Nearly half of the food in the United States is thrown out, while 1 in 7 Americans go hungry. There’s no doubt this is a tragic paradox that demands transformation. The question is, how do we get food that will be wasted to people who need it? Leah Lizarondo, co-founder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue, might tell you the answer is technology — and plenty of volunteers ready to make a difference.
Lizarondo co-founded an app that first connects food retailers with excess food to nonprofits, and then locates a volunteer willing to make the delivery. In just two years, the organization has recovered over 1.5 million pounds of food — equal to 1.3 million meals. 412 Food Rescue currently has a network of over 1,400 volunteers, and that’s only in the city of Pittsburgh. But they aren’t stopping there — this year they want to take the project nationwide (so keep your eyes on your app store.)
There’s nothing we love more than learn from inspiring, badass women, so we did a little Q & A with Lizarondo. Here’s what she had to say about the logistics of food rescue, how food waste affects the environment, and what it takes to keep a nonprofit moving.
Can you briefly describe how 412 Food Rescue works?
40% of all the food we produce gets wasted. This impacts not only our environment, but also the fact that many Americans are food insecure. Food waste is both a logistics and moral problem.
The difficult thing about food waste is almost half of it happens at the retail level, where each instance of waste is small and unpredictable. So it’s difficult to recover this using traditional trucking logistics. Couple that with the fact that waste management costs are so low (it’s very cheap to dump things in landfills), and the easiest option is to just throw things out.
That’s where 412 Food Rescue comes in. We developed an app that aggregates food retailers who have surplus food, nonprofits that need the food, and most importantly, people who want to do something about hunger and the environment.
412 Food Rescue is like a bat signal for our volunteers – and we call them food rescue heroes. When we have a donation matched to a nonprofit, our heroes get a push notification that there is a rescue available. They click on that notification and see where the rescue is on a map. And then they can volunteer to rescue the food.
The app takes them through all the steps — from getting to the donor and picking up the food, to getting to the nonprofit and dropping off the food. The app even has troubleshooting and social media capabilities — so they can share their rescue with other heroes.
The social growth of our app has made us one of the fastest-growing food recovery organizations in the US, which I think is reflective of the fact that all of us want to act. We just need to be shown how we can do it, and even better, how we can do it in the context of our everyday lives. It’s so easy to do a rescue that we have everyone from students, to stay at home moms, to seniors and even those working 9-5. Each rescue takes 30 minutes to an hour and you can do whatever fits in your schedule.
Why do you think this is such an important project?
Food retailers do not want to waste food. They want to donate food. But it’s not easy. Over 50% of what we rescue is fresh produce, something that’s difficult for those who are food insecure to access. So food needs to be rescued right away and consumed right away. Trucks are not nimble enough to do this (and are costly!), and you cannot dispatch this food to a warehouse to be sorted and stored, or it will go bad. This food needs to go directly where it can be used.
A distributed food source network requires a distributed food transport network that can transport the food to an organization that can use it that day (soup kitchens, meals on wheels programs) or distribute it that day (pantries, housing projects). That is exactly what we do. We are the air traffic control, and it has worked beautifully. Our food rescue heroes have transported over 1.3 million meals!
Other than volunteering with 412 Food Rescue, what are some suggestions you have for saving food in our day to day lives?
Don’t buy the samples. Make a list and stick to it. Buy fresh veggies that you know you will use and use them first, and augment with frozen veggies so you know they won’t go to waste if you can’t get to them right away. Have one day of the week (maybe the day before your weekly grocery trip) where you just use everything up in the fridge. Also, before you go to a warehouse club, ask yourself if you will really eat that 5 pound bag of whatever it is.
How will food waste impact the environment, especially in the long term?
Food waste represents one fifth of what’s in our landfills and causes up to 16% of the world’s methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon. That is astounding when you think about it.
But that’s only how food waste impacts our environment at the end of its life. When you think about the inputs we lose – the resources that we have put into growing and processing the food – you see that we lose 20% of all the freshwater and land. And California, a state in drought, is where most of our produce is grown. We need water in California and yet we are throwing it away.
I always get asked – but your heroes are driving around in cars, releasing carbon. But one of the statistics that I love to share is that the food we saved in 2016 alone is equivalent to about 675,000 miles driven and our volunteers only drove 50,000 miles. Add the fact that we were able to provide food to those who need it, and the exchange is decidedly positive.
Saving food is something that we all need to take part in. Not only to take care of those less fortunate than us but to take care of everyone — including ourselves, and our environment.
Do you see technology making a positive impact on the world as we move into the future?
Technology has to make a positive impact. It’s up to us to make sure of that, right? I’m proud that we’ve created an app powered by everyone’s desire to do good. There are thousands of folks out there watching for that push notification like it is a Pokemon, and jumping on that chance to get a rescue. You really have to see it to believe it.
Altruism is addictive. It gives you a high to know you have done something good. And when you do a rescue, you don’t drop off to a warehouse — you drop off directly to our partners. So it not only takes you to neighborhoods you may not have visited otherwise, it connects you directly to those who need it. It opens your eyes, widens your world, and takes you out of your bubble.
This is one of the best things we hope technology does. And we give you many opportunities to do it every day.
Founding such an amazing program is a dream for many, but you made it a reality. Do you have any advice for readers who might have aspirations of starting a nonprofit?
What was that Hamilton line? Winning is easy, governing is harder? Launching something is easy, actually scaling it is harder. It’s easy to talk about a provocative idea and make a big splash. The challenge is persevering after the initial wave of attention has gone. The work in between is not quite as romantic. Counting every little success and every little step toward your goal keeps you going. They may not all be earthshaking but every little step is just that – it gets you closer.
Top photo via Pixabay
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