Founder of Kaizen Food Rescue: Thai Nguyen
WITH HER OWN LIVED EXPERIENCES OF WAR AND HUNGER, THAI NGUYEN NOW WORKS TO ELIMINATE FOOD APARTHEID AND FOOD WASTE
“I know what it is like being on the receiving end of government and social services as a refugee and a first generation immigrant,” said Thai Nguyen, Founding Executive Director of Kaizen Food Rescue.
“Because of this path, I am confidently utilizing my qi to help create change. Not only in tackling our food waste issue, but also changing draconian ‘charity’ practices in our food system and working with, not for immigrant and refugee families and those facing food insecurity.”
This is what motivated Nguyen to establish Kaizen Food Rescue three years ago with a mission to prevent food waste and improve food justice and health equity in the Denver metro area. Kaizen Food Rescue provides community pop-up food shares, gardens, and meals to historically underserved communities.
At the intersection of motherhood and starting a new career, Nguyen joined Jeffco’s first Colorado State University’s Family Leadership Training Institute to learn about making a difference in her community through civic engagement.
Her capstone project for the 20-week training was to build a community garden at her children’s Montessori school, only to find that this was not possible due to high levels of arsenic on the land.
Becoming a family effort, she and her husband instead volunteered to pick fresh food from Food Bank of the Rockies to provide at their children’s school.
“It was very eye-opening to see all the food donations from grocery stores and the amount of food waste,” Nguyen said. She soon started the paperwork to become a nonprofit as her husband supported the family for a year before Nguyen made a salary.
“Now three years later, we are a disruptor in our local food system,” she said.
What makes Kaizen Food Rescue unique is the design thinking application focused on community-based power sharing. Community members engage in joint decision-making, planning, and the implementation of projects and programs to advance a collective vision that transcends organizational boundaries.
“The kaizen methodology is to do what our ancestors have done for thousands of years. Throughout generations, they taught us to bring people and community together by centering and sharing food. It’s the way we naturally show love – sharing food, sharing resources and sharing knowledge,” she said.
Nguyen’s ancestors and family are from the island of Hon Tre and Rach Gia. It’s in the Kien Giang province of Vietnam near the border of Cambodia and South Vietnam.
“We are boat people,” said Nguyen. “We fled oppression, violence and unspeakable war atrocities. We drifted in the Gulf of Thailand searching for asylum. My mom, late cousin, older brother and I were in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, then transferred to Singapore before arriving in San Francisco, then Houston.”
“During this series of transitions, my mom gave birth to me in Songkhla Thailand’s refugee camp with the aid of Doctors Without Borders. We eventually reconnected with my father in Houston in 1981 and we lived there for 10 years.”
To this day, Nguyen’s mom reminds her that she is small in size because she didn’t have enough to eat when she was little.
Through her lived experiences of war atrocities and food insecurity, learning to cope with her past traumas scaffolded and evolved her healing journey, altruism and building her passion around spaces affected by food apartheid and food waste.
Kaizen Food Rescue serves communities facing food apartheid, which are mostly historically underserved communities, at the cross section of systemic racism and gentrification. This includes: elders, immigrants, refugees, BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) families, communities of color, and opportunity zones.
“We share food with anyone who is in a tight spot, interested in reducing food waste, and saving up to $200 per visit,” she said.
“We go into communities with our pop-up food shares and redistribute healthy food to over 250-300 families at each event. Last year, we averaged 252 food share events. We see first hand the food insecurity epidemic in this pandemic and the effects of inflation.”
A Kaizen Food Rescue program participant said: “Kaizen helped my family when my husband and I got the covid. My husband could not work. I could not work. My kids stayed home for homeschool. We had no money. No money for food. Thai and Kaizen helped my family have good food. I volunteer now. Thank you.”
Kaizen Food Rescue was awarded a multi-year Colorado Health Foundation grant for capacity building and supporting their Loretto Heights bodega project. They are reactivating dormant leadership skills of community health workers, promotoras, and community navigators interested in creating change in the food system of Southwest Denver through networking and supplying a resource of shared knowledge.
Nguyen said: “I believe everyone has dormant leadership skills that were passed on to us by our ancestors. It’s just learning how to confidently step into that power, naming it and harnessing it when we move into unfamiliar spaces. We are at the cusp of great change. I can feel the energy and am inspired daily by everyone I meet in my sphere of influence.”
Through a series of training: community organizing, ecological design, JEDI (justice, diversity, equity and inclusion), emotional intelligence, healthy communication skills, nutrition, food justice, and technology, the community decided on a project to reimagine and envision the Loretto Heights campus community center. This is where the first bodega will be.
Collectively, the community leaders are in the process of co-designing a flagship store in Loretto Heights to address low income housing, land access projects, employment pathways, sourcing local food, supporting local farmers, building gardens and the meaning of food sovereignty.
They plan to roll out their little bodega project into East Colfax, West Colfax and Montbello to help stabilize the effects of food insecurity, build food sovereignty and support the local economy.
Nguyen’s background is in product design and event marketing. Learning how to creatively solve problems, being resourceful, innovative and impatiently wanting to make change happen now has brought her to where she is today: a disruptor in the food system space.
What she finds most meaningful and joyful is learning and blossoming alongside children, youths and people helping to create a safe space for everyone to feel seen and heard. She values people over profit and believes in building a sustainable and thriving ecosystem for an equitable future for all.
Connect with Kaizen Food Rescue on social: @kaizenfoodrescue
Learn more about their work and support their programs through a meaning gift at
Donate cryptocurrency: kaizenfoodrescue.eth