The New Geography of Global Diplomacy – By Bonnie Bley November 27, 2019

Protests outside of the Japanese embassy in Beijing, China, August 2012
Jason Lee / Reuters

China Advances as the United States Retreats

As China’s rise has become a central force in global politics, analysts and policymakers have tracked its path to potential preeminence on a number of fronts: the size of its economy, the scale and reach of its investment and commercial relationships, the budget and capabilities of its military forces. But as of 2019, China has surpassed the United States in an underappreciated but crucial measure of global influence: the size of its diplomatic network.

For decades, Washington had the largest diplomatic network in the world. Now China does, boasting 276 diplomatic posts—including embassies, consulates, and permanent missions to international organizations. The United States’ network, meanwhile, stands at 273, down one post since 2017.

This shift could mark a turning point in great-power competition. As Beijing becomes more and more willing to deploy its global power, seemingly no longer interested in former leader Deng Xiaoping’s instruction to “hide your strength, bide your time,” it has invested in active and far-reaching diplomacy. Washington, meanwhile, has seen both a turn inward and a privileging of other tools. Where once the United States enjoyed global diplomatic primacy, the playing field is now leveling.


China’s ascent to the top spot has been rapid. The Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index tracks diplomatic networks around the world. In 2011, Beijing lagged 23 posts behind Washington. By 2016, it was only eight posts behind, in third place behind the United States and France. In 2017, it climbed to second place, overtaking France, before moving into first place this year. This year’s index puts China in first place ahead of 60 other major diplomatic networks.

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Beijing has opened five new embassies in the last two years: in Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gambia, and São Tomé and Príncipe. This list of countries is not random. Following a persistent campaign of what’s commonly referred to as “checkbook diplomacy,” Beijing has succeeded in picking off a handful of Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic partners. China is unmatched in its number of consulates. Most recently, two countries in the hotly contested Pacific Islands region—Kiribati and the Solomon Islands—broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan and made the switch to China, reducing the number of countries recognizing Taiwan from 22 in 2016 to just 15 today (which include Guatemala, Honduras, and Vatican City). For Beijing, this strategy has both furthered Taiwan’s growing political isolation and increased China’s ability to advance its own economic and strategic interests. In short, it’s been win-win, except with both wins going to China.

China doesn’t have only breadth in its network; it has depth, too. While Beijing and Washington are neck and neck in terms of the number of embassies they have, China is unmatched in its number of consulates, with 96 compared to the United States’ 88. Whereas embassies reflect political power, consulates reflect economic power. China’s focus on boosting its consulates accords with its ongoing focus on advancing its interests through economic diplomacy over traditional diplomacy. Of China’s 96 consulates, 41 are located in Asia and 28 in Europe. This goes hand in hand with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure push valued in the trillions that seeks to better connect China with these regions.


The United States’ diplomatic presence has been sclerotic since 2017. After closing the doors of its consulate general in St. Petersburg in 2018, amid rancorous relations with the Kremlin, and without any new openings in recent years, Washington reduced its total posts to 273. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department remains hollowed out: even as President Donald Trump approaches the end of a four-year term, only 73 percent of key positions are filled, according to a Washington Post tracker. Add to this the Trump administration’s desire to cut the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets by up to 23 percent, and it is no surprise that U.S. diplomacy looks increasingly rudderless to other governments. Trump’s 11,000 tweets, over half of which attack someone or something, are no substitute for a properly functioning diplomatic network.

Closing the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 2018
Closing the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 2018

Anton Vaganov / Reuters

U.S. diplomacy isn’t lagging on every front. Diplomatic influence comes not only from establishing a large presence abroad but also from being an important host to foreign missions. The United States remains by a wide margin the most popular place for countries to maintain embassies and consulates. It is home to some 342 embassies and consulates belonging to the 61 countries included in the index. China, with 256, is a distant second. When permanent missions to international organizations such as the United Nations are added into the equation, the United States’ lead is strengthened further.

Other governments are increasingly setting up posts in second- and third-tier Chinese cities—something to watch closely in coming years. Still, it would take a serious reshuffling of the global diplomatic order for the status quo on this particular metric to change in China’s favor in the near future.


