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William "Bill" Bracken

Founder and culinary director, Bracken’s Kitchen

“We all have something inside us that’s really meaningful and can be given to others. It’s a matter of finding what sparks that from inside your heart and soul, and then to pursue it.”

I founded Bracken’s Kitchen in March 2013 with the goal of rescuing and repurposing perfectly good food that would otherwise have been thrown in landfills, and using it to produce nutritious meals for people who are going through various challenges. In 2020, we recovered over 239 tons of unused food and prepared and distributed approximately 1.75 million meals throughout Southern California.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Hunger has been a problem since humans have walked the earth, and food waste has become epidemic in America. Every major metropolitan community in the U.S. has experience with food waste, food insecurity, and poverty. Before the pandemic, more than 35 million people in the U.S. didn’t have enough to eat, and that number has increased during the pandemic. We all share the two most basic human needs — the need to breathe and the need to eat. The problem is, air is free but food is not.

On the flip side, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the nation’s food supply is wasted. It often goes into landfills without being used for its intended purpose — to feed people. America doesn’t have a food-shortage problem; it has a food-waste problem. Each meal we serve to those living with food insecurity not only provides much needed sustenance, but also helps to free up valuable resources for other life necessities.

The pandemic took us from preparing and distributing 8,000 meals per week to 8,000 meals per day. In the process we hired 16 people who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Thanks to them, we were in the right place at the right time to be able to do that.

The moment that sparked my passion

It was a bit of a process. In 2008 and 2009, the economy sank and a lot of people lost jobs. Food is always one of the first expenses that gets cut. I watched the face of hunger change in front of my eyes. This moved me to look deeper at the issues of food insecurity and hunger. I spent years as a chef in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach, working at luxury five-star hotels and feeding celebrities and movie stars. In 2013 I hung up my chef coat, strapped on an apron, and founded Bracken’s Kitchen. There’s nothing that has been more rewarding to me than doing this for the last eight years.

What I wish other people knew

I wish people realized how much hunger there is in our own backyards. America doesn’t suffer from acute malnutrition the way some countries do, but many people in the U.S. don’t know where their next meal is coming from. In the meantime, we throw away up to 40 percent of our food supply. We’ve become a throwaway society in America.

Why my approach is unique

When I founded Bracken’s Kitchen, I set out to feed people the only way I knew how — by cooking for them. I called in a lot of favors from companies I had purchased from for 25 years and relied heavily on industry partners to donate products.

What makes us unique is we offer a trio of services that address hunger, which is a symptom of poverty; culinary training, which offers a path out of poverty for at-risk students and young adults; and food waste. Instead of training volunteers to produce nutritious meals for distribution through our network of agency partners, we pour that training into youth and help them find their way out of poverty. This kitchen has opened doors for so many people to see and understand not only what poverty and need look like in this country, but what a life of service to others looks like. I truly wish everyone could experience the life-changing, soul-changing experience that I have through the work we do at Bracken’s Kitchen.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Find your spiritual gifting abilities: We all have something inside us that’s really meaningful and can be given to others. It’s a matter of finding what sparks that from inside your heart and soul, and then to pursue it. For most human beings, fear is the greatest barrier; sometimes you just have to find ways to overcome it. It’s daunting and scary at times, but sometimes you have to dive in.