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SPOON-FED:

We ran an essential business in the pandemic. These are our lessons learned.

Massachusetts food rescue, Lovin’ Spoonfuls, recovered more food last year than at any other point in the organization’s 11-year history – this at a time when panic-buying and barren grocery store shelves painted a picture of scarcity. 

Said Lovin’ Spoonfuls’ Founder and Executive Director, Ashley Stanley, “On the one hand, the pandemic highlighted some of what we already knew about the importance of food access, and, on the other, it surfaced issues that required more of our attention as an employer. We learned a lot – and a lot of what we learned feels universal.” 

Such as? 

Have a plan + stay flexible. 

“Our model works because flexibility is inherent to it,” said Lauren Palumbo, Lovin’ Spoonfuls’ Chief Operating Officer. She oversees a team of Food Rescue Coordinators whose job it is to pick up food that would otherwise be discarded from food retailers (like grocery stores) and distribute it to non-profits serving people facing food insecurity across Massachusetts. “If a Food Rescue Coordinator has to be off the road, we have other staff who can step in and work their route. If we have a little extra food on the truck one day, we have non-profit partners we turn to for off-schedule deliveries.” Palumbo said the ability to be nimble and adapt to changing circumstances before the pandemic, meant that when a staff member needed to be off the road for a COVID test or a partner was temporarily closed, Spoonfuls continued to operate. “We made adjustments, backed each other up, and worked the operational plan. Flexibility is a part of it.” 

You can’t give away what you don’t have.

Throughout the pandemic, Spoonfuls’ Food Rescue Coordinators have been doing more of what they have always done. Said Palumbo, “Our front line was out there, five days a week, picking up food from our vendor partners, in and out of grocery stores, and distributing it, same day, to non-profit partners. The last thing we wanted was for our staff to have to incur additional exposure or to worry about food themselves, so we purchased food from a partner wholesale distributor and ran a staff pantry where we made fresh fruits and veggies available to our team.”  

In addition, Spoonfuls’ Senior Leadership Team recognized the need to prioritize mental health, too. “Between COVID-19, the social reckoning around Black Lives Matter, the election, and any number of personal or professional stressors, 2020 was weighing on us. Meanwhile, we had partners depending on us, so we needed to show up and be truly present. We needed to take care of ourselves.” The company instituted mandatory mental health days at the outset of the pandemic, ensuring the team had the space it needed to process. 

They also calendared a meeting-free week each quarter, a time when staff keep their schedules intentionally open for deep work. “There are no 1:1s, no team meetings, no outside meetings to the extent that we can control for that. It’s a way we’ve regained some balance when there’s such a clamoring to catch up,” said Palumbo, who added that, almost universally, Spoonfuls’ staff have appreciated the time to focus. 

Connection builds culture. 

At the outset of the pandemic, Spoonfuls’ administrative staff who could work from home did. It was an important way the team reduced exposure for its front line. But, said Stanley, the Senior Leadership Team agreed early on that they wouldn’t allow Boston-based Food Rescue Coordinators, who were used to coming off the road to a busy office, to come back to an empty one. “We wanted at least someone to be physically there for them, so we rotated work-from-home days.” 

Now that pandemic restrictions are lifting and businesses have been given the green light to reopen to full headcount, Spoonfuls’ staff in commuting distance to the Boston office are returning in person three days per week. “Many of us are craving literal face time,” said Stanley, “but the pandemic also taught us that there are members of our team who can successfully work from just about anywhere and that remote work enables them to be even more productive. It’s a part of our culture now.” 

Plus, added Palumbo, the team has identified new tools for building connection when not everyone can be together in the same place. She pointed to the company’s Slack, which was launched earlier in the pandemic based on a suggestion from Food Rescue Coordinators. With a workforce scattered across the Commonwealth and staff on and off the road, channels focused on everything from operational updates to recommended reading around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), a virtual “watercooler,” and dogspotting have reached them where they are. 

Our differences are our strengths.

Spoonfuls’ had been doing intentional work around DEI since 2018, but amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the team contracted with a consultant to provide ongoing DEI and anti-racism training and learning opportunities for its staff. Plus, said Palumbo, the entire team – from frontline staff to senior leaders – worked together with the consultant to write a series of Inclusion Tenets designed to guide Spoonfuls’ staff in their interactions with one another and with community partners. 

In addition, Spoonfuls recently launched Community Advisory Boards comprised of partners, advocates, and others – some with lived experience of food insecurity – who have an interest in informing how Spoonfuls does business. “These are people who understand, in a nuanced way, what are the opportunities we have and the challenges we face. They are excited to lend their perspective as much as we’re excited to hear it,” said Palumbo.

Invest in technology. 

Stanley and Palumbo agreed that the pandemic underscored the importance of having technology that works to improve efficiencies and keep colleagues connected. “It feels like such a basic thing but, for us, the right technology has proven so important. We’re talking about simple things like laptops for staff, the ability to have your calls forwarded to your home office, virtual meeting software, Slack. These tools not only supported our ability to get the job done but also our culture: one that prioritizes people, flexibility, balance.” Palumbo acknowledged that not every business will be able to invest to the same degree but recommends identifying the one can’t-do-without-it technological improvement businesses would make if they could. “This way, when it is possible, you’ve already done your homework. You know what you’re going to do and you’ll be able to move more quickly to make it happen.” 

To learn more about Lovin’ Spoonfuls and food rescue, visit lovinspoonfulsinc.org

To connect with Ashley Stanley, Lauren Palumbo, or any of the members of Team Lovin’ message communications@lovinspoonfulsinc.org.