Alongside the realignment of U.S. and Chinese diplomatic reach, other global disruptions have spurred shifts in other governments’ diplomatic activities. Brexit in particular has driven a number of European governments to make changes. With successive Brexit deadlines looming, passing, and then looming once again, Ireland boosted its network by eight posts, causing it to rise three places in the index since 2017, the largest increase of any country. With Ireland facing a divorce from its largest import partner and second-largest export partner, its foreign minister has publicly tied this move to the country’s Brexit strategy. The Netherlands, too, has linked its recent diplomatic push to Brexit considerations, with seven new posts in two years and more openings expected by 2021.

The United Kingdom, by contrast, has closed or downgraded 11 consulates and diplomatic offices since 2016, dropping from ninth place three years ago to 11th today. This runs counter to commitments to open three new posts in the Pacific and an additional 12 posts globally by the end of 2020. So much for promises of a “global Britain.”

A country’s choice of where to expand its network is never uncalculated.

Japan moved into fourth place in 2019, overtaking Russia for the first time. Faced with a shifting power balance in its neighborhood, including an increasingly assertive China, Tokyo has been quietly investing in its diplomatic footprint for nearly a decade now. The addition of seven new posts in strategically pivotal countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines, Seychelles, and Vanuatu brings Tokyo’s total posts to 247.

‘It’s like the third world’: tribe feels forgotten as flooding brings misery to a struggling community – Nina LakhaniLast modified on Fri 29 Nov 2019 03.30 EST

Chad Medicine Horn starts each day mopping his bedroom floor and bleaching the walls to kill the fresh black mould.

A few hours later, the floor is once again soaked by groundwater seeping into the converted basement that he shares with his four-year-old grandson. They spend afternoons trying to stop the murky water soaking their double bed and few surviving clothes and toys with squeegee mops donated by the Red Cross.

Upstairs, Chad’s mother, Christina Selvin, 75, spends most days on the couch in pain from arthritis and kidney cancer, too sick to escape the toxic mould spores.

“No matter how much I clean, this shit just keeps coming back, it’s ruined all our stuff,” said Medicine Horn, 50, while mopping. “This isn’t healthy, everything stinks, my eyes hurt, we’ve all been sick, it can’t be legal to leave us living like this.”

It’s been like this for nine months in the White Swan community on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where hundreds of Native Americans have been struggling to cope with unprecedented rainfall and disease outbreaks following a series of extreme weather events.

The annual powwow and ball tournament in White Swan had to be cancelled this year because of the flooding.
The annual powwow and ball tournament in White Swan had to be cancelled this year because of the flooding. Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

These climate catastrophes have triggered three federal major disaster declarations for the state, but help has been slow to arrive to this tribal community where severe flooding has compounded longstanding social and economic inequalities by wrecking jobs, homes, and infrastructure.

And while tribal authorities scramble to navigate bureaucratic grants to ease the immediate suffering, fears are mounting about the community’s future: further flooding is forecast for spring which threatens to turn White Swan residents into climate refugees.

“The floods have caused a lot of hardships, it feels like the third world,” Shelly Saunsoci, 43, director of the Tribal Employment Rights Office (Tore), told the Guardian. The unemployment rate is 85% and few folks have insurance.

“The climate is changing, it’s already snowing in Montana, and if we have another wet winter and spring, there will be devastation, we’ll have to be evacuated,” she added.

The Yankton Sioux is one of seven tribes in South Dakota, where a third or so of the 9,000 enrolled members living within its territory near the Nebraska border – mostly in federal public housing projects managed by the tribal housing authority (THA).

Historically, White Swan was located on the banks of the Missouri River, but in 1952, the community was flooded out by the newly constructed Fort Randall dam.

Shelly Saunsoci, who is both the vice-chair of the community and the tribal employment rights director, in Swan Lake, SD. “We feel like we are all alone,” says Saunsoci. She has been organizing flood relief with no help from FEMA, the federal or state government.
Shelly Saunsoci, who is the vice-chair of the community and the tribal employment rights director, in White Swan. ‘We feel like we are all alone.’ Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

It was rebuilt in the 1960s on the southern edge of Lake Andes in Charles Mix county, with a powwow arena for traditional festivities situated between the houses and water.

