It's been almost exactly a year since I sat down and started filling out the paperwork to create a 501©3 nonprofit called Boulder Food Rescue. Since then, we've grown from the three founders (myself, Hana Dansky, and Becky Higbee), to a crew of more than a hundred folks in Boulder who are passionate about issues surrounding food: both reducing waste and getting nutritious fruits and vegetables to folks who wouldn't otherwise have access to them. This week, we'll hit 150,000 lbs of food rescued. Last month, we rescued almost 24,000 lbs. Every month, we have rescued more food than the last. And, perhaps most excitingly, there are food rescue groups in Oakland and Denver that are beginning to use our model. This, to me, indicates that we're doing something right: we've developed a powerful model that supports a straight-forward idea. And, we're addressing very real issues.
This month, Hana, who has been working as a full-time volunteer since we started the organization, took the position of Executive Director. Having a paid staffer is a big step for us, and I have great faith in Hana's ability to lead the organization. We're currently fundraising to support the position (contribute if you can!). Prior to Hana taking the helm, I've served as the defacto Executive Director. It's been an absolutely enjoyable experience, from which I've had the opportunity to learn a great deal. With Hana taking over, I thought I'd write a little something about what I've learned, running an all-volunteer nonprofit. Maybe there's a book somewhere that tells you to do these things, but I haven't read it. These are simply the things that I've gathered, some of them seemingly by accident and some through a lot of hard work:
Be Uncompromising: When we started Boulder Food Rescue, we decided that we wanted to solve the issues of food waste and hunger (malnutrition) in our community. We wanted to create an idea that could spread to other areas. But, in hindsight, perhaps most importantly, we wanted to do it without substantial environmental impact—using bicycles to transport the food. In the first couple months, I fielded a lot criticism about this. Were we being too idealistic? Too stubborn? It couldn't work in the winter, could it? What if there was too much food? Could food be transported safely when it got hot? Well, it works. And, more than that, I think that the uncompromising nature and sheer stubbornness of this goal is responsible almost directly for our success. Doing food rescue by bike draws attention to what you're doing, it conveys your commitment and passion, it provides access to a ready set of natural allies vis a vis the bike community, and perhaps most importantly, it's fun. In hindsight, I can't underestimate how important that decision was to getting us where we are.
Don't pay for anything you might be able to get for free: Time and time again I've been surprised at what other organizations and individuals are willing to give as a gift, when all we do is ask. People have donated bike trailers, tools, and a tremendous amount of their time and expertise. We've managed to survive a year on an extremely small budget and in part that's because we're frugal, creative, and crafty. Knowing what you can get for free, what you can ask to have donated, and what you must pay for, is essential for keeping costs down.
Be Persistent: Simply put, grocery stores don't want to donate food. As profit-motivated organizations, it's not immediately clear that it's in their best interest. Their employees are overworked and distracted by other projects. They (often) hire communications personnel trained to convey their business in the best possible light (even when it isn't strictly true) and to politely turn away any inquiry that may require a bit extra work or distract from the central mission. While this is especially true of grocers, it's also true of restaurants, caterers, and bakeries. Every single one of our donors told us “no”, usually many times, before they eventually said “yes”. And, it was sheer persistence and commitment to our ideas that allowed us to patiently ignore the “nos”, while waiting for the “yes” we knew was coming. This stubborn persistence takes work, but I think it has been essential to our succeeding to the extent that we have.
Lead By Example: I don't have any training in managing people (or employees). I know there are classes on this that tell you what to say and how to motivate employees and volunteers. I don't know if those things work, but here's what has worked for me: work to the standard that you want other people to work to. If you do the jobs that no-one else wants to do, and do them well and happily, then other people may decide to follow your lead. If you come to meetings, and show up on time, and work with passion, it may rub off. I try to work harder than anyone else that I ask to help me so that when I do ask for help, I have a chance to have earned the permission to make that request.
