Why Food Metrics Matter

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On paper, it sure can look impressive when you track the food you are serving in pounds. But it is Rethink's mission to rethink all areas of food production for the food insecure — and that includes our food tracking measurement.

It may not seem like a big deal, but try telling someone that being served a pound of watermelon is the same as a pound of chicken. Across the food donation business, this flaw often goes unnoticed because organizations focus more on the weight of the food than its nutritional value. In fact, 1.1 lb. = 1 meal appears to be the industry standard. So in our case, we decided to apply this formula only to food that’s already been processed (chicken + rice +  salad = 1.1 lb. = 1 meal) rather than the unprocessed donations (1.1 lb. watermelon = 1.1 lb. chicken = 1 meal).

In addition to weight, we also began recording volume (1 quart container = 2 meals. 1 hotel pan = 11 quarts). This method factors in density of food and in combination with the weight metric, provides us with an even more comprehensive meal tracking system. However, there are still two important variables this model does not take into account: portion size and nutritional density. Luckily, we have a talented group of people working to overcome such obstacles. 

Our head chef, Felix, for example, is in the process of developing a meal count formula based on portions. It’s not an exact science yet, but the working formula we use when delivering meals to our (Community Service Organization) CSO partners is as follows: 5.75 oz. protein + 5.75 oz. starch + 5.75 oz. veggies = 1 meal. Our sustainability associate, Kathleen is also hard at work trying to determine exactly how many people our CSO partners feed with Rethink food. She visits each CSO and records 1. What a plate (meal) looks like on site for each CSO and 2. How many meals are actually served on an average basis. This information allows us to be more reflective of our partners and ensure we are recording data that accurately captures the real on the ground ops.

Ultimately, we envision a meal tracking system that includes food-out-the-door (aka processed food) metrics to capture nutritional density, as well as portions and numbers of meals served. Moreover, we aim to transition our database from an excel sheet into something more centralized and better tailored to our needs — by creating a custom-made app. As our organization grows and we begin accepting a wider variety of food, accurate meal-tracking becomes increasingly difficult, but we remain confident in our ability to someday create a scalable model for communities everywhere to look to for inspiration.