After several years of low water levels, the lake has been flooded since early March when a bomb cyclone – heavy snow, wind and rain – hit the area. The ageing aqueduct, which should divert excess water from the lake to the Missouri River, was overwhelmed by the extreme rainfall. (Until the water recedes, full inspections are impossible.)

In White Swan, groundwater and waste flowed into basements as the sewage station neared collapse; the highway and powwow arena were inundated.

A month later, another cyclone struck, followed by a second consecutive summer of record rainfall, causing havoc for local farmers already struggling due to the president’s trade wars.

Houses made uninhabitable by the flooding in Swan Lake, South Dakota on 15 November.
Houses made uninhabitable by the flooding in White Swan, South Dakota. Photograph: Amber Bracken/The Guardian

One of the most visible consequences of global heating is the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like heatwaves, heavy rain and storms, which wreak economic and social havoc on communities.

Gordon White Bull, 41, was rushed to hospital with liver failure during the first downpours in March, and returned four months later still recovering from a transplant. Back home, the family car was wrecked on the muddy road, while the furniture, children’s clothes and kitchen cabinet doors were covered in so much mould that they had to be thrown out.

“I can feel it in my lungs, it’s hard to breathe. We’ve done our best to keep it clean, but we need to get out,” said White Bull, 41, who was recently hospitalized again with a stomach infection. The basement is submerged in several inches of water, and the putrid smell makes it hard to breathe or see clearly.

Left: The basement of Theresa Hart’s house in White Swan. A sump pump works around the clock but still the water seeps up. Right: Mold and moisture collect on the walls in Deonne Tibbetts’ house in White Swan. Photographs by Amber Bracken/The Guardian

“Mould kills lung tissue and repeated infections can affect child growth and development, people should not be living in these dangerous conditions,” said Tom Gilmore, a retired physician who spent 50 years working on Indian reservations. “But Native Americans are not politically important.”

Initially, even tribal authorities were slow to react, though eventually they provided sump pumps (bought with donations from another tribe) and organised “muck squads” to strip mouldy walls and clear the wreckage.

But the rain kept lashing down, and the lake kept rising. In early August, the annual powwow was cancelled for the first time ever.

That’s when a group of women took matters into their own hands.

Saunsoci rallied local church groups, the Salvation Army and Red Cross, who brought emergency supplies – bedding, cots, tents, toiletries, food and clean-up kits (mops, gloves, bleach and face masks) – to the community centre which became the hub for exhausted families.

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Trapped in the Archives – By William Burr November 29, 2019

The U.S. Government’s System for Declassifying Historical Documents Is in Crisis

A classified document in the Oval O​ffice of the White House, November 2007
Christopher Morris / VII / Red​ux

Did the United States have a hand in assassinating Congolese and Dominican leaders in 1961? What did President Richard Nixon’s White House know about a successful plot to kill the head of the Chilean army in 1970? After the Cold War ended, did top U.S. military commanders retain the authority to strike back if a surprise nuclear attack put the president out of commission?

The answers to these and other historical mysteries are likely knowable—but they are locked in presidential libraries and government archives and inaccessible to researchers. The reason: the U.S. government’s system for declassifying and processing historical records has reached a state of crisis. Congress has failed to adequately fund the parts of the government charged with processing records, resulting in understaffed offices and years-long backlogs. At the same time, some agencies responsible for declassifying documents have deliberately dragged their feet and erred on the side of needless secrecy.

Declassification is vital to a thriving democracy. Not only does it help the public hold leaders accountable; it also allows for a more accurate and comprehensive accounting of the past.

Without declassification, the American hand in the coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 would have remained hidden, and Americans would have no way of understanding their country’s Third World meddling. The exposure, through declassification, of the CIA’s assassination plotting in the late 1950s and early 1960s produced public pressure that resulted in executive orders banning political assassinations. Declassified documents brought to light the intelligence failures during 1962 that delayed the detection of Soviet missile deployments in Cuba.

For every secret revealed, however, untold numbers are still hidden away. Only by unsealing its archives can the United States live up to its ideals as an open society and learn from its past.