Ask for Help When you Need It: The first month the nonprofit existed, we ran in the red. I paid for things out of pocket and watched our negative balance grow. Then, one morning, I wrote an email to about 30 of my friends and family. I told them what I was doing and asked for a little help monetarily to get things going. I was blown away by the generosity. We went from a negative balance of almost $1,000 to a positive balance of ~$2,000 almost over night. It was due to these people that we were able to get off the ground to begin with. Then, sometime during the Spring, I had to ask for help again: I ran into a personal conflict between the 40+ hours a week I was putting into Boulder Food Rescue, and the 80+ hours a week I needed to put into my thesis to finish by the deadline I had set. I was overworked and stressed out, and for a moment there, I stopped enjoying the work that I had enjoyed the most because it felt like I was just moving, robot-like, from one task to the next. Then I did something that doesn't come naturally (to me at least): I asked for help. In particular, I asked Becky, Hana, Helen, and Nora if they could take over some of the things I had been doing (on top of all the work they were already doing). I was blown away by their response and willingness to take on more responsibility and to help me when I needed it. In addition to reminding me what it means to be a good friend and helping out when it's needed, they showed that they wanted to do more and were more than happy to step up.
I don't want to even start to claim that this is all there is to running a successful all-volunteer nonprofit organization. I think there's a great amount that is domain-specific: minutia about how to do outreach and recruiting, and we've learned plenty there too, which we've tried to package into a handy publication to help other food rescue groups get started. But, for me at least, these five things are the big ones. They have become a personal mantra and I think they might be generally adaptable to other organizations. While they feel obvious in hindsight, a year ago I wouldn't have even known where to start if someone asked me how to run a nonprofit. I'm extremely thankful for the opportunity I've had to develop these skills and all the wonderful people I've worked with. I know that Hana will be a fantastic leader of the organization—in many ways I feel that she's naturally a better leader than I am. I've done my best to create an organization with momentum, but in the end we got lucky too: we found a strong community, we tapped into an issue that a tremendous number of people seem to be able to readily relate to and want to help with, and we've been the beneficiaries of a huge amount of generosity. I'm excited to see where Boulder Food Rescue is at its second anniversary, and to hear all about the necessary lessons that came with taking a one year old organization through its second year.
I'm wrapping up an almost-two-week stay in Portland to visit friends and family. While here, I've been putting around on bicycles generously loaned by my friend Esther. And, it's got me reminiscing about all the bikes I've borrowed while traveling. I'm quick to fall in love with a bike, and I've had the fantastic opportunity, due to the generosity of friends and strangers, to ride quite a few borrowed bikes and fall in love with each of them. In my opinion, there's really no better way to travel, or explore a new place while traveling, than on a bicycle.
The first bike I remember borrowing while traveling was in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, Judith loaned me her dark-brown in-city commuter. I wasn't in Amsterdam for more than 2 hours before I was riding 'Dutch' around the city with Judith. She introduced me to the rules of the road, a few places to get a strong pint, and generously let me borrow the bike for about a week. During that time, I rode all over the city: to die Wallen, the Vondelpark, various events, and to the conference I was there to attend. At one point, I made the mistake of trying to add some air to the tires and the tire ripped wide open. I repaired it before returning it, but learned that on an old dutch bike, if it isn't broke, you shouldn't try to fix it.
When Judith needed her bike back, I was able to borrow another from friends-of-a-friend: Jeff and Daniel (via Esther). This was an orange Schwinn Collegiate (pictured, right). I only had it for a handful of days but it got me around pleasantly.
In New Orleans, I got around on Steve's single speed Kona. I rode that bike all over the place—on several long rides exploring the inner and outer New Orleans neighborhoods, on a couple long rides on the Levy path, and as a way to get myself around the city.
In Hamilton, New Zealand, I knew I'd need a bike to get around. Since I was there for 3+ months, I considered purchasing one, but all the options seemed crummy or expensive or both. I spent a bit of time tooling around on the internet, and found a group of cyclists in the city that seemed active. I posted something there asking if there was anyone who could spare a road bike for a couple months. To my surprise, a friendly guy named Rob offered me his silver aluminum road bike. Despite the fact that I didn't know Rob, he was happy to take a leap of faith and loan his lovely bike to a perfect stranger. I took the bus out to pick it up and rode it home in a proper rainstorm. I narrowly avoided a crash navigating my first 2-lane round-about (driving on the left) in the rain on an unfamiliar bike. I made it back home, soaked, but overjoyed by the kindness of strangers. I didn't do as many long rides as I had hoped that winter, largely because of the conditions, but it got me around Hamilton and on one or two long rides out into the country.
