Food Shift delivery driver Robert Mills was hired after serving time in prison and needing a fresh start.
Robert Mills found a fresh start and his first steady job in more than 20 years as a delivery driver through nonprofit catering company Food Shift. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Produce and people both get a second chance at Food Shift. The East Bay-based nonprofit catering company began as a way to address multiple shortcomings of the Bay Area food system, from sourcing to hiring practices. After eight years, Food Shift is looking to expand by leasing a larger space that can help more people.

At Food Shift’s kitchen, misshapen, but perfectly fresh vegetables become catered lunches. The produce is washed, chopped, stewed, roasted and served by a staff of people, some who were formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated or just looking to start over.

Driver Robert Mills was in need of a fresh start when he applied to work delivery for Food Shift. “My past is my past,” he said. “I have no fear of sharing my story, but it’s more a testimonial, because I’m a born-again Christian.”

Mills was an addict until his former lifestyle led him to prison, where he found religion before his release. “I’ve been a bad character. I’ve stole, I’ve lied, I’ve cheated. Broke all the commandments of God,” he said. “Well, not all of them. But you break one, you break them all.”

Food Shift receives hundreds of pounds of donated produce, in this case apples from the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market, that it turns into catered lunches at the Food Shift kitchen. Photo: Cirrus Wood

When Mills got out of prison, he was living clean, but still living on the street on and off for 16 months, piecing a living together out of recycling nickel deposit bottles and cans. Until Food Shift, he had not had a steady job in more than 20 years.

“This is the first employment by someone else I’ve had since 1992,” he said. “Yeah, I’m back on track. I got married, by the grace of Christ. I live in a house. I drive a car. I’ve been blessed,” he said. “Clean and sober by the grace of God.”

“There are reasons why people have been in positions of poverty and crime and domestic abuse and mental illness, and we want to create a safe space here that’s part of the solution.” — Dana Frasz, Food Shift founder and director

Mills shared his story with Berkeleyside in the presence of Dana Frasz, the founder and director of Food Shift and the person who hired and supervises him. But Frasz said it was the first time she heard these details because his record wasn’t a determining factor when hiring him for the position.

“So many people who come through this kitchen have been through a lot, but they’re good people who have a desire for impact, they’re willing to learn,” she said.

“There are reasons why people have been in positions of poverty and crime and domestic abuse and mental illness, and we want to create a safe space here that’s part of the solution,” said Frasz.

“Not the problem. The solution,” Mills added. “Amen, amen.”

Each day Mills relays hundreds of pounds of donated produce from the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market and Imperfect Foods to the Food Shift kitchen, where apprentices like Kim Osborne turn it into lunch.

Kim Osborne is part of Food Shift’s six-month job training program, a partnership with Alameda Point Collaborative that assists formerly homeless individuals. Photo: Cirrus Wood

“Everything is made from scratch,” said Osborne. “You won’t find any can openers or anything like that.”

Mills is permanent staff and was a direct hire, but Osborne is part of Food Shift’s six-month job training program, which the nonprofit offers in partnership with Alameda Point Collaborative (APC). APC offers housing for 500 formerly homeless individuals on a renovated naval base and then connects them to different job opportunities in the East Bay, including Food Shift.

Apprentices at Food Shift work 20 hours a week, receive free lunch, earn job skills and minimum wage, and are welcome to take home leftover food for themselves and their families. “Food Shift saved me by getting me out of debt,” said Osborne.

Osborne described her role as catch-all, working as a cook and janitor. “We wear a lot of hats around here,” she said while cleaning up after prepping the day’s meal of vegetable stew, roasted broccoli, and garlic bread.

Like any catering company, Food Shift offers prepared food for events and regular contracts. But working in social justice means recognizing some communities require more justice than others, and some clients can pay more for lunch.

“We have different rates depending on who is approaching us,” said Frasz. Companies like Google and Clif Bar pay full price for catering, while nonprofits like Open Source Wellness and Youth Employment Partnership receive catering at cost.

More than 60% of Food Shift’s catering goes to fellow nonprofits, which means it relies on the clients who pay full rate to help subsidize its programs.

“We really care about making sure that we’re feeding and providing care to agencies and organizations that are doing good in the world,” said Frasz. “So if you are a youth program, or a shelter, or a nonprofit, we want to make sure you have food for your meeting that is aligned with your values.”

So far, Frasz said this model has been working, but now, she just wants to take it bigger. She wants a bigger staff and a bigger job training program — one that’s not restricted to just the residents of APC. She wants more food waste rescued, more people and nonprofits served, and a bigger, more centrally located kitchen, preferably in Oakland or Berkeley.

Frasz points to DC Central Kitchen, the inspiration for Food Shift, which employs 150 people and generates about $12 million in revenue annually. (DC Central Kitchen’s founder Robert Egger, sits on the board of Food Shift.)

Dana Frasz, founder and director of Food Shift. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Food Shift got a big boost early on through its partnership with APC, which provided the nonprofit with free kitchen space in return for hiring APC residents for its job training program. But part of that initial agreement was that Food Shift would also eventually have to pay rent on the space, and it’s been three years since Food Shift moved in.

“We need to start paying rent,” said Frasz, “whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

Frasz is grateful for the space, but it is a small one. Which means Food Shift’s job training program is limited to no more than four apprentices at a time. Any more than that, and there’s not enough room for people to safely prepare food. Frasz hopes to find a larger space, to expand the program to work with 10, 15, even 20 apprentices at a time.

Food Shift plans to raise $200,000 by the end of the year, $40,000 of which it hopes to raise through a public fundraising campaign.

To that end, Frasz has entered a partnership with the Oakland Private Industry Council (OPIC) and plans to raise $200,000 by the end of the year through grants and donations. Frasz said she hopes to raise $40,000 through a public fundraising campaign that launched on Oct. 22.

Additionally, Food Shift will host a public fundraiser at Bauman College on Dec. 14, where the nonprofit will announce its vision for 2020, and where Frasz will offer parting words before she steps down as director. After almost a decade in the business, Frasz isn’t so much retiring as stepping into a new and personally important role as a new mom.

But before making for the exit, Frasz wants to see Food Shift make more progress — both physically and financially — into the larger organization it can become.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a much larger space employing way more people saving more food, doing more food distribution, feeding all of the shelters throughout Oakland,” said Frasz. “There’s just so much potential for what we could be doing. We just need a bigger space.”

Readers interested in donating to Food Shift can do so viaits fundraising pageA previous version of this article incorrectly stated details about Robert Mills’ conviction record. Mills has no convictions for drug possession and sales.

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.