By law, the classified documents that most federal agencies produce in the course of their work—from State Department cables to Pentagon policy papers to White House e-mails—must be preserved and eventually transferred to the National Archives or the presidential libraries that it runs. Some agencies, such as the CIA, hold on to their records indefinitely.

Whether they are marked confidential, secret, or top secret, classified records remain classified by default; there is no rule requiring declassification after a given number of years. The National Archives does review old records for full or partial declassification, often in response to requests from the public. But the power to declassify a document lies in the hands of the agencies involved in its creation or interested in its contents. All the agencies with a stake in a document must sign off on its declassification—and any one of them, even if it is not the agency where the document originated, can block it.

All the agencies with a stake in a document must sign off on its declassification—and any one of them can block it.

If a request for declassification is denied, the story does not end there. For documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, requesters may file an administrative appeal and ultimately a lawsuit, although few choose to undertake such an expensive and time-consuming process. Since the 1970s, executive orders have provided another avenue, called a “mandatory declassification review” request, through which one can ask for classified records that can be specifically identified. For this type of request, the final resort is to file an appeal with a body composed of representatives from various agencies, called the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel.

The whole process takes an unconscionably long time. I am still awaiting final decisions from the National Archives for State Department records from 1969 concerning U.S. policy toward the Israeli nuclear program. I initially made the request in 2005. Nine years later, the National Archives responded by informing me that the Defense Department had denied 31 documents in their entirety. My appeal is still pending. Many historians can’t afford to wait: 14 years is far longer than the lifespan of most research projects.


Nearly every federal office through which a declassification request must pass is simply overwhelmed. Agencies handle requests for records that they retain, and few devote many resources to processing them. For records held at the National Archives, requests are coordinated by the National Declassification Center, a small office in a significantly underfunded agency that is reluctant to challenge the rights claimed by other agencies. The Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel, for its part, has been relatively effective in reversing unreasonable decisions made by agencies, but it also has a woefully small staff: just three full-time employees.

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Gabrielle Union Criticized the Culture at America’s Got Talent – Yashar Ali – Nov. 27, 2019

Gabrielle Union was a judge on America’s Got Talent before she was let go last Friday. Photo: Courtesy of NBC

Gabrielle Union, the actress and producer, was just two months into her tenure as a judge on the NBC talent competition America’s Got Talent when she found herself seated in a tense meeting with Simon Cowell, the music mogul and reality-show star. He had a request for her: If she had any problems with the production or the show, come to him directly. Don’t talk to NBC.

Union did have concerns, and she had brought them up regularly ever since she joined the show in February; they included perceived racist incidents, Cowell’s habit of smoking indoors, and attempts to keep the show from misgendering contestants, according to multiple sources involved in the production of America’s Got Talent. Union had been addressing her complaints largely with NBC executives, including those who oversaw the show. They would respond by saying they would look into her concerns, and then, according to sources, nothing would happen.

By the time Union and Cowell met, Union was deeply frustrated and concerned about the workplace environment at America’s Got Talent. His instructions that she not talk to her employers made Union feel as if he were trying to cover up major issues, according to sources familiar with her thinking.

Then, last Friday, Union was informed by NBC that they were letting her go after one season of judging the competition show, which multiple sources allege was because she was perceived as “difficult” by Cowell and his team of producers. Union had a three-year contract with the show, and the network had the option to extend it for subsequent seasons after the first season in which she appeared as a judge, according to multiple sources. Variety first reported that NBC had dropped Union along with another judge, Julianne Hough. In the past few years, the show has cycled through Tyra Banks as host and singer Mel B and Heidi Klum as judges, while the two male judges, Howie Mandel and Simon Cowell (who is also a producer), have remained consistent.

A source close to the production disputes that Union was fired, and specifically that she was fired for being perceived as “difficult,” saying that she was “rotated out.” While it’s true that talent competitions do switch out judges to keep their programming fresh, past judges like Mel B and Klum appeared on the program for years before being moved out.

