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A Chef's Journey to Fight Food Insecurity

2022 AARP Purpose Prize winner Bill Bracken talks about his journey

William Bracken

AARP

Wilma Consul:

Hi, I'm Wilma Consul with an AARP Take On Today. In the aftermath of the 2007 recession, researchers from Feeding America reported that the amount of hungry people in the nation increased by about 30%. And for seniors, this increase was even greater. Bill Bracken witnessed this downturn firsthand in his community in southern California.

Bill Bracken:

And I watched a lot of really good people lose their jobs, and that really had a profound impact on me. I watched the face of hunger literally change right in front of me.

Wilma Consul:

To Bill Bracken, hunger is a multifaceted crisis. He was a full-fledged chef, who graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America. And for over 35 years, he led kitchens at acclaimed hotels and resorts and won awards for his culinary work.

Bill Bracken:

Then in 2011, I was thrust into the lines of the unemployed. And suddenly, I knew then that was God doing for me what I couldn't do for myself. And I had to figure out a way to feed people.

Wilma Consul:

In 2013 Bracken changed the course of his life and the lives of people in his community when he founded Bracken's Kitchen. Based in Orange County, just about an hour away from Los Angeles, this nonprofit boasts a simple mission, to feed the hungry, train cooks and eliminate food waste. For his efforts, Chef Bill Bracken won the 2021 AARP Purpose Prize Award. It's the national award that celebrates people 50 plus who use their knowledge and life experience to solve challenging social problems. Bill Bracken joins us now from California. Welcome to AARP Take On Today, Chef Bracken.

Bill Bracken:

Thank you, Wilma. Honored, and a pleasure to be here.

Wilma Consul:

How does it feel to be an AARP Purpose Prize winner and to be recognized for the work that you've for the community?

Bill Bracken:

Oh, gee, should I joke and say, I feel old? Honestly, I was truly blown away. And I say this very, very humbly. I come from a small town in Kansas. I never dreamed or imagined that I would have any attention put it on me, but I had my 15 minutes of fame in my past life. I did my share of TV shows and things like that and was recognized for my culinary skills. And that's really beyond me now. So I almost shutter when someone wants to recognize me, because it's really not about me.

Bill Bracken:

I mean, first and foremost, it's about all those people out there struggling to put a meal on the table. It's the 2 million people that we'll provide a meal to this year that really, really, really are hurting. And after that, it's our staff and all the people here that really do all the work that makes me look good. But I'm grateful that AARP will help to shine a light on that and remind people, especially now with inflation, and food prices on the rise, and the supply chain, that there's a lot of people out there that need our help. So thank you AARP for looking at what we do and thinking it worthy of recognition.

Wilma Consul:

Now, tell us a little bit more about that journey. You had a food truck first before it became a nonprofit?

Bill Bracken:

No, we had the food truck as part of the nonprofit. But when I realized that I needed to be feeding people, I tried really hard to keep one foot firmly planted in the for profit world, if you will and hold onto my ties to that world that I knew so well. And I had this idea. We developed, actually, a business plan for a restaurant that was going to be called Lettuce Eat, kind of a salad and sandwich and casual place. And it was going to morph into Lettuce Feed certain nights of the week. And it really occurred to us two different things. Number one, to open a restaurant that would be successful financially that can give back, had to be in a nice area. And that made it really difficult for people in need to get there.

Bill Bracken:

And number two, I don't think a restaurant in southern California in a nice area would really, the residents or the neighbors in that community, would appreciate suddenly that their area is being filled up with the low-income or homeless people coming for meals. So we realized that we needed to come up the better idea and a plan. And we struggled really hard to figure out what that was, to be quite honest. I was sitting in Starbucks one day. I never really drank coffee before I lost my job and started Bracken's Kitchen. I had no office. Suddenly Starbucks became my office. But a food truck went by one day and light bulbs just went off, ding, ding, ding. Well, bring food to the people. And that's how we were really born in this idea of taking our food trucks into the communities to feed people in need.

Bill Bracken:

And since then we've now moved into a 9,000-square-foot kitchen of our own. And we're on course to make close to 2 million meals this year. And the food truck has become just a little part of, truly, of what we do, because we share our meals with 45 different agency partners. But the food truck is our history. It's our heart and soul. It's what keeps us connected to the people in need out there, because when we're out there in the food truck, we're actually talking to people, and meeting them, and just loving on them and doing life with them. And that's how we really can connect and really make a difference in people's lives.

Wilma Consul:

So chef, what skillsets as a chef helped you in starting the organization and creating different programs?

Bill Bracken:

Wow. I mean, obviously, running a kitchen, and cooking, unlike a food bank, that's just handing out boxed, or processed, or packaged food, we're actually cooking. So needles to say, culinary skills in running a food and beverage operation, business skills is important. But I think the most important thing is when you work in hospitality, you actually learn to expect the unexpected.

