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Early each morning, boxes of local produce and meat, containing anything from picked greens to sprouting potatoes to pig heads and organs are placed on the steel countertops at Farm Eats Direct (FED), a Boulder-based food truck and mobile market. Donna Merten launched FED in July 2020, with a mission to flip the standard restaurant model by capturing seconds, or foods that would otherwise be wasted, from local growers.
After what Merten, a chef and entrepreneur of over 20 years, describes as pushing reset and starting her graduate degree in food systems at University of Colorado Boulder in 2017, she began to question how to both mitigate food waste and offer affordable, locally sourced sustenance to the community. Born from this inquiry was the concept of FED, which Merten pitched for a new venture business challenge at the university, and then won the Presidential Sustainability Award for.
“To me, it’s always been: How do we make our community more resilient? And that always comes back to food,” Merten says. “How do we start to capture both this excess food stream that’s going to waste, but secondly how do we start to give funds back to farmers and more money back to our local economy?”
Shortly after graduating in spring 2020, Merten partnered with two of her former instructors to secure investment capital, acquire the food truck, and begin developing trusting, reciprocal relationships with local farmers in Boulder County. What began as trips to one or two farms has now evolved to 10 or 12 farms that make up the network from which FED receives its seconds. Last year, FED captured close to 40,000 pounds of seconds from farms, and this year Merten expects the amount of excess food captured to be closer to 80,000 pounds.
Merten’s heart has always been in food, and her grandmother was a chef and farmer with a 100-acre farm in St. Meinrad, Indiana. She sees FED as going back to her roots in supporting old, rustic farm recipes and ways of cooking where everything on the farm and in the kitchen gets used. “In order to really access local food, we can’t operate the way we’ve been operating with the kind of streamlined approach to having a menu and then ordering items,” Merten says. “What happens then is you don’t sell enough of that item and you end up throwing out a lot of food.”
According to the USDA, about 30-40 percent of the nation’s food supply is wasted annually, and much of the food wasted on the farm level are goods left over from farmers’ markets that are spoiled or blemished (often considered imperfect) or not mainstream with the public (like certain animal parts).
In FED’s zero-waste kitchen, everything has a purpose. The kitchen team—made up of executive chef Greg Ashbaugh, junior sous chef Juan Medina, and several cooking school students from Auguste Escoffier School Of Culinary Arts in Boulder—utilize their culinary expertise and knowledge of flavor profiles to develop FED’s inventive menu on the spot each day based on the boxes of excess food placed in front of them.
The team makes organ burgers from a blend of pig heart, liver, and kidney (a popular menu item among customers), oyster mushroom tacos, and pasta from pig cheeks. Vegetables nearing the end of their shelf life and bones are made into stock. FED also buys large volumes of produce from farmers at the end of the harvest season so it doesn’t go to waste, then processes it into fermented condiments like pickled onions and kimchi that last through to the next spring. Any waste in the kitchen (composts or scraps) gets dropped off back to the farms to use for animal feed.
“There is literally no waste as far as we’re concerned,” Merten says. “Our goal is to really maximize the health and nutrition in our food. Everything has a purpose, it has intent, it has a nutritional balance to it. There’s so much nutrient-dense food around us.”
The FED kitchen team takes pride in the entire culinary process, from relationships with farmers to the high attention to detail on presentation and plating. Merten describes a meal at FED like getting a five-star dining experience on a compostable plate. Dishes such as the sprouted cashew and roasted lion’s mane cream tart are delicately placed in compostable ramekins and drizzled with red algae vegan caramel before they are served through the food truck’s window. “I don’t think beautiful food and tasty food should always just be expensive. I think everyone should have access to that,” she says.
Creating a healthy and thriving local community, both within the food system and for individual community members, is Merten’s goal for FED each day. The food truck also offers catering and is very actively engaged in numerous events and endeavors within the Boulder community. For example, the food truck partnered with World Central Kitchen to serve nutritious meals to more than 1,800 people who were affected by the Marshall Fire in December 2021.
Find FED’s ever-changing menu and food truck schedule on its website and Instagram (@fedboulder).