Food waste in America stacks higher and higher each year. According to Feeding America, the number now stands at 119 billion pounds of food piled up in landfills instead of plates. There’s no question that restaurants and food establishments can and should be making more of an effort to waste less, and the team at One Kitchen Collaborative in Oceanside is a local leader of this movement.
Vibrant and creative, Vallie Gilley has boundless energy when discussing her passion for redirecting usable food from the landfill into meaningful and delicious meals for her community. Several years ago, the seasoned chef and owner of Jitters Coffee Pub in Oceanside found herself puzzled by the significant quantity of waste produced by the food and beverage industry. California Senate Bill (SB) 1383 aimed at curbing residential and industrial food waste statewide had not yet been adopted, but Gilley decided it was time to take action so a system could be in place to make the goals of the bill possible in her town.
Meanwhile, North County chef and caterer Keith Lord of Stratәjē Fourteen was also wrestling with the crisis of food waste in the industry. “I’ve always tried to preach zero waste in the kitchens that I’ve worked in,” says Lord. To his dismay, it was a challenge to inspire chefs to share in his dedication to waste reduction. Although waste-reducing strategies prove to boost the bottom line of an already fickle industry, it often requires more time and skill to innovate ways to utilize scraps that are simply easier to throw away.
Chef Lord met his match when Gilley approached him to pursue a zero-waste catering kitchen offering culinary learning opportunities dedicated to wasting nothing and feeding the community. Gilley collaborated with the City of Oceanside to secure grant funding, and in 2019 launched One Kitchen Collaborative (OKC), initially known as O’side Kitchen Collaborative. She joined forces with Green Oceanside, a local sustainability collective associated with the city, to build a state-of-the-art food recovery and preservation facility designed to foster a sustainable food system. This collaboration was an early blueprint for public-private partnerships in food waste reduction.
“What’s cool about OKC, that no one really knows, is that we built its kitchen at the landfill wondering how much waste we’d be able to divert before it hits the landfill. We quickly became the model for what to do,” Lord explains.
Just as the fledgling organization found its footing, though, the challenge of the global Covid-19 pandemic presented itself. As many nonprofit organizations did at the time, OKC had to pivot and remain relevant. They kept their zero-waste ethos but applied it to mass hunger-relief operations. Gilley says, “Our kitchen has been able to feed nutritious meals to community members who need it the most, including our elderly, our immunocompromised, and our homeless San Diegans.”
The team worked around the clock and relied on volunteers to help cook, package, and distribute hundreds of thousands of meals during 2020. Oceanside’s mayor, Esther Sanchez, lent a hand on the assembly line. “During the pandemic, the city ended up doing a contract with OKC to prepare meals for our homeless and those that were having trouble getting food. [Gilley and her team] ended up doing very, very close to a million meals. I actually volunteered one day—it’s amazing how they can make warm meals for people and really deliver quality,” Mayor Sanchez recalls.
“We even hired laid-off restaurant workers who could have made more money had they stayed home and collected unemployment but they chose to work here because of the amazing mission we’re on,” Gilley shares.
As emergency response to the pandemic eased in 2021, the team at OKC looked to revive its identity and approach to zero-waste cooking. They relaunched their “conscious catering” operations to provide delicious menu options prepared from ingredients that would otherwise be discarded. Meal production resumed for local schools and senior centers to infuse healthy, zero-waste cooking methods into daily meals and educate multiple generations on the importance of food waste reduction.
Now, OKC produces vegan ingredients at scale to sell to chefs who want to embrace zero-waste cooking but lack the facilities and resources that OKC dedicates to this mission. These specialty ingredients are made in-house at the OKC kitchen and include vegan cashew mozzarella, plant-based picadillo, a “not-yo cheese” vegan nacho cheese, and a sunflower seed sunrizo (a chorizo substitute).
Oceanside’s premier restaurant scene is adopting some of OKC’s specialty ingredients and local chefs are experimenting with them on their menus. “[Gilley] had a bunch of really great ideas for trying to use up some of the produce that was getting wasted on farms. They brought us a bunch of samples. I started buying jams and pickles that were made from less-wanted produce,” says chef Samantha Parker of Privateer Coal Fire Pizza. “When we go to do menu changes, we always reach out to them and try to get some ideas from them about what they would like to create for us. Then we collaborate to find something delicious to put on our menu.”
Chef Parker and OKC developed the OKC Pie, a Southwestern-style pizza with romesco verde, OKC vegan cashew mozzarella, OKC sunrizo, OKC corn salsa, and OKC brazil nut parmesan.
Additionally, OKC’s “fysh” tacos make a splash on the Privateer menu and are made from coconut flesh.
When speaking about these delicious dishes, Mayor Sanchez is a huge fan. “Getting to zero waste is actually possible. We throw away so many fruits and vegetables and the idea that OKC uses just about everything—they leave nothing on the table when they cook—is amazing.”
The partnership between the City of Oceanside and OKC is a testament to the power of hard work and patience. Both city workers and OKC staff waded through the nitty-gritty details of grant applications, navigated bureaucratic red tape, and found triumph and purpose through a pandemic. Michelle Geller, the city of Oceanside’s economic development manager, knows the beauty of this partnership well. “I first encountered OKC right when I started working for the city. They were catering an event that I was attending. I had their food and I was blown away. When I learned that they were a zero-waste kitchen on top of everything else, I was doubly blown away,” she shares. Geller believes Oceanside is on the cutting edge of sustainability in the industry and sees the potential for current and future food and beverage businesses in the city to collaborate with OKC on zero-waste education and initiatives. “My goal is business retention in Oceanside. A zero-waste kitchen affects the bottom line, so OKC has been really great about getting the word out in educating restaurants on how to be zero waste,” Geller says.
Whether you experience OKC in the crunchy first bite of a “fysh” taco at Privateer, fill up your plate at one of their conscious catering events, or receive a meaningful meal as a student or senior, rest assured that OKC is cooking up a better future for us all.
“They’ve shown that this is a pretty phenomenal model that they’ve created,” Mayor Sanchez emphasizes. “I think it’s a great model to be exporting out to other communities.”
One Kitchen Collaborative invites you to visit their website for more information on their conscious catering and happenings like their monthly taco night on the first Tuesday of every month at Jitters Coffee Pub.
This article originally published in issue 71.