• Sat. Dec 2nd, 2023

Food For the Hungry

Because So Much Is Riding On Your Food For the Hungry

Chef cooks up award-winning program to feed the hungry – Orange County Register

After Alexandra Yates’ ambitious 2019 trial program to turn surplus, landfill-bound food into healthy meals for food-insecure students, things easily could have gone south.

The coordinator of Orange Coast College’s Food Service Management Program was just making the transition to a permanent food-recovery initiative at the school — with culinary and food service management students preparing the meals — when the pandemic hit. And when the campus shut down, in March 2020, Yates’ Food Recovery Kitchen was shuttered too.

But instead of the effort fading into oblivion, Yates put together an off-campus program that thrived beyond anything envisioned for the school — and filled a crucial food-supply void created by COVID.

Through contacts developed as a chef, caterer, restaurant manager and surplus-food activist, Yates was offered kitchen space at Tustin’s Marconi Automotive Museum, where she and four other volunteers from Orange Coast’s staff spent five months preparing meals.

By the time she moved to kitchen space at Anaheim’s Katella Grill, in August 2020, she’d gotten the green light from the college to bring in 92 students to help throughout the week. In the process, those culinary students were able to fulfill the hands-on requirement for their Associate in Arts certificates.

Because restaurants had closed, there was a bounty of surplus food. And, because of the pandemic, there were more people in the community going hungry. By the year’s end, Yates’ ad hoc program had turned 209,000 pounds of surplus good into 212,000 meals for students, community members and shelters. Another 609,000 pounds of uncooked food was distributed directly to the community.

“Through sheer will and desire, she was able to feed people,” said Mike Learakos, executive director of the Santa Ana-based Abound Food Care, which helps distribute Yates’ food.

“That’s important. But she’s also teaching students about food recovery and feeding those in need, and that will extend decades into the future. She’s absolutely a visionary. She is literally the next generation in the food industry.”

In 2021, it was back to campus, where Yates rebooted the Food Recovery Kitchen. She also reestablished relationships with the college’s Pirates’ Cove Pantry, which provides free meals and snacks to food-insecure students, and the horticulture program, which oversees a community garden, orchard and fledgling talapia aquaculture nursery.

The scope and scale of her work, buoyed in part by county and state grants, extends well beyond her faculty job description. So much so that it attracted the attention of the federal EPA, which in January included her program as one of four California food-recovery efforts to receive national awards.

“Their innovative education program is providing meals to students, and cutting food waste and landfill methane emissions that contribute to climate change,” said Jeff Scott, the EPA’s land director for the Pacific Southwest.

The emissions component of Yates program foreshadowed a state law that kicked in this year, requiring food waste to be diverted from landfills — by reclaiming edible food bound for the dump and, for the rest, by composting or using it to create methane fuel.

Yates had such diversions in place by 2020 and has since won a state grant for an on-campus composter that is creating mulch for the campus community garden. Then, of course, there are the hundreds of thousands of meals she’s helped create from landfill-bound food. While CalRecycle estimates that Californians throw away 8 billion meals worth of food annually, Yates is inspiring budding chefs and food service workers to turn that dire statistic into food for the hungry.

Origin story

A food-recovery program wasn’t on Yates’ to-do list in 2018, when she landed at Orange Coast College. But the happy accident of how things came together is a fitting example of her collaborative instincts.

It was only after a career that included being a chef, sommelier and manager at a series of Orange County restaurants that Yates went into teaching, a change prompted by the desire for family life.

“I got pregnant,” Yates said. “I never had a holiday while I was working in restaurants. I wanted to see my kids and spend holidays with them. … I still work seven days a week, but I’m home for dinner for at least six of them.”

First came a stint at CSU Long Beach as a lecturer and then the full-time faculty job at Orange Coast College, which has been ranked in the top 30% of culinary schools nationwide. When she started at the Costa Mesa school, one of her first stops was a visit to the Pirates’ Cove Pantry, which provides free food for those in need.

“I went to the school pantry and asked what we could do to make it better, and they said, ‘More and better food,’” recalled the 35-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “Then I saw a trash bag full of food — food that would go bad before anyone used it — and a 50-pound bag of ground beef that was also headed to the dumpster.”

Health regulations prevents the pantry from breaking donated packaged foods into personal-sized units, but the campus kitchens have no such restrictions. For Yates, the gears started turning. By turning the surplus into meals and then vacuum-sealing those meals, the food’s lifespan could be extended by a week or two. If the meals are then frozen, they can remain edible for much longer.

And so, Yates’ food-recovery program was born.

Earlier this month, she showed off the pantry during a campus tour of the resources she’s pulled together. The faces of pantry workers lit up immediately when she arrived. At the nearby greenhouse, Yates upbeat demeanor had the same effect on horticulture professor Rick Harlow.

The network she’s built also includes the OC Food Bank, Mother’s Market and Second Harvest, which donate food to the effort, and Abound Food Care, where she’s on the advisory board.

“We need collaboration in order to survive,” said Yates, who graduated from Corona del Mar High and lives in Aliso Viejo with her husband, two young children and two rescue dogs.

Back on campus, at the community plots and orchards, student gardeners often end up with leftover food. The hydroponics greenhouse, which also houses the fish nursery, was growing butter lettuce for the Food Recover Kitchen. Everyone seemed happy to contribute to Yate’s program.

“She’s got a high energy, she’s extremely knowledgeable, she follows through and she’s willing to do the work,” Harlow said. “She’s an inspiration to all of us.”

In the bustling, commercial-scale Food Recovery Kitchen, a class of 23 students was making 150 servings of curry meatball soup, part of the 700 or so meals the kitchen produces weekly for students and the community. Among the single-serving packaged meals already in the freezer were mustard corn beef with spatzles and vegetables, jerk chicken with mango salsa, brown rice and black beans, and vegan jackfruit chili.

“I created the curriculum to teach this circle of food sustainability and reduce food insecurity,” she said. “We can teach our students, help our pantry and reduce food waste. The goal is that we grow the food on campus, we make food for those who need it, and we compost the waste.”

At the same time, Yates is working on her Ph.D. thesis, which explores food insecurity and food waste through her experiences of the last three years.

She said her husband, Jarrod Yates, a physical therapist, is supportive of her many tentacled activities, despite the long hours.

“He knows how much food waste hurts me and how much people going hungry upsets me,” she said.

There are plenty of ambitious people in the restaurant business, but Yates is a different breed, according to Abound Food Care’s Learakos, who also owns the Katella Grill.

“What makes her unique is that it’s not about her. She’s selfless,” he said. “That’s rare in our business. For Alexandra, it’s all about impact.”


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