If you ask Thai Nguyen how she manages to do all the things that she does—be a mother to three kids, oversee the operations of Kaizen Food Rescue, invest in her community—she’ll smile and shrug the question off. She just does. Simple as that.
Except that nothing about Thai’s work is simple. In fact, it’s complex and nuanced and extremely powerful, especially to the more than 2,300 families to whom she and her team of volunteers provide culturally relevant food every week.
“We can see the vulnerability in the systems on which we currently depend, because we are made of those who are also looking for help,” Thai says. “Food Bank of the Rockies has been instrumental in helping us provide equitable food access, centering our community members to solve issues around food justice and helping us grow toward food sovereignty.”
Thai founded Kaizen Food Rescue in 2019; today, it is one of Food Bank of the Rockies’ largest Hunger Relief Partners, distributing an average of 59 tons of food sourced from the Food Bank every week. (For context, 12 lb. of food is equivalent to 10 meals, meaning Kaizen Food Rescue provides around 9,833 meals weekly.) The organization is the result of Thai’s capstone project for Colorado State University’s 20-week Family Leadership Training Institute. It has since become more than she could ever have imagined. “It started as a community garden, but eventually morphed into this,” she recollects. “It just grew exponentially, especially throughout the pandemic.”
Since its founding, Kaizen Food Rescue has paved the way in providing culturally relevant food items to the communities it serves, which currently include Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, and Adams counties at up to 12 sites a week.
In addition to the food share sites, the organization also (among many other things):
- Provides summer kids’ meals in partnership with area schools (last year Kaizen provided more than 14,220 meals for children, and expects to double its distribution this summer)
- Gives out vegetable seeds and potting soil via Big Green, Ekar Farm, Frontline Farming, and Spirit of the Sun
- Partners with Denver Health’s Pena Clinic on South Federal Boulevard to provide boxes of food to food-insecure patients being discharged
- Partners with the Hornbuckle Foundation to provide meals to people in recovery, in transitional housing, or experiencing homelessness
In choosing their food share sites, Kaizen Food Rescue focuses exclusively on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities located in food deserts and looks for ways to reduce barriers to food access. It does so by allowing community members to pick up food for other people, having community members select site locations that are in walkable areas and/or food deserts, partnering with local nonprofits such as Commún Denver, Sheridan Rising Together for Equity, and Food Bank of the Rockies, and ensuring the food they provide reflects the desires and cultures of each community.
“Almost 97% of the families we serve are BIPOC, Latinx, and immigrant communities where English is their second language,” says Thai, who lived in four refugee camps in four different countries before coming to the United States, and credits the kindness her family received from aid organizations as the impetus behind Kaizen Food Rescue. “These communities have been super marginalized, and we don’t want to create unintentional harm with how we go about helping them; we don’t want to foster a savior complex. What makes us very different from others is that we ask the community members to help us pick out what they want in the boxes. It takes longer, but in the end it’s more equitable.”
Kaizen Food Rescue’s focus on meeting peoples’ needs as well as their wants not only benefits its clients, but also aligns with Food Bank’s mission to equitably distribute food to all communities in its service areas.
“Food Bank of the Rockies is proud of our partners, such as Kaizen Food Rescue, who are addressing inequitable food distribution by removing language barriers, offering culturally responsive food products, and, most importantly, outreaching within the communities in which underserved populations reside,” says Cindy Mitchell, vice president of programs at Food Bank of the Rockies. “We are grateful to have and support these partnerships as there is much more work to be done.”
On a recent, sunny Thursday afternoon in Southwest Denver, some of the items chosen by the majority Latinx community included chayotes (a Mexican fruit similar to summer squash), organic pineapples, grapefruit, black beans, lemons, garlic, ginger, green onions, spinach, strawberries, tea, and cucumbers—all on top of the USDA-provided items (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, potatoes, onions, carrots, sour cream, and cheese). In total, each box of food, or set, weighed around 50 lb. Additionally, clients could opt to add gallons of milk and packs of diapers to their set; families with five or more people were invited to take two sets.
“Most Thursdays, the line of cars to get food is three blocks long by the time we start handing them out,” says Thai. “It’s a well-oiled machine.” That is indeed true—so much so that within the first 30 minutes, 144 sets had already been packed into trunks and were on their way home.
To better serve Kaizen’s clients week to week, Thai has her team collect a few simple data points upon arrival: name, ZIP code, number of households they’re picking up for, number of children, adults, and older adults, and if they’re new to the site. The client is also given a survey to complete, which, in addition to the surveys sent out via social media and WhatsApp, are how Thai is able to tailor the following week’s food order from Food Bank for that site.
Another way Thai seeks to ensure that all clients feel welcome, comfortable, and empowered is by staffing the sites with volunteers who reflect the community. “At our food share locations, we partner with area nonprofits to host the sites and have a bilingual youth team as well as promotores (community health workers) help run the site,” she explains. “They all are the bridge to building community trust; when clients see people who look like them, that garners more trust.”
Several of those volunteers are also clients. “It builds a circular type of service and helps to destigmatize receiving free food while also providing dignity to people,” says Thai. “For us, we know that letting people shop provides a lot of dignity as well, but doing that [before the pandemic] we were averaging just 50 families a day. Now, with the drive-through model, we serve upwards of 400 families a day. We’re all in this together and are still looking for the best way to serve everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”
Even so, Thai will continue to tirelessly search for just such a solution: one client survey, one additional partnership, and one box of culturally relevant food at a time.
If you or someone you know is interested in partnering with Food Bank of the Rockies to help bring equitable food access to your community, visit foodbankrockies.org/partner-portal.