This summer, I had the opportunity to work with Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a non-profit organization that aims to lower food waste and food insecurity simultaneously by building connections between restaurants and human service agencies. For me, that primarily meant doing outreach to restaurants with the hope that they would take part in the initiative.
Unfortunately, I was faced with the same reality as anyone who has ever phone banked or campaigned door to door: most people are not particularly eager to respond. At first, I had thought that at least half the restaurants would write back with interest, but after reaching out to over 150 restaurants, I learned this was not the case. A few restaurants responded with interest and were willing to participate in our initiatives to counter food insecurity in their communities. A larger portion were less captivated, responding with a simple “we are not able at this time” or hanging up the phone while I was mid-sentence. These responses were a minority, compared to the overwhelming radio silence I received from most restaurants. I only received the first promising response towards the end of my second week.
It makes perfect sense why so many restaurants did not respond. I was reaching out to businesses during a pandemic and a major economic crisis yet expected that they would have the time to respond to me and the ability to participate in the program. I did not consider all the ways their restaurants were struggling and how taking the time out of their day to coordinate pick-ups of food was nearly impossible, as most were just trying to keep their business afloat.
Despite knowing in the back of my mind that there were real reasons the restaurants were not responding, I found myself looking to alternative causes. I reread the emails I sent aloud, making sure I had sent out the correct information. Maybe, I thought, I had been emailing the wrong addresses. Or maybe, I was calling at the wrong times.
In our weekly meetings, my supervisor would always touch on what I perceived as a failure on my end. She affirmed my thinking that most restaurants were preoccupied by the unique circumstances of this time. As she put it, we were “planting a seed” because even if the businesses were unable to donate their excess food now, they potentially could in the future. She viewed the results of my outreach with a glass-half-full mindset, instead of the half-empty one I was using. Where I was seeing that I could count the “yes” responses on one hand, she focused on each response individually and celebrated the small successes.
Gaby Queenan, a guest speaker from Massachusetts River Alliance, gave our group advice that complimented my supervisor’s words. When asked about dealing with rejections and failures in advocacy work, she told us that in order to keep pushing forward, it is essential to celebrate the wins no matter how small they may be.
Those interactions have changed my approach to the work I am doing. I am not sulking that a mere three percent of donors I contacted were willing to partner with Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. Instead, I am focusing on the fact that I was able to connect five more restaurants that will provide meals to feed insecure households. I planted the seed for many more that could possibly participate in the future. And, even if none of that pans out, I spent time learning about food insecurity and bringing businesses’ attention to the struggle that individuals in their own communities face.