On a prior trip to Portland, Tabor lent me his self-built Surly crosscheck and Ortlieb saddlebags. I took it all around. Embarrasingly, I went over the handlebars once, when a car stopped suddenly in front of me and I braked hard with my left hand (front brake in the US, rear brake in New Zealand :P). Minor damage to me and the bike, but mostly to my ego. I argued a bit with the russian-speaking drivers before giving up and biking away.
In Germany, Eric and I rented bikes from the Mobil bike rental at the central station in Freiburg. At 5 eur per day, the bikes were clearly priced not for profit, but for convenience. The bike I rode was a heavy Giant-brand bike with internally geared hub shifters, big fat touring tires and a pendulous saddle bag. We took the bikes on the trains towards the Austrian border (the Bodensee) and then rode back along the Rhine on the Swiss-German border. I fought a bit with the internally geared hub, but the bike made it more than 120 miles, so I can't complain. The ride was followed a gorgeous river through idyllic countryside and small towns. Eric and I drank our fair share of Radler, accompanied by hearty bread and delicate pastries.
During my present stay in Oregon, I've ridden two bikes, both Esther's. When I first got here, she lent me her Schwinn Tour de Lux touring bike. I rode it a bit around town and then from Hillsboro to the beach along the Nestucca River Road. It was 80 miles with a pile of gear, but the trip was a fantastic homecoming to Oregon, going through some unbelievably beautiful country, starting in wine-making and lavendar growing farmlands, up and over the thick coastal range, and ending in the fertile Tillamook dairying country washed with salty sea air. When she needed the bike back for a touring trip of her own, she lent me her Brompton folding bike, which I've been using to get around since. I've put a decent number of miles on the 'Brommie' and despite it's squat geometry, have found it to be a very capable bike.
I don't think it's an accident that the trips where I've spent the most time riding a bicycle are also the trips that looking back I enjoyed the most. For instance, I've been to Europe a couple times, but no other trip holds a candle to my time in Amsterdam when I did so much exploring by bike (and in a place where bicycles are so integrated into the culture). My experiences in New Zealand, Germany, and New Orleans were totally enabled by the bikes that I rode. I'm indebted to the wonderful people who've let me use their bikes. The world, while traveling or otherwise, is simply better experienced on a bike.
For some time, I've been trying to figure out why people don't eat apple cores. They taste just as good as the rest of the apple if a little chewier. Really, you can eat the whole damn thing except the stem (sometimes I get excited and eat it too). I've also been taking a secret poll of my friends to see who also eats cores. It's only a few (less than 5 by my count). But those few get mad-props in my mind. Eating apple cores indicates a certain cultural flexibility and rejection of assumed norms with respect to food. It also shows that you really really enjoy a good apple and that's an indicator of serious inward goodness and balance in some sort of goofy food-centric mental-health world-view. Maybe there are more, but mostly I observe people toss the cores or (if I'm around) hand them to me to eat.
Last month, while hanging out in Portland and picking and devouring “too buggy to sell” Honeycrisp apples (an amazing burden to have) I had a revelation. Here's what I think: prior to pesticides and large scale industrialization of farming, apples were more similar to what you get if you walk down the street and pick an apple off the tree and bite into it. Some percentage of these “real” apples have bugs (as Michael Pollan would say: it's good to see other critters taking interest in your food). The majority of bugs seem to live in the core. Hence, a good fraction of these apples, you have to throw out the core. This isn't true of apples you buy from your local supermarket or farmers' market. These apples come from carefully farmed and sprayed trees. They don't have bugs. Even if you buy “organic” or “local” apples, you only see the creme de la creme for sale and those are the non-buggy ones. So, you can safely eat the core. Exciting theory, no? Well, it excites me anyway, because we basically have an entire nation of people throwing out otherwise fine food because we have this cultural aspect of food which tells us that you aren't “supposed” to eat an apple core. But, this societal apple core more (that's the 5th OED sense of “more”) is outdated. Antiquated. Useless. Behind the times. Your apple cores are safe, people! Eat them. You won't regret it.