Bill Bracken:

From my early days in small little restaurants where suddenly a bus pulls up and 50 people get out and they want to have lunch and when you never expected it to. All the things that happened in the culinary world, I think that journey since I was 12 years old cooking, really not knowing what each day was going to bring, no matter how much you planned and tried, you just never know what's going to happen. And I think that's really helped the most. I don't know if you'd call that a skillset, but certainly maybe a social or emotional skillset of how to deal with the challenges that come your way. I think that's really served us well over the years,

Wilma Consul:

I looked on your website and I love your mission. It's very simple. It says, "Through food recovery, culinary training and our community feeding program, we are committed to rescuing, repurposing and restoring both food and lives." Walk us through this process from recovery to table.

Bill Bracken:

Absolutely. What that really means in layman's terms is we're just in the kitchen every day, cooking tasty nutritious meals, training people in the process and sending it out to people of need. The big unknown every day, which kind of makes a day in the kitchen sometimes the biggest episode of the chopped TV show you'll ever see is, and that's the food rescue side. We never know what's going to come in. We've worked to a point now we have a pretty good steady inventory in the freezer of meats and proteins and things. So we know what we're working with, but it's the protein, or I'm sorry, the produce items that you never know what's going to show up. And COVID has changed everything.

Bill Bracken:

But to give you a couple of insights into food rescue, it could be a pallet of meat, proteins, pork items that maybe came from one of our local meat purveyors that they put them in their freezer, because they couldn't sell them and then they eventually have to donate them. It could be a pallet of produce coming from one of our produce suppliers, that ugly produce passed its best-by date. It could be items coming from a farm, items coming from the food bank.

Bill Bracken:

One of our biggest donations, and not biggest in terms of weight, but biggest donations in terms of just, I mean, sheer impact, I think, was when we got a phone call that someone had a few thousand pounds of roast beef that they wanted to donate. And we had no idea what it was. The truck showed up. And pallet, after pallet, after pallet came off. 12 pallets of roast beef, 16,000 pounds was dropped off. We still, as it was unloaded, had no idea what it was. So we started opening the boxes and inside there were beautiful two-pound packages of retail sized, sliced roast beef. Beautifully done. Has a best-buy or use-by date that still had six weeks on it. And everyone will recognize the name on that roast beef was Kirkland.

Wilma Consul:

Oh, that's Costco!

Bill Bracken:

Exactly. This beef was made and sent to Costco. And it was rejected at the distribution center, because the cases or the master cases were damaged. So here's a bunch of boxes that were a little bit crushed, and beat up, and banged up. And the boxes didn't look good at all. But inside of it was beautiful roast beef and 16,000 pounds that was going to head to the landfill. So that's the type of things that come up unexpectedly. So we were like, "Okay, what can we do with this?" We were making Philly cheese steak sandwiches for days, teriyaki beef bowls, beef stew, good, old fashioned Midwestern hot roast beef sandwiches. And we just get to have fun cooking amazing meals from product that is beautiful and perfectly edible, but for whatever reason, didn't make it to a grocery store or someone's home and it was going to be thrown away.

Wilma Consul:

Wow. Now, out of curiosity, can you share some of your other menu? With your chef background, how does it different from soup kitchens and food banks?

Bill Bracken:

Absolutely. Right now, we have a pretty robust program working with many of the shelters. California, Orange County in particular, has really worked really, really hard to address the homelessness issue. There's a lot going on right now in LA County, but Orange County is kind of ahead of the curve. And so we have a four-week cycle menu that we send out every day to several shelters, several hundred meals, lunch and dinner every day. And then we have our community program where we send out, just to other agency partners all over the place. And they're all done differently.

Bill Bracken:

Today we made Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and fresh roasted vegetables. It could be a chicken fried steak. It could be lemon pepper chicken. But everything is made from scratch, all of our sauces, everything. We try to keep a balance. If you're dealing with someone who has been homeless for a long time or hardcore homeless, chronically homeless, as they might say, their diets aren't what we're used to. So we try to strike a balance between giving some very simple things that they might enjoy and eat and then try to get something a little healthier and nicer with lots of fresh salads.

Wilma Consul:

You're getting me hungry here.

Bill Bracken:

Good!

Wilma Consul:

And I think what you're doing, making people feel special with the menu that you do, you make them feel special.

Bill Bracken:

I appreciate you saying that, Wilma. I mean, I come from a small town in Kansas where food was just a way life, whether it was weddings, funerals, the Friday night fish fry at the VFW or the annual carnival that came to town, the fall festival, food was central to everything we did. And then I fast forward to my years at Beverly Hills. And I came to the opinion that there's nothing in the world that's more opinionated than food. Nothing evokes more passion and emotion in a person than food. I mean, I just didn't understand it. When you have an A-list celebrity standing in front of you and screaming at you, because his oatmeal wasn't made with whole milk, I'm like, "Dude, it's just oatmeal. What's the big deal?" Of course, when you work in the number one hotel in America, you can't tell him that. You're just like, "Yes, sir. Yes, sir." We'd fix it.