The news that Union was dropped because of workplace complaints she lodged with NBC was first reported by the blog Love B. Scott. On Tuesday, Variety reported on some of the details of those complaints, including Union’s concerns about a racist joke made by Jay Leno, and reports that producers had critiqued the appearance of Hough and Union, including calling Union’s hairstyles “too black.”

The details of Union’s grievances were shared with Vulture by seven sources inside and outside America’s Got Talent and NBC, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified. (A spokesperson for Union declined to comment.) In response to a detailed list of questions sent by Vulture, NBC Entertainment and Fremantle, the production company that produces America’s Got Talent, said:

“America’s Got Talent has a long history of inclusivity and diversity in both our talent and the acts championed by the show. The judging and host line-up has been regularly refreshed over the years and that is one of the reasons for AGT’s enduring popularity. NBC and the producers take any issues on set seriously.”

NBC announced in February that Union would be joining America’s Got Talent for season 14. Judging for the show, which is filmed in three multi-week segments over the course of several months, began that same month.

Union was labeled as “difficult” by Cowell and producers of the program almost immediately, when she complained about Cowell smoking inside the Pasadena, California, theater where the show was filmed, according to sources close to the production of the show. The theater didn’t have walls between dressing rooms, so they were separated by pipes and draped fabric, and cigarette smoke seeped into Union’s dressing area. (It is against California law for an employer to allow smoking in an enclosed workspace.)

Union, who is allergic to cigarette smoke, was repeatedly rebuffed when she asked other staff members to request that Cowell stop smoking inside. Sources say Union was told by an NBC executive and production staff on the program that no one could stop Cowell from smoking and that previous attempts by a fire marshal and NBC executives had been unsuccessful. According to three sources, Cowell has smoked indoors for years, much to the frustration of staff, crew, and talent. NBC has given Cowell near-total control over America’s Got Talent. Virtually no decisions are made by the network on the show without his approval, according to three well-placed sources.

As reported by Variety, early on in the production of season 14, a painting of Cowell and his five dogs was presented on-camera to the judges. According to sources, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who was a guest judge at the time, remarked that the painting “looked like something on the menu at a Korean restaurant.” Union was disturbed by the remark, which seemed to play in to a racist stereotype about Koreans, especially since an Asian staff member on set appeared to be upset by it. Union pushed for the footage to not be aired, which further solidified her “difficult” reputation.

Another incident involved a male contestant from Italy whose audition involved impressions of various singers. When the contestant was preparing to do an impression of Beyoncé, he slipped on black gloves, which Union read as an attempt to indicate a change in skin tone. She referred to them as “blackface hands,” according to two sources, and voted to eliminate the contestant. Neither of these segments aired, and in  both cases, Union was concerned that staff members, and in the case of the male singer, the audience, would be exposed to racist or racially insensitive performances.

Two sources say that Union also earned the reputation of being difficult because she asked contestants dressed in drag what their preferred pronouns were, a move that seemed to annoy producers. But tensions hit an irrevocable high after an incident involving a 10-year-old black rapper named Dylan Gilmer. According to two sources, Union was told in a production meeting by producers that the show needed to pick an act “that America can get behind.” Union objected to their suggestion that a dance group from Texas made up of white contestants could be that act, as it did not receive as much of an enthusiastic reply from the audience as Gilmer, according to two sources.

A source close to the production of the show denied that producers said they needed to pick an act “that American can get behind,” and said that producers would never use such language.

In that same meeting, after contestants from a choir from South Africa (made up of black African members) were brought up, sources recall Howie Mandel saying, “Maybe they can sing something from The Lion King.” Cowell and Mandel, reached through NBC Entertainment PR, did not offer a comment.

Union was frustrated, according to three sources. She felt producers were implying that American audiences couldn’t get behind a 10-year-old black rapper, a viewpoint she felt was racist. But the decision was made to cut Gilmer from the show. (He later was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Tyler Perry gave him his own show on BET.) Union was so angry, according to two sources, that she went outside to get fresh air, and returned after about five minutes to find Cowell furious that she had left.

A source close to the production told Vulture that Cowell later told Union that if it was that important to her, he would be willing to spare Gilmer. But other sources said Cowell was hostile and aggressive when he delivered that message, and at that point, Union had had enough.