It's harvesting time here in Colorado—both regionally and right in my neighborhood. I've been picking and canning fruit and food like a madman in preparation for the winter (or the apocalypse, apparently). I've registered the domain FallingFruit.org, which serves as a front-end to area maps of local “urban edibles” (this is a fork from UrbanEdibles.org). I've mostly been canning peaches and apples. This Friday, Hana and I picked about 2 bushels of apples and made apple sauce. 14 quarts of apple sauce and there are still enough apples leftover for cellaring (apples keep all winter if kept at the right temperature) and making pies. I also caught the tail end of peach season and canned up a bunch of “bourbon vanilla peach preserves”. It didn't quite turn out as good as previous years (I blame the pectin I used and my inclination to stray from the recipe), but is still pretty tasty. I've also been canning other things. I piled up about 3/4 of my canned food stock the other day and set it out to take photos, which are in my photostream. I'm simultaneously proud and embarrassed about my obsessive stock. I honestly don't have enough space in my house for all my canned goods and must keep some at my work and some in my closet. I think I need to build a storage system or something.
In other news, I'm back in Colorado and have been settling back into work and school. Two weeks ago I spent a little time in the Canadian Rockies where I met up with Becky and attended the International Conference on Nonlinear Dynamics (ICAND'10). I was there presenting my work on using computers to assist in setting climbing routes, which I call Strange Beta. While up there we did some driving around and a bunch of trail running and some hiking. The aspens were turning and the peaks snow-frosted. It was absolutely gorgeous. The conference went very well and it was great to see Becky after more than 3 months apart. She wrote some stuff about the trip and took some photos.
This semester, I'm working in Boulder Highschool where I'm helping with some social studies classes. Besides this, I'm working on my thesis research, auditing one class, functioning as the department social chair, and sitting on department's decision making graduate committee. I'm also training a bunch, working on my cycling and running mostly and taking a bit of a break from climbing.
I've just finished up 3 months in New Zealand. During a good portion of this, I was working at the University of Waikato in a smallish town in the middle of the north island, called Hamilton. More recently, I just wrapped up a 12 day long, mostly-solo journey in a campervan (basically a minivan with a bed and sink in it). All told, I put in just under 3000 Km's of driving and saw a whole bunch of the north island. Just before the roadtrip, I also had the opportunity to travel to the south island and give a talk at the University of Canterbury. I explored the city of Christchurch and got into the mountains at least one day (weather only permitted one day) to study the (icy, slopery) boulders at Castle Hill and the beautiful Arthur's pass. Winter isn't the best time for the south island and 4 days (10 if you count my trip to the region around Nelson in June) isn't much time, so there's alot left to explore, but I'm happy to say that I've at least done my due-dilligence in exploring the North Island.
Let's start here: there are two things you should know about Kiwis (that is, the people from New Zealand not the birds, fruit, or bears (possums)) which serve to summarize them to a large extent in my mind.
Number One. When driving, one-honk is meant to be alerting, or perhaps angry, but two short honks are generally something positive. A thankyou, or hello, for instance. On runs in the country (the “country” starts about 2 blocks from my house in Hamilton), it is quite common for a random passing driver to give a short bee-beep followed by a friendly smile. At first, I was thoroughly confused. Are they upset I'm running here? Do they know me? Are they just being malicious and trying to startle some poor running sap on the side of the road. Nope, it turns out, as I would learn, that they were really just random people, who saw me doing something they approved of (running), sometimes in inclimate conditions (I'm here in the winter, rainy runs are par for the course), and wanted to give a bit of friendly encouragement: “Good on ya' mate”.
Number Two. You can't drink alone in a pub. In the states, I'm used to being able to walk alone to a bar, grab a beer and work on a crossword or a good book or write in a journal. In New Zealand, good luck. Every pub I've been to, in every town, if there are people there and you're alone, they'll walk up to you and start a conversation. “Who's that bloke sittin' by 'imself? Must need some'on to talk to, eh?”. Similarly, If I found I'm making a bit of tea (or coffee) on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and a car passes, they're likely to stop and see how it's going. “What are you up to? Where are you going? Where are you from? Sounds like a grand adventure. I remember when I had a similar one. Sweet-as weather, eh? Go The All Blacks. (etc.)”.
