everything he’s learning and applying it to his most ambitious food rescue project yet: opening two stores at once, possibly as early as next year.

“But this is our pilot store, and we’ve first got to demonstrate that this can work,” he said.