The situation was so tense that Union was pushed by Cowell and his agents at CAA (which also represents Union) to meet with Cowell privately, along with her manager, in an attempt to patch things up, which sources told Vulture she did at his home last May. It’s unclear how their conversation went, but the show then went on hiatus, and Union was let go ahead of filming for season 15. Now, Union is exploring her legal options against the network, according to sources close to the actress and producer.

Tech Company Free Meals Beget a Lot of Leftovers. Meet the Man on a Mission to Rescue Them. – Marisa Endicott Nov 29. 2019

Food Runners saves extra grub before it’s wasted, and delivers it to hungry mouths.

Marisa Endicott

I meet Les Tso on a corner in San Francisco’s SoMa district on a wet Thursday afternoon. He pulls his silver Isuzu SUV into an alley. “Today because it’s the first rain, people are going to be driving cluelessly—there are a lot of Uber and Lyft drivers that come from out of the area,” Tso warns me. “Makes it more exciting, I guess.”

Ride along with Les Tso on the latest episode of Bite podcast:

Tso works as a driver for Food Runners, a nonprofit that picks up leftover food from grocery stores, companies, events, and restaurants and brings it to organizations working to feed the hungry. For four hours every weekday, Tso braves the worst of Bay Area traffic to makes his 80 to 90 pickups (an average of 16 a day), primarily from tech companies—including Google, Juul, and LinkdIn—that have become an omnipresent force in the city.

Tso loads his car with Tetris-like precision.

Marisa Endicott

Food Runners was founded in 1987 by a small group of friends who started picking up food from a few businesses to bring to local shelters and food programs. Today, they rescue over 17 tons of food, enough to serve more than 20,000 meals, every week. The organization is made up of just a few employees and a network of about 250 volunteers who make more than 700 food runs weekly.

Even with Food Runners’ small army, there’s still more leftover food than anyone knows what to do with.  “I think everyone who does this is incredulous about how much there is. It’s just crazy. And I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Tso tell me. Food Runners even launched an app to keep up after donations surged as the tech boom took hold; in 2014, the organization saw a 50 percent increase in donations.

The increasing pressure on businesses—especially in the tech sector—to offer employees free meals as a perk creates a challenge when it comes to food waste. “If you’re telling your people you’re going to feed them at work, and you run out, that’s really bad, right,” Tso says. “So, if you can’t run out, you have to over-project.”

But it’s not just tech company cafeterias generating this overabundance. In the United States, we waste about 40 percent of our food supply. That’s 400 pounds of food per person every year, collectively costing us up to $218 billion annually (or 1.3 percent of the GDP). “We’ve gotten to a place where our culture expects food now and expects abundance, and we expect it to be beautiful and all of these things,” says Andrea Collins, a sustainable food systems specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “I think we’re starting to see a turn on that. But we’ve built all of these inefficiencies into our system as it stands now. And that’s the piece that has led to so much food waste.”

And food waste is an often overlooked contributor to climate change, responsible for 8 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing it is considered one of the most important ways to mitigate the climate crisis. “That’s one of the pieces that’s missing from our climate conversation,” Collins says. “Food waste is such a big contributor on the global scale, and it’s something that’s accessible now.”

After avoiding buying or making too much food in the first place, food rescue—like what Tso and Food Runners do—is the best way to prevent wasted food, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s also critical to solving hunger in the United States. A 2017 report by the NRDC found that less than a third of the food we throw out would be enough to feed the 42 million Americans without access to enough food.

Tso has a lot of respect for the people in San Francisco that hustle to find ways to keep feeding the many people who cannot afford to feed themselves or their families here. A lot of groups host their food programs at churches and libraries, he tells me, since these institutions have space in a city where real estate is valuable above all and almost impossible to come by. Tso is happy to do his small part. “I’m helping them help people,” he says. “I’m not there feeding people. They’re feeding people.”

Tso picks up donations from an average 16 places a day.