These two things are very different from what I'm used to back home. To me, they quickly summarize the friendly and altruistic nature of the people of New Zealand, who have, as a whole, been remarkably hospitable and accomodating during my time here.
What about the country? Well, my road trip started in Auckland, then I ventured south along the west coast (Tasman Sea) to the mountainous region in the center of the north island. Next, I moved north and kept going north. The geothermal area around lake Taupo and the coromandel Peninsula and the east coast (Pacific) were next. I picked up a friend in Auckland and continued north up to the northernmost point of the north island (Cape Reinga at 34-degrees longitude) and then back south to Auckland and finishing up in the Waikato valley around Hamilton, where I called home for the two months prior. Here are some assorted highlights from the 12 days in the campervan:
I took a few pictures with my crummy camera phone which are on Flickr. I took a few more with my film camera, but it'll be some time before I get them developed and uploaded.
It's been a good summer/winter and I've found a second (third?) home in New Zealand. I'm sure I'll be back as I now have a pile of friends to visit along with a whole heap of didn't-get-around-to-its. Right now, however, sitting and waiting for my flight to board in the Auckland airport, I feel content and am excited to see my loved ones back home (who will surely make fun of me for the kiwi slang I've picked up) and get back to work in Boulder (on my research, cycling, and boulder-projects). I'm looking forward to catching the tail end of summer back state-side before diving into my second winter in a row. My next travels will probably take me to Lake Louise (where I have a conference to attend) and Quetzaltenengo (where Becky has wandered off to). But, those trips are still a ways off and I'm excited to spend a bit of time at home.
Recently, I was having a back-and-forth with a friend about the correlation of obesity with “westness” in the United States. I made the argument that Colorado can't really be in the “Midwest”, because the obesity rate is far too low. Tongue-in-cheek, I proposed that a state should be only considered in the Midwest if its “Fat People to Mountains” ratio is sufficiently high. Unbeknownst to me, this conversation set off a different “friend”, who took it all extremely personally and decided to vent his frustration via a public attack on my character. Among other things, he claimed that my “position” on the obesity epidemic was extremely shallow (and ignorant).
Despite turning out to be a surprisingly nasty person (good riddance), I do have something to thank him for—he got me thinking about writing something about my position on obesity. Which, I can assure you, is not shallow (and hopefully not ignorant, either). Indeed, it is one of about 2 or 3 topics that I am passionate enough about to consider, at times, devoting my life to, or at very least, having no hesitation to bloody my knuckles over.
Lets start here: I was a fat kid. Like, really, very fat. When I was 15 years old and 5'8” I weighed 225 lbs. Growing up, and even today 10 years later, I identify myself as the “fat kid”. I feel that way, like a bit of a social outcast and self-conscious of how I look. I've been told by recent friends that this is surprising since I am so focussed on fitness today. My current run of good health started when I was 16. I lost nearly 75 lbs in about 6 months. After that, I gained back some weight, but have been losing weight again since I moved to Colorado. I'm happy to say that today I'm the fittest I've been and the most happy with my self-image. In large part, I lost the weight that I did because of a couple important life changes. Firstly, I started making friends who cared about fitness. My girlfriend Becky and my good friend Jake at the time were huge influences on me. I remember vividly panting after a game of pickup basketball with Jake, or stopping to walk multiple times along a mile long run with Becky. My neighbor at the time, Frank, who was a personal trainer, also took me under his wing and taught me about weight-training and eating well. For months, I met with him every morning and we commuted to his place in North Portland, where he would train me pro-bono before his real clients started showing up.
I also changed my eating habits. I basically started classifying all of the foods I could eat as “good” and “bad”. I was allowed to eat as much “good” food as I wanted but could only have very little or no “bad” food. Good food was things like rice, tofu, vegetables. Bad food was things like red meat, fast food, snacks, etc.. This “diet”, paired with substantial exercise was extremely effective for me. In fact, I had to have someone close to me tell me that I needed to start eating more, once I got down to 154 lbs and started to look unhealthy. I guess I can be a bit obsessive. I don't mean to imply that this can work for everyone, but this worked for me, and now I know that it works—which is extremely empowering. It's a fantastic feeling to know that I can control my own health and how to work with my body. This empowerment replaced an equal feeling of helplessness that had typified how I felt about my body and health previously.
