If you’ve bought cheese at Di Bruno Bros. recently, you might’ve been helping feed hungry Philadelphians — without even knowing it.
Start here: Pennsylvania’s dairy industry has a surplus problem. Milk consumption has slowed, and farmers are dealing with an oversupply.
Meanwhile, more than 700,000 people in the Philly region are dealing with the opposite problem. They don’t have enough food, and experience hunger on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, this kind of imbalance plays out all the time. The logistics of turning raw materials into edible meals and getting them to those in need are extremely complicated. Compound that with lack of potential for big profits, and the hurdle is almost insurmountable. Good food gets wasted, while people go hungry.
Enter Philabundance. Around two years ago, the hunger nonprofit decided to tackle the gargantuan issue — and the pilot program has been an unmitigated success.
Not only have 12 tankers of Lancaster raw milk been turned into high-quality cheese and distributed to various food banks around the area — to the tune of 66,000 pounds over the past year — but the program is also sustainable, generating funds to pay for itself.
How? The launch of an adjacent retail brand called Abundantly Good.
‘Not government cheese’
The brand’s first products are five flavors of gourmet cheese, sold to the general public. The dairy to make them comes from those same struggling farmers, and for each pound of sold, $1 is put back into the upcycling side of the project.
Getting into upcycling has actually been a goal since the organization was founded 35 years ago.
“It’s been a gleam in our eyes for a while,” said Kait Bowdler, the Philabundance deputy director of sustainability hired to get the program off the ground.
Bowdler credits increased “public excitement” around reducing food waste as one of the driving factors in finally making it a reality, as well as a generous grant from the Claneil Foundation that allowed the organization to work out production, storage and transportation.
Key to the whole thing is making sure people actually buy the Abundantly Good cheese. That’s where Di Bruno Bros. comes in.
“They know what people want, they know what people will buy,” Bowdler said, explaining the group did months and months of tasting and tweaking to land on their final flavors. “I have tried so much cheese in the past year you wouldn’t believe it.”
No matter how good it tastes, just throwing a product on shelves still isn’t enough to ensure it moves, noted Scott Case, the Di Bruno procurement manager who sits on the Philabundance board.
“It was just getting everyone to understand the story — that this wasn’t just a new Pennsylvania cheesemaker, but an entire program,” Case said. “Our cheesemongers jumped on this idea and celebrated the upcycling and the social good aspects,” he continued. “Without them, the program would have not have succeeded.”
So far, Abundantly Good cheese sales have contributed $9,000 toward the rescue and processing of excess milk into high-quality cheese for food banks and pantries. Extra bonus: the donated cheese is top quality.
“Seeing the clients that have gotten the cheese, they are so ecstatic,” said Bowdler. “It’s handcrafted, it’s fresh, it’s local. It’s NOT government cheese.”
Beyond just having a tasty new ingredient to use, recipients of the cheese are excited by the entire program. “Kids have told us they feel special,” Bowdler recounted. “They say things like, ‘Wow, the farmers care about us!’”
Connecting both sides
There are various other upcycling efforts around the country, but none are quite like Abundantly Good.
In Los Angeles, an organization called Food Forward obtains overstock produce and donates it directly to hunger relief agencies. Some food banks process directly for their own clients, Bowdler said, like one she knows in Tennessee that flash cans excess green beans. The Food Bank of South Jersey works with local farmers to make Just Peachy Salsa, which is then sold at retail to raise money.
The Philabundance program is different from those other efforts in that it directly connects the surplus with both the product for people in need and the commercial product. This helps ensure the process is self-sustaining — and that it can be applied to any kind of food.
“Initially we thought it would just be cheese,” Bowdler said, “but now the ultimate goal is to be flexible enough to handle all of the surpluses we see.”
Next to be tackled: tomatoes. This summer, Abundantly Good’s second product will hit shelves: Spiced Tomato Jam by TBJ Gourmet, which is known across the country for its bacon jam.
“They have the tomatoes,” said TBJ founder Michael Oraschewsky. “We have the experience of putting stuff in jars and making it delicious.”
While Oraschewsky is thrilled the Spiced Tomato Jam — flavored with coriander, cumin, cayenne and allspice — will be helping people in need, he’s not treating it any differently from a regular product. It’ll be introduced at the Fancy Food Show in New York as the key featured new item, shopped to gourmet distributors across the nation.
Since TBJ is not a direct retailer and can’t necessarily mandate a portion of sales goes directly into the program, Oraschewsky has instead decided to donate the product’s regular marketing budget to the program. “In the Philly area we’re going to be asking retailers to kick in some of their margin as well,” he said. Those funds will allow other tomatoes to be turned into sauce and soup for Philabundance clients.
Although everything’s been going well so far, “it’s still a very new and scary world” for Philabundance, Bowdler noted.
“Can we make this holistic approach to the food system work?” she asked. “We’ve always been focused on donations. It’s a whole new way of operating.”
Getting the word out about the Abundantly Good brand is now of utmost importance for its continued success and sustainability, she said.
Di Bruno’s Case echoed the sentiment: “More chefs should use [Abundantly Good]!” he said. “More people should buy!”