Marisa Endicott

The job is messy; his car is full of gloves, bags, and 15 towels. Once, he went to pick up food from a restaurant downtown and was caught by surprise when he lifted a container meant for solid foods and a hot liquid splashed out instead. “They put frickin’ chicken noodle soup in a pan, and the whole thing just fell on me,” he remembers, laughing. “You have to shrug it off. Can’t let it bother you for more than five minutes.” He put a towel on his seat and kept driving. That pretty much sums up Tso’s attitude—keep moving.

Sometimes people don’t show up with the donated food. Sometimes they show up with too much, and Tso has to scramble to find places to take it. Trader Joe’s once gave him 26 cases of bananas. They were still good, but a store mandate keeps them from selling the ones with brown spots, Tso says. No single program could make use of that many bananas, but Tso couldn’t watch them go to waste, so he divided up the haul between four or five places that would take them.

Tso knows where certain food will be most appreciated. On the day I ride with him, he saves some fish for a low-income apartment complex in the Mission because he knows they love it. Close by, a vegetarian program will take all the unwanted quinoa he always gets. One family food pantry at a church can’t take anything with nuts since kids are more prone to allergies. Once in a while, companies will have less to donate than expected. “Sometimes donors feel bad because they have like two pans,” Tso says. “And I say, ‘No, that’s cool! That means you hardly have any waste. That’s awesome.’”

Tso usually picks up the most food at Google.

Marisa Endicott

Tso delivers food to shelters, food pantries, and low-income apartments.

Marisa Endicott

At 54, Tso has had a lot of jobs in his life. He worked for Safeway for 15 years. He was an analyst at Dr. Pepper and worked in category management—the science of shelving—at Pepsi. He’s in the wine business, got a degree in English Lit, and has an MBA. He can tell you about soda business monopolies and why Costco rotisserie chickens are so cheap. But he seems to have found real fit at Food Runners. “This is one of the better jobs I’ve had in my life just because you feel good doing it,” he says.

After working with Food Runners for a year, Tso has developed a theory on the best kind of business to start in this city: “Cater to high tech companies.” He’s not the only one with that idea, and it’s changing the food scene in the Bay Area. Tech companies have lured top restaurant talent to their in-house kitchens with good benefits and better hours than almost any typical eatery can offer. Many food businesses have pivoted to catering. They’re turning to ghost kitchens (stripped down commercial kitchens without retail space) to minimize exorbitant rent costs and better target the reliable company lunch market. Broker businesses have cropped up to connect caterers to offices (for a hefty fee). And even the business of cutting food waste is taking off. In 2018, food waste startups garnered more than $125 million in venture capital and private equity funding.

But in all this madness, Collins sees opportunity, and the solutions don’t have to be high-tech. “If we’re signaling an expectation of abundance, we’re going to see more abundance and we’ll see more waste. If we’re instead signaling that sustainability is a core component of what we expect from our employers or what we expect from the businesses that we shop at, we’ll then help drive change on a system-wide scale,” Collins says. “Workplace cafeterias can be an amazing place to make a big amount of change because you’re serving a lot of food all at once. I think that’s actually a potential place where change can happen pretty quickly.”

Some companies have taken significant steps to curb waste. Google started using equipment to track and measure food consumption, and says it’s saved 6 million pounds of food over the last 5 years. (During our ride-along, Tso gets his biggest haul of the day from Google.) In general, companies with in-house kitchens can better manage leftovers since cooks can repurpose ingredients and adjust inventories. When we stop at LinkedIn, there’s only six or seven trays to pick up even though they feed 2,000 people at lunch and have to account for employees bringing friends.

There’s always an abundance of “healthy” food leftover, Tso says.

Marisa Endicott

As we zigzag between pickups and deliveries, the city’s wealth gap is even more glaring than usual. Between runs to multiple Juul and Google buildings, we drop off at low-income apartments for veterans and a church food program that serves 150 mostly homeless families every Friday. Then we pick up at a tech company mid-party that’s in the process of expanding to another floor in the building. It gives you whiplash.

Tso reminds me of the closet at Juul, which was fully stocked with snacks and drinks. “That’s tech company, classic, right? So much,” he laughs. “But then you see people out in the streets, you know? It’s raining. They don’t have any shelter and stuff. It’s like, man…”

But Tso isn’t looking to cast judgment. He wants everyone to feel like they’re in it together. And through him, they sort of are. “You want people to feel good that you’re picking up food from them, right? Leave a good taste in their mouth. And then the people that you give food to, you want them to feel good, too.”