My “friend”, during his tirade of late, accused me of not seeing the “why” of obesity. He really couldn't be more wrong—it's entirely the “why” that I'm concerned with. So, why was I fat? I was actually a pretty fit and active youngster growing up. However, around the time I was 6, my mother went into treatment. During that time, I lived with a number of other families and family friends. One family that I lived with, was very overweight and had bad eating habits. Between the psychological trauma of losing my mother and the bad environment, I gained alot of weight. I established eating habits which were harmful and began to associate emotional fulfilment with food. I still struggle with these things today, but I know how I work and I can call myself on self-deception (a bit of a circle, but it works). For me at least, my physical health increased in direct proportion to my mental health. As I became an adult, learned self-confidence, and something about myself, I also learned how to eat right and found substantial joy in exercise.
So, why are other people fat? Why is our whole damn country fat these days? Well, this is the part that gets me really riled up, because the way I see it (and I'm not alone), the obesity is just a very visible (hah) symptom of a number of confounding issues with the way things are done in the United States (and a number of western countries).
The free-range that we have given to large corporations to take ownership of our food supply has resulted in an environment where unhealthy food is cheap and easy and healthy food is expensive and difficult to obtain. This then, plays into a socio-economic stratification that is still very much a problem in the states. Access to healthy food and education which helps people understand how to be healthy, is only accessible for the affluent. When I was growing up, we didn't have much money, and my mother did a wonderful job raising me on very little. I also had substantial support from a loving extended family who taught me how to cook early, and taught me principles of gardening and the wonder of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables. I also learned that food is scarce and must be valued. These are lessons I'm lucky to have had an opportunity to learn and not everyone has access to them, either via their family or via greater society.
Similarly, the failure of our (very rich) government to provide basic services to the people in terms of healthcare, drug rehabilitation, and mental health facilities, creates an environment where it is difficult to be healthy and forbidding to take ownership of your personal health in a positive way.
Our massive transportation infrastructure for automobiles is fundamentally at odds with the interests of the people who live in the urban environments the infrastructure is meant to serve. Excluding a few exceptions, the United states isn't a friendly place to be a pedestrian, ride a bike to your job, or go for a run. All along the way, you must dodge blundering automobiles and their exhaust.
Meanwhile, we have funding cuts for our national parks and forests and as a result increased usage fees. Visit a national forest park, you'll find the fees have jumped up 10 dollars or more and the sites have all been refitted for motor-homes, reinforcing an excessive and unhealthy way of “consuming” the outdoors.
These aren't all of the “whys”, but these are the ones I think about every day. In one way or another, be it via lack of education and access to cheap and healthy foods, poor funding for basic services, or profit-driven corporations running amok, it's clear that the US is a fantastic environment for incubating unhealthy lifestyles that lead to the obesity epidemic we are seeing. There are plenty of people who feel as I do and have the same priorities. Folks that love their country and the people in it, and as a result wonder why we've stacked the deck against ourselves and our national health. Lots of these people care about this so much that they are fighting for it. My bikey friends in Portland, my family members that run Farmer's markets, the hippies at the CSAs in Boulder—my hat is off to these people and their compatriots. But, there's a lot more to be done. We need systematic change. We need an environment where it is easy to obtain healthy food and people are educated about their food sources, basic gardening, and how to prepare (and preserve) food themselves. We need to take control back from the corporations who do not have our interests at heart. We need small farms of high quality that are run by and for the people. We need infrastructure for the transportation of people, not cars. We need a government that sees these as priorities and is willing to put some of this war money to better use and get the citizens of this country healthcare that is better than the tax-credit-healthcare we have coming.
That's all I really have to say, which is plenty I think. Hopefully a little bit of personal and heartfelt disclosure on an issue I care alot about is a positive contribution. My close friends and family have heard me get up on a soapbox about these issues time and time again, and are probably tired of it. Perhaps some day I'll run away from grad school and start a store which sells good staple foods for a fair price and educates people on how to live a healthy life. In any case, thanks to you, undisclosed-angry-person-from-the-midwest for getting me at least annoyed enough by your total misunderstanding of me, my past, and my opinions to write something down about it.