Bill Bracken:

But I never understood that. And then after starting Bracken's Kitchen, it came full circle for me. We all share the two most basic human needs for survival, the need to breathe and the need to eat. The problem is air is free and food is not. And it's that simple fact that gives food so much power in a person's life. Whether you're an A-list celebrity getting upset about your oatmeal or whether you're the person down down the street who doesn't know where their next meal is going to come from, food just plays a pivotal role in everybody's lives. I mean, there's no better way to intimately get to know a person than breaking bread with them. Food just breaks down all the barriers. And that's why we try to leverage that every day. And as one of our volunteers coined the phrase so many years ago, "Deliver hope just one tasty meal at a time."

Wilma Consul:

Since you started Bracken's Kitchen almost 10 years ago, how has it evolved over time?

Bill Bracken:

Wow. I didn't know anything about nonprofit work when I started this. I know how to run food and beverage and that's been my approach. Some people might consider me foolish, because I just knew that I was being called to feed people and I could no longer deny that calling. So the only way I knew how to feed people was by cooking a meal for them, not providing a box or something like a food pantry might do. So this idea of the food truck, we really had this vision of eventually having five trucks, have a kitchen, not unlike what we have now. And our food trucks balance their time between going out and feeding the less fortunate and also going out and earning revenue and catering or whatever a food truck might do. And that becomes part of our income stream. As we train students, they can work on the truck.

Bill Bracken:

But COVID changed everything. We went from 8,000 meals a week to 8,000 meals a day, because the need was great. And so I never envisioned having 45 agency partners. I really envisioned most of our work would be us feeding people directly through the food trucks. But we've realized that in order to have a bigger impact, not only do we got to make more meals, but we also need to have the agency partners and the resources to get the meals to people that need them. And that's something we've just seen even recently in the last few months, that we're slowly coming out of COVID and other agencies are opening back up, a lot of nonprofits pivoted during the pandemic. And they closed down all of their regular programming and services and they just focused on helping people survive with food supplies, whatever they needed.

Bill Bracken:

So we was as high as 75 partners in the height of the pandemic, that was helping get food out. And we're down to 45 now. So a lot of those agencies have gone back to their regular programming. Doesn't mean they're people still aren't struggling and they still need food, but now we're having to kind of re-group and find new and creative ways to find more partners to get the food from our kitchen to the people of need.

Wilma Consul:

And lastly, a lot of our listeners are retired or might be years from retiring, but some definitely think about the next chapter. What are they going to do? A lot of them travel and just want to enjoy life. And I know that many want to volunteer and help their community, like what you've done. What advice can you give to older adults who are thinking about doing something similar that you've done?

Bill Bracken:

Well, I've been talking at a few different meetings about that very subject. We have someone here locally who focuses a lot on that in her second life. And I didn't retire, but this is certainly a complete U-turn or left turn for me and a new direction for my life and career. And what always comes to my mind when I think about that is a quote that Gandhi said so many years ago, that the surest way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

Bill Bracken:

So while a lot of people may enjoy retirement, and traveling, and some of those fun things that retirement brings, let us not lose sight of the fact that were all created for a purpose. And I think first and foremost, that is to help and support and love the people around us. So don't be afraid. I was afraid for a long time. Dive in. Find something that's near and dear to your heart. And give it some time. Give it some of your talent. If you have treasure, give that. It really, truly will change your life and make you better in the long run.

Wilma Consul:

Chef, I want to thank you for making a lot of stomachs full and in that process, you make a lot of hearts full.

Bill Bracken:

Thank you. I'm honored and appreciate your time today.

Wilma Consul:

Bill Bracken is a 2021 AARP Purpose Prize winner. He is the Founder and Culinary Director of Bracken's Kitchen. Bill Bracken is one of five 2021 AARP Purpose Prize Award recipients. This year there is a brand new award category called the AARP Inspire Award, where you have the opportunity to vote for your favorite winner. Check out the nominees at AARP.org/inspireaward. The winner will be announced during the virtual event celebration on December 15, 2021.

Wilma Consul:

That's it for today's show. If you liked this episode, please let us know by emailing us at NewsPodcast@aarp.org. Thanks to our news team, producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon, engineer Julio Gonzalez, executive producer Jason Young and, of course, my co-hosts Bob Edwards and Mike Ellison. Become a subscriber on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher or other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well. For an AARP Take On Today, I'm Wilma Consul. Thank you so much for listening.

For decades, Chef Bill Bracken led kitchens and won awards for his culinary work. He had worked in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach to cook for high-profile diners. But in 2013, he changed course and fed his local community instead. In recognition of his ability to tap into his life experience to build a better future for us all, Bracken won a 2022 AARP Purpose Prize.

Today, we hear about how his non-profit, Bracken's Kitchen, feeds the hungry, trains young people to cook and eliminate food waste.

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