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Ducking Ohio State! Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Luddite, Finally Tackles Text Messaging – By Laine Higgins Updated Nov. 28, 2019 10:18 pm ET

The 55-year-old coach has accepted a modern reality: You can’t survive today’s game without developing a close relationship with your phone

Jim Harbaugh is known for proudly showcasing his Luddite proclivities. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh opened fall camp in August 2016 with a poem. He told the gathering of players and staff in Schembechler Hall that he’d written an “Ode to Football” over the summer. Then, as the crowd of teenagers and 20-somethings shifted in their seats, Harbaugh rolled out an overhead projector of the sort that hasn’t been seen on campuses for many years.

Harbaugh is known for proudly showcasing his Luddite proclivities. But the demands of coaching a succession of teenagers who have never known a low-tech world have dragged the 55-year-old coach to a modern reality: You can’t survive today’s game without developing a close relationship with your phone.

Which is why, if you’re one of the hundreds of people that texts Harbaugh on Saturdays after big Michigan wins, you’re likely to receive a cursory “thx” from the coach himself. Recruits say Harbaugh—who years ago had assistants trail him with his phone—now picks up their calls even when he’s sitting at the dinner table.

Today’s college coaches are increasingly dependent on their phones due to the demands of modern day fundraising and recruiting. Coaches are expected to be innovators on the field and expert communicators off of it, able to keep up with teenagers who know how to use their phones better than anyone else on earth. It’s also why young coaches, like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, are such effective recruiters.


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Coaches are expected to be innovators on the field and expert communicators off of it. Do younger coaches have a recruiting advantage in today’s game?

So these days, Harbaugh is addicted to his phone, too. J.T. Rogan, who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego and later worked for him at Stanford and Michigan, says the coach now takes time each day to personally respond to the hundreds of text messages and calls that inundate his phone.

“I’ve seen him so many times sitting back in his chair, both hands on just kind of looking at the screen, legs kicked up on his desk, typically with his cleats on, and really cranking out the text messages,” said Rogan. “He grabs onto that thing and is just hammering things out.”

Harbaugh has long been defined by his quirks, like writing practice plans in Microsoft Excel and keeping his Little League bat tucked behind his desk so he can show it off to recruits.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh responds to a question during the Big Ten’s media days in July.Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

But when it comes to his once legendary technology aversion, it’s clear that Harbaugh has relented. The only time his phone isn’t in the pocket of his khakis or in his hand is during football practice, when he leaves it charging at his desk.

Some of the ways Harbaugh deals with the communications onslaught are traditional, like trusting assistants to sort through the piles of letters fans and alumni send. Others are so Harbaugh that no other teams would dare try them. For instance, he frequently enlists the help of his 80-year-old father Jack to craft messages to players and recruits.

“If you’re on the receiving end of a great text message or great written thought from Coach Harbaugh there’s a very good chance that Jack Harbaugh has fingerprints on it,” said Rogan, who worked as the director of operations and communications for the head football coach from 2016 to 2018. Jack Harbaugh could not be reached for comment.

Harbaugh also has a habit of sending paragraphs-long messages of gratitude that take a few finger scrolls to get through.

“He’ll send these long texts every once in a while and they’re just very personal,” said former Wolverines quarterback John O’Korn. “They definitely take up the whole screen.”

Several recruits and their parents said that technology tones down Harbaugh’s charisma, though motivational quotes, exclamation points and random capitalizations still abound.

“He’s a pretty straightforward dude,” said Blake Corum, a running back commit from Baltimore’s St. Frances Academy. “I don’t think I’ve received any emojis.”

Parents and recruits said they were unaware that Harbaugh’s text messages were influenced by an octogenarian. They did, however, suspect that the coach was not very enamored with his iPhone.

“Coach is certainly not a hip, today’s era, cellphone selfie kind of guy. He reminds me of my father,” said Jeff Persi, whose son Jeffrey is an offensive lineman in Michigan’s incoming class of 2020. “If coach could carry around a flip phone, he would.”

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