What is the Zero Waste Pay it Forward Program?

First things first: if you haven’t heard of ChicoBag’s  Zero Waste Pay it Forward program, here’s the lowdown. This program was created to re-distribute misprinted bags to fixed and low-income families and recycle bags that had reached the end of their lifetime by turning them into new sustainable products. By partnering with other like-minded artists, crafters, and non-profit organizations, ChicoBag can find a second purpose for these bags and help close the loop.


This year, our Pay It Forward program partnered with Martha’s Kitchen. Here’s a little background on these holiday heroes:

Martha’s Kitchen is based in San Jose, California, and provides 1,000,000 meals and distributes 3,000,000 pounds of groceries annually to their 75 partners in nine counties. They provide food to partners located throughout the greater Bay Area and Central California. On a monthly basis, this translates into nearly 100,000 meals and over 250,000 pounds of groceries distributed to communities desperate for food security. Recently, they added a second location in Watsonville, which is in central California. This location has allowed them to better serve surrounding partners in Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Hollister, Monterey, Salinas, Los Banos, Merced, and Dos Palos.


Recently, ChicoBag donated 8,000 pre-loved bags to Martha’s Kitchen to distribute to their guests. ChicoBag sat down with Ryan Van Den Heuvel, Development Director to learn more about how these bags will be used during the holiday season.

ChicoBag: Tell us a little bit about the history of Martha’s Kitchen and the people you serve.

Ryan Van Den Heuvel: We’re getting ready to celebrate our 40th anniversary in October. It all started with Louise Benson’s desire to serve her community and the homeless community in her area. She started serving sandwiches out of a garage in Willow Glen, and it’s grown into a nonprofit of 18 staff members.

Our goal has been to provide food to those in need: anybody who needs a hot meal or needs help with groceries. If Elon Musk showed up, we’d give him a hot meal. We don’t ask questions, we don’t take names, and there’s no paperwork. You show up, we will get you fed, and try to direct you to resources. There’s also a cooperating network of agencies: Dignity on Wheels comes by with showers, and Order of Malta brings hygiene kits on a monthly basis. We’re always looking for those unique partnerships with multiple resources at one site.

CB: Where/how have you used the bags donated from the Pay It Forward Kitchen this holiday season?

RVDH: One of the things I love about Martha’s Kitchen is we aren’t just food. Every year, we do a huge Christmas toy giveaway. Last year, we distributed 8000 toys over 3 days. This year, we’re going to try to be creative around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the holidays. We will be using some of the ChicoBags to help distribute individual Thanksgiving and Christmas meals since we aren’t doing buffet style during the pandemic.

CB: What does the giving season mean for Martha’s Kitchen?

RVDH: Bill Lee (the Executive Director of Martha’s Kitchen) has changed the culture at Martha’s kitchen from, “Hey, we do food” to “Hey, what more can we do?” Our approach stays true to our grassroots beginnings. Our entire team works in a central office with a family-oriented culture--it’s the heart of where we serve from. We really expanded on that approach of “What more can we do from our community?” with toy drives or hygiene kits or trying to connect people to other resources.

CB:  Any thoughts on sustainability and choosing reusable items? How does this come to life in your everyday operations?

RVDH: We try to be as sustainable and reusable as possible. For us, sustainability gets focused on the food side of things. We have a food rescue program-we partner with local stores and agencies to glean leftover food, an average of 12,000 lbs a month. If we can’t use it in our meals we have partners who do. We’re trying to grow in sustainability, with utensils, bags--specifically on the food side of things.


Next Up: ChicoBag’s side of the story.

Here’s the scoop from Megan, ChicoBag’s Zero Waste Program Coordinator, and Lucas, the Director of Sales and Marketing.

How did you first learn about Martha’s Kitchen, and why did ChicoBag choose to partner with them?

Megan: The Zero Waste Program puts 100% functional bags in the hands of businesses and nonprofits who need them most. It’s an ideal partnership with Martha’s Kitchen being on the ground, getting items that are useful, and giving something to the community. Just being a part of that story makes us want to continue.

Lucas: Martha’s Kitchen has a 40-year history serving communities in California. I remember as a child, my mom taking me to Martha’s Kitchen to pack meals for the holidays. I can’t think of a better organization that has the ability to influence communities across the country. I’m looking forward to seeing the impact we can make together.    

Why is Pay It Forward such an important part of the Zero Waste Program?

Megan: One of the largest polluters on our planet is textiles, and now more than ever it’s important to find ways to close the loop and find responsible avenues to redistribute unused, and slightly used reusable bags. So to us, that means Paying It Forward. And with ourZero Waste Program receiving reusable bags every day, it’s important to find a sustainable and responsible outlet to get them in the hands of those who need reusable items most.

Lucas:  It starts with the individuals and organizations who choose to divert what could easily be thrown in the trash, but instead choose the ChicoBag Zero Waste program to extend the life of the fabric. And a partnership with Martha’s Kitchen is a perfect example of how ChicoBag can do this.A big shout out to all the people who take the time to send their bags to us. You are what makes it possible! #ChicobagZeroWaste

Give the gifts that give back this holiday season.

Shop our sustainable holiday gift list!