From the vegetables that rot in our crisper drawers before we cook them, to the uneaten sandwiches that get tossed at a coffee shop at the end of the day, Americans waste a lot of food – nearly 40 percent of the total food supply. Meanwhile 1 in 6 people do not know where their next meal is coming from. Those numbers did not add up to Leah Lizarondo and Gisele Fetterman, so they decided to do something about it in their home city of Pittsburgh.
Their organization, 412 Food Rescue, works to recover un-sellable but perfectly good food from retailers, restaurants, caterers, and universities (among other places) and deliver it to organizations that help to feed people in need. Meanwhile, they empower nearly 1,000 volunteers to make a real difference in the lives of their neighbors.
Repair the World’s Pittsburgh Fellows have partnered closely with 412 Food Rescue since its founding. Now, we are excited to share their work with you. Here, co-founder Leah Lizarondo (pictured at right, with Repair the World Fellows Max and Lydia) talks about creating the “Uber for food rescue,” why ugly vegetables are the next frontier of closing the food gap, and the role that faith communities can play in advancing food justice.
What was the inspiration behind 412 Food Rescue?
We started in direct response to the disconnect that we as a society waste 40 percent of the food supply while 1/6 people go hungry. We work on the retail end of the supply chain, where surplus happens on a daily basis. In aggregate, the food wasted by grocery stores, restaurants, universities, coffee shops, and other retail locations represents the largest source of surplus food aside from our own homes. We partner with the retail locations to pick up their surplus and match the food available to non-profits that serve people who are food insecure.
Right now in Pittsburgh we partner with 150 retailers and 200 non-profits, and have 900 volunteers signed up. In our second year of operation this year, we will rescue 1 million pounds of food.
How do you coordinate the food rescues to make sure they are getting to the right place?
We work dynamically to match every food recovery to the right place and make sure the food is useful to the populations the organization serves. We don’t just drop off food without finding out from our partners if its an appropriate delivery. For example, if we recover 2 dozen bagels from a bagel shop, we are not going to drop those off at a housing facility that serves 200 people. Instead, we might drop them off at a shelter that serves 12 people. We are working on creating an intelligent algorithm that will do this matching for us. And in a couple of weeks, we will be releasing an app that coordinates our volunteers by sending them notifications of food rescue opportunities near them.
Tell me about the Ugly CSA.
The Ugly CSA is another one of our programs that tries to tackle food waste at the farm level. About 20% of food waste happens at the farm and manufacturing level. As a society we have these cosmetic standards for fruit and vegetables that aren’t realistic, and lot of the produce that is grown at farms is discarded because it doesn’t match those standards. We created a new market for farmers to sell their “ugly” produce at a discount through CSA shares. We launched this past summer with a local farm alliance and sold 40 shares, and plan to scale it up this year.
What are different ways that volunteers get involved in your work?
95% of our volunteer force is dedicated to food recovery. People can sign up to be a “food rescue hero,” which means they pick up surplus food and deliver it to one of our non-profit partners. They are basically like an Uber for food rescue. We have a partnership with Zipcar, which allows volunteers to get a car for an hour for free if they’re doing a food rescue.
Another way volunteers get involved is through our Hidden Harvest program, which just launched this fall. Volunteers help to glean unpicked fruit from private and city trees around Pittsburgh. This fall, volunteers harvested 1,500 pounds of fruit that otherwise would have gone to waste.
Can you share a story of 412 Food Rescue’s impact?
Because we are a nontraditional organization, we can partner with non profits that might not specifically be hunger organizations, but that serve populations that are food insecure. One of those organizations is the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh. We are the first providers to bring food directly to their residencies. Because of the work we’re doing, their residents know where their next meal is coming from – they know they can expect food at a scheduled drop off.
Can you describe your partnership with Repair the World?
I met Zack Block, who runs the Repair the World community in Pittsburgh a few years ago when we were working out of the same co-working space. At the time I was writing for an online magazine, and I wrote about Repair the World when they launched here three years ago. At the time 412 Food Rescue was in its germination stage, and I knew they’d be an instrumental partner in getting our organization off the ground. When we were about to launch, I got in touch with Zack and asked for the fellows’ help in recruiting our first volunteers. Repair the World’s fellows played a big role in getting us started, and continue to make a significant difference in our work of recruiting and retaining volunteers.
What role should religious organizations and faith communities play in food justice work?
I think a lot. As we have demonstrated with Repair the World, outreach to faith based organizations is instrumental to what we do. The common thread between all religions – whether you belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque – is a base message to do good. We offer an easy way to plug in and do that.