…I’d just moved to Boise, Idaho and wanted to resume volunteering for a food recovery operation. I looked around and couldn’t find any organizations that rescued smaller quantities of fresh produce or freshly-made food. Because I had already volunteered doing this work, I knew its effectiveness, and I was utterly compelled to begin. I dug in, and talked with both potential food donors and food recipient organizations to understand the pain points of donation and frustrations for each side. Once I understood that there is a need for recovered food in my area (and there IS in any community), I started as a proof of concept. We piloted in Nov. 2016.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie D’Agostino
Julie is the founder of Rolling Tomato, a food recovery service based in Boise, Idaho. A few years earlier, while considering a career change she started to volunteer for a new local food recovery nonprofit in her free time. The impact of volunteering was immediate and lasting. Julie moved to Boise, Idaho in the Fall of 2016 and started Rolling Tomato a month later. She has a background of over 20 years in technology on both coasts, solving difficult problems through research and user-centered design.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up an hour south of Boston, MA where suburbia met rural lands. My school bus ride took me past cranberry bogs, a steer farm, horse pastures, and plenty of home gardens; some with honor system farm stands. I was outside most of the year in the woods, lakes, and on my bike to experience the seasons completely. My relatives had a large garden next door that I explored and benefitted from. I learned early how wonderful fresh and locally grown produce tastes.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Rolling Tomato was started to accomplish 3 goals:
1. Reduce the amount of perfectly good food going to waste locally.
2. Get fresh and nutritious food to people who need it.
3. Show the community that food recovery is an effective and essential resource.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I worked in restaurants and food service throughout my high school and college years, so I’m familiar with their operations. Some companies managed their excess food wonderfully, while others had so much wasted. Once you’ve seen that, you cannot “unsee” it. Even when I was on the diner’s side of the table at restaurants, I’d wonder about the excess food and where it ended up. Good food going to waste is unacceptable. My Mother grew up in England during the Blitz and vividly remembered food rationing. She has always cooked frugally and healthy with nothing going to waste. When we consider the many resources that go into the growing, harvesting, transporting, and cooking of food, why would we waste it in a landfill to create methane gas? There are always people and organizations that can put it to good use.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I’d just moved to Boise, Idaho and wanted to resume volunteering for a food recovery operation. I looked around and couldn’t find any organizations that rescued smaller quantities of fresh produce or freshly-made food. Because I had already volunteered doing this work, I knew its effectiveness, and I was utterly compelled to begin. I dug in, and talked with both potential food donors and food recipient organizations to understand the pain points of donation and frustrations for each side. Once I understood that there is a need for recovered food in my area (and there IS in any community), I started as a proof of concept. We piloted in Nov. 2016.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Rolling Tomato started as a “project” and remained so for two years. We began gradually, focusing on making the process for donors, recipients, and volunteers very convenient. We focused on maintaining good communication to improve our service as we grew. We demonstrated that this can actually work in our community and shared our efforts on social media. I took time to think through the model that would work in our area long term. Because of my entrepreneurial ventures, I had an understanding of what was essential to start, and in the spring of 2019, we became a 501c3 nonprofit organization.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
While cold calling potential food donors, I contacted a Board Member at the Boise Farmers Market. When I asked if Rolling Tomato could be “added into the rotation”, assuming that there were other groups already collecting excess produce after the popular weekly markets, I was told “We’ve been waiting years for someone to do this!” I started the first day of the market season and have been there ever since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
In the first year of produce collection at the Boise Farmers Market, I would drive around and distribute to all the nonprofit organizations that were open on Saturdays. Well, sometimes the donations would yield a lot of the same crops, zucchini and cucumbers, especially. One day I couldn’t find any more homes for the last four big boxes of “zukes and cukes” I knew that I could distribute them after the weekend. So I took them home with me and lugged them in the coolest part of my home, my small bedroom; babysitting them until they could be delivered bright and early on Monday. That experience taught me to have a backup plan.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve had so many talented and generous people help me along the way. Early on my friend, Marilyn Price, the founder of Trips for Kids, was a sounding board for ideas. The Renaissance Entrepreneurial Center of Marin team and Trailhead Boise instructors were inspiring, and our Board Members have been essential to strengthening and moving us forward.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Inform and educate commercial businesses that federal law protects them and is meant to encourage excess food donation, and it offers generous tax benefits to participants.
- Make food recovery a standard procedure throughout your community.
- Consider where you buy food, which restaurants you dine in, and the effect on your local community.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
When businesses donate excess food, they are able to reduce their taxes, potentially lower their trash service rates, and become known as a pillar of support in the community. If businesses choose to highlight their community efforts with their customers, it becomes a distinguishing factor. Many customers look for pro-local and community-focused companies to support.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You will meet so many incredible people who find you because of their support of your work, mutual interests and shared ideologies. From the farmers and chef donors to the receiving recipient organizations, it’s been an amazing introduction to the caring and supportive nature of people in our community. These are the people who are able to get things done and we all benefit.
- Ride the rollercoaster. There will be highs and lows, just hang on, it’s all part of the experience.
- Be open to new ideas as you grow and the world changes. COVID-19 has created ever more need for nutritious food, and we have refocused and met the challenge by remaining flexible and finding new ways to work.
- Some days it’s okay not to have the answers. They will come. Eventually.
- Don’t spend time banging one door down. Find the ones that are open. Work with the businesses that “get” your idea and support it, you’ll go further with them and they are already vested.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Your action is your statement. It is an example for those around you. It may even start a movement. Each one has an impact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”
-Charles du Bos
The quote, scribbled on the back page of a sketchbook I’ve had for many years, is one I’ve referred to many times when considering making a major life change.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
It’s a tie between Chef Massimo Bottura and Chef Jose Andres. They are both so inspiring as they provide nutritious food and hope to so many people around the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
Our website is rollingtomato.org and we are on Facebook as GoRollingTomato.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!