Connecting the Dots on Food Recovery

Fight2Feed, an all-volunteer organization made up of event and hospitality professionals, has saved millions of pounds of food from Chicago-area landfills over the last eight years by staying focused on solving problems and leaning into their relationships.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Fight2Feed volunteerspreparing meals

Fight2Feed focuses on reducing food waste and feeding the hungry, serving anyone in need of a meal.

Jiwon McCartney, founder and managing partner of ALLURE Event and Meeting Productions in Chicago, didn’t set out to create a nonprofit that, to date, has rescued more than 3 million pounds of food and served nearly 800,000 meals. She just didn’t want to see food go to waste, said McCartney, the founder of Fight2Feed, an all-volunteer organization which delivered as many as 6,000 meals a week to Chicago communities during the height of the pandemic.

Jiwon McCartney headshot

Jiwon McCartney

The nonprofit got its start in 2014, a few months after McCartney created Culinary Fight Club, a live cooking competition for chefs, for a restaurant client. The competition was a success and eventually grew into a national cooking competition held in multiple cities. Even in the early stages, the events generated a lot of mostly perishable leftover food. That bothered McCartney, a former catering and convention services manager for Hyatt, both in terms of the wasted resources and because there were people in Chicago in need of meals, she said. Since she knew how much food she would have each month to donate and when it would be available, McCartney thought getting it to those who could use it would be a relatively simple matter, ironed out with a few logistical decisions about delivery and packaging.

But when McCartney began calling large nonprofit organizations to see if they could work together, she kept running into roadblocks — meshing the donations with organizations’ structures and requirements was a challenge. It made her frustrated, she recalled, “like there’s got to be a solution and there just wasn’t.” So, McCartney reached out to the network she’s developed over two decades in the restaurant and hotel industry and asked for help in setting up an organization where she and like-minded volunteers could do it themselves. “We created a board,” she said, “and we never looked back.”

That was in March 2014. Within six months, more than 100 volunteers, working out of the kitchen of a downtown Chicago hotel, prepared and delivered more than 1,000 meals in Chicago neighborhoods. They kept it up, month after month, a network of volunteers serving hundreds of hot meals to a variety of religious, philanthropic, and community centers in Chicago. The ingredients to prepare the meals were donated “and all of my Culinary Fight Club chefs were coming to help,” McCartney said, “because they really loved the cause.” Over the years, Fight2Feed has stuck with the model of using borrowed kitchens, McCartney said. Their purpose is not to compete with existing organizations, but to plug holes, she said. “I like to call ourselves the homeless nonprofit. We don’t have a home, but the food is everywhere — and the need is everywhere.”

‘I Became a Conduit’

In 2020, all of that — community need, the availability of food for recovery, and Fight2Feed’s operations — grew exponentially. In the early days of the pandemic, as restaurants and venues began to shut down, McCartney’s phone began blowing up with texts from restaurant owners and food distributors who had large amounts of food they had paid for but couldn’t use. As food distributors passed her name along to others, “I became this conduit,” McCartney said. She also was hearing from chefs who were out of work and wanted to do something to help. Fight2Feed quickly mobilized to prepare meals in the borrowed kitchens of closed restaurants — at their peak in the spring of 2020, McCartney estimates they were serving 6,500 meals a week.

Fight2Feed volunteers prepping meals

A collaboration between McCormick Place and Fight2Feed has resulted in the rescue and distribution of thousands of pounds of food.

It was already months into the pandemic when a McCormick Place client told Doug Bradley, vice president at SAVOR, the center’s F&B provider, about McCartney and Fight2Feed. The convention center was then closed to events, and, after a meeting, SAVOR offered Fight2Feed the regular use of kitchen equipment and refrigerator and dry storage space in one of the center’s kitchens. That began what Bradley called the first wave — Fight2Feed used the kitchen a few days a week to prepare meals and, for the first time, to operate a food pantry which offered 200 to 250 bags of food to community members.

In the last year, as meetings began to come back to McCormick Place, Fight2Feed has continued at the convention center, working around the catering operations — “We’re pretty mobile,” McCartney said. Their presence has multiplied SAVOR’s ability to donate excess food from events, Bradley said. Previously, SAVOR had been working with a few shelters that were nearby, Bradley said, but McCartney “has been able to really expand the scope by tying our food items into her broader network of folks that she gives food to.”

Being at the convention center also has put McCartney in contact with the organizers and exhibitors at McCormick Place events, including the annual National Restaurant Association Show. She “basically comes in and sweeps — I mean that in the figurative sense — the floor,” Bradley said, contacting vendors who have food to donate. And since many of the organizations that Fight2Feed has worked with over the years provide non-food resources to their clients, the nonprofit also has become a conduit for a variety of post-event donations from event organizers. When Salesforce had a meeting at McCormick Place, Fight2Feed worked with them to not only divert leftover food to the community but to donate furniture used at the event to a local nonprofit that helps refugees settle into apartments.

“Periodically, articles of furniture just show up in the kitchen areas,” Bradley said, “and I think, ‘Oh yeah, Jiwon’s got another donation.’”

people preparing donated food

Fight2Feed helped distribute excess prepared food during the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place in February 2022.

Beyond What They Imagined

From its beginning, Fight2Feed’s volunteers have had the feeling of going far beyond what they imagined, McCartney said. Even now, she has the sense that “it just kind of snowballed. Everything I’m doing, I feel like had nothing to do with it.”

But the experience of the last three years has changed how she looks at how she spends her time and at her relationships, she said. “Before the pandemic, I was doing like 80-plus events nationally and running competitions. I was beyond maxed out. I didn’t know how I was going to live another year because I was so tired. I was tired of managing — I was tired of dealing with chefs. I mean, I really hated the universe.”

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When the pandemic happened, her initial reaction was dismay, she said. “But then I had my nonprofit.” McCartney and members of her network now call each other at all hours, excited about the resources they have to offer and where they might be needed. The volunteers “just love it. It’s like it’s their drug. And if rescuing food and seeing a happy face is doing something for you, by all means, do it every day.”

As events come back, “what I’m realizing is that we can’t do what we used to do the way we used to do it,” McCartney said. “I want to go places and do things. And the only way I’m going to do it is with others — those of like minds and like passions like me.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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