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Meet Robin Franz Martin, Food Recovery Initiative at Joint Venture

Executive Director, Joint Venture's Food Recovery Initiative

By Robin Doran | Published: April 2023

Finding Common Ground

One glance at the CV of Robin Franz Martin inspires with a story of someone who has devoted her career to making the world a better place. And she is currently in the process of laying a foundation for seminal work that could have a favorable impact for generations.

Robin, the Executive Director of the Food Recovery Initiative at Joint Venture, has launched several programs, from a food systems summer camp in New Hampshire to a Medical Reserve Corps in Ohio. She likes working with food because “ brings people together.” And now, with her current project, she has an opportunity to bring many people together around a solution that transforms lives by confronting hunger in one of the richest places on earth.

It's a heady opportunity for someone who is admittedly reserved and far more comfortable talking about the programs she cares about than the person she is.

“We can effectively change norms and actually prove this works,” she beams.

Robin’s food recovery work at Joint Venture began as a grass roots project that, pre-pandemic, retrieved surplus food from corporate campuses and delivered it to those in need. Her current focus is to provide analysis, recommendations, successful pilots, and best practices in the surplus food arena, as well as implement jurisdictional mandates of California Senate Bill 1383.

SB 1383 requires that local governments educate residents and businesses about organic waste reduction and recycling, divert organics from the waste stream, procure compost, as well as bring a needed focus to surplus food. Certain businesses are required to donate the maximum amount of their excess food to recovery organizations.

That’s where Robin and her team of five passionate sustainability experts come in. The team has much on its plate as is currently contracted to manage the Santa Clara County Food Recovery Program after having fostered the Silicon Valley Food Recovery Council and the Food Recovery Steering Committee. The group is also leading a pilot project to bring recovered food directly to affordable housing sites throughout Santa Clara County. “All these projects are team efforts; we have hired fantastic leaders for each of our projects that I feel lucky to work alongside.”

“Robin is a valuable leader in the food recovery sector, sharing her technical expertise, networking skills, and an infectious commitment to food security.”

Since Robin supported all the jurisdictions in writing their SB 1383 ordinances, a countywide program was possible. Joint Venture now runs that program and has been able to implement some unique features that have been featured in statewide webinars and conferences. The automated system that collects reporting from both donors and food recovery organizations allows for some of the most robust data collection in the state. During the last reporting period, the first six months of 2022, food recovery organizations reported recovering 9,764,987 pounds of food, and 82% of regulated businesses reporting employing prevention measures designed to waste less food.

“Robin is a valuable leader in the food recovery sector, sharing her technical expertise, networking skills, and an infectious commitment to food security,” said Michele Young, Senior Management Analyst for Recycling and Waste Reduction at the County of Santa Clara Consumer and Environmental Protection Agency. “Robin has been an amazing mentor, and I appreciate the opportunity to benefit from her experience and passion.”

The oldest of two, Robin was raised in a creative family in Dayton, Ohio. Her mother is a potter and her father, formerly a business consultant, is now a notable Dayton photographer. His images capture the city’s history and people,...from butchers and bakers and candy makers to clowns and sculptors and fire eaters.”

Robin graduated from the University of Michigan with a BS in environmental policy and behavior.

She co-founded Reinventing the Meal, an alternative summer camp program in New Hampshire for at-risk middle grades children about the local food system, served as Executive Director of the Central Square Business Improvement District in Cambridge, and founded the Franklin County & Columbus Medical Reserve Corp in Columbus, Ohio. Their mission is to develop a volunteer corps of medical professionals to respond to disasters.

In August 2022, the Food Recovery Initiative released a report — Making the Most of Surplus Food in Santa Clara County — which reflects on the current status of food recovery and waste prevention in Santa Clara County, and makes recommendations for the next three years.

In their newest collaboration with Public Health, Robin and her team are leading a pilot project to bring recovered food directly to affordable housing sites throughout Santa Clara County. They are finalizing a plan for three affordable housing locations to place a commercial refrigerator at each location that will utilize new technology designed to minimize food waste and facilitate regular, asynchronous communication between the housing site and recovery organization.

All signs point to success. “We upended expectations and built a new model of collaboration and accountability that communities across the state and nation can emulate – whether for food recovery or around other pressing issues,” said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, President of the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors and Co-Chair of Joint Venture’s board of directors.

Robin met her husband, Scott - who has a PhD in linguistics and works at the intersection of linguistics and tech — 20 years ago at a friend’s house in Boston. His work brought the family to California in 2013.

In her spare time Robin hikes daily with her labradoodle, Ozzy. She is a master urban gardener but with two adolescent kids and a full work schedule, finds it difficult to get into her garden these days.

Those time demands guide her personal approach to food as well. She calls herself a practical cook who creates “must-go” meals that transform leftovers into tacos or stews.

When Robin landed at Joint Venture in 2017 the Food Recovery Initiative was in its early stages. Scott worked at Facebook and Robin was leading volunteer projects nearby at LifeMoves, a nonprofit for people who are unhoused. “It was such a huge opportunity,” she says. “A place like Facebook with so much located adjacent to a place where there was not enough; I was pretty sure I wanted to be a part of connecting those dots.”

Robin standing next to A La Carte van

A La Carte, a no-cost and dignified service for people in need was launched in 2018 with a single truck that Robin ran out of her own garage. The service collected surplus prepared food from corporate and university campuses for delivery directly into neighborhoods with people in need. A La Carte eventually was adopted by Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen where it now serves 35,000 meals per week across the Bay Area.

And then the pandemic hit. Fortunately, Robin had only recently convened the Silicon Valley Food Recovery Council, a collection of nonprofits working on the issue. With newfound strength in numbers, the group had the ability to lean into the crisis more readily than before joining forces.

“My job has been to find common ground - for the cities, the county, the nonprofits, and other stakeholders,” she says.

Robin identifies Michele Young who came out of retirement to work on 1383 as a true champion of the overall early success of the project.

“Food recovery is a new concept in the world of government regulation,” says Robin. “Businesses have been donating surplus food for generations. Now we are bringing that process to light - requiring it, tracking it, and institutionalizing it. There are some growing pains, for sure, but in the end, California is at the forefront of an important movement—to support the safety net for those in need, and to address, through legislation, the responsible utilization of resources.”

“We upended expectations and built a new model of collaboration and accountability that communities across the state and nation can emulate – whether for food recovery or around other pressing issues.”

What is the biggest challenge to success? Robin says that the food recovery organizations are reliant upon philanthropy to meet the needs of people who are food insecure. “They're constantly needing to fundraise to fulfill basic human needs.” At the same time, she is encouraged by the improvement she sees as more businesses get the hang of the process.

What does that process look like in 10 years? Robin responds with conviction. “If we were just a collection of food recovery organizations, then the metric would be how much food we were recovering, right? But prevention is just as much a key to success for SB 1383 as recovery, and even more important for the climate.”

In the near future, Robin and her team have pilot projects in the works to distribute recovered food directly to clients, giving them a dignified way to pick up their food that looks like they've just ordered it to go. “It will be efficient because we remove all of the infrastructure around food recovery,” she says. “We just have people that live in the neighborhood that can come and pick up what they need.”

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