By Lia Reichmann
Coming from the Philippines in her mid-twenties Leah Lizarondo questioned why people experienced hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. when there was so much food available in what she saw as this “land of plenty.”
This “stark disconnect” led her to start 412 Food Rescue in 2015 in the Pittsburgh area, alongside Giselle Fetterman (wife of Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman).
The nonprofit enlists volunteers to rescue good but unsellable food from grocery stores and restaurants and distribute it to those in need. Using her technology background, Lizarondo created Food Rescue Hero, a technology platform that mobilizes volunteers and is used in over 25 cities in the U.S. and Canada.
The Food Rescue Hero app helps connect “Food Rescue Heroes”, what the organization calls volunteers, to pick up surplus food and deliver it to nonprofits. According to 412 Food Rescue, they have over 40,000 volunteers in their community and have helped recover 150 million pounds of food in total.
Lizarondo attributes their great success to the easy “yesses all around.” Volunteering is “something that’s easy to do,” taking as little as “30 minutes to an hour.” For restaurants and grocery stores 412 Food Rescue offers them an opportunity to save the surplus food as “no one wants to really” throw away food. For nonprofits, Lizarondo says it’s easy to say yes to “perfectly good” food “at no cost.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020, 412 Food Rescue started to deliver directly to those experiencing food insecurity with its home delivery feature on the app. In Pittsburgh and Northern Virginia, they’ve delivered 300,000 meals to people’s homes.
Another problem they hope to tackle is climate change, as food waste in landfills is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
“150 million pounds of food is really equivalent to the carbon impact of planting three and a half million trees,” Lizarondo said. “So it’s saving it from going to landfill where it produces methane, which is a greenhouse gas that’s even more deadly than carbon…we knew that by saving food, we had an opportunity to tackle two problems at the same time, hunger and climate change.”
By 2030, as part of the Food Rescue Hero Network, they aim to have Food Rescue partners in 100 cities.
The impact on nonprofits
One of the nonprofits that receives donations from 412 Food Rescue is the Persad Center, in Pittsburgh, PA. Although the Persad Center mainly focuses on providing mental health services and support for the LGBTQ+ community, over the last few years they have been running a food pantry.
Tony Kuhar of the Persad Center said it gets a mix of perishable and nonperishable goods from Food Rescue, including prepared food and a regular bread drop-off a few times a week.
The next step in their partnership is working out the logistics with Food Rescue to have home deliveries for people who use Persad’s services.
He has found that the people Persad serves are “grateful” and “thankful” for the food pantry.
“The homeless transgender folks living out of their car needing something to eat while they’re couch surfing,” Kuhar said. “The benefits…there’s really just not even a way to describe it like this. It’s just extremely needed…I mean even if it’s a handful of people, for those handful of people, it is more than important to make sure that this stays open, regardless of what happens in the future.”
For Kuhar he sees 412 Food Rescue as a “great resource” as they do it differently from other organizations because they use volunteers and are able to distribute “so many different varieties” of food to many different places.
What volunteering looks like
Sue Dodd had been wanting to volunteer with 412 Food Rescue for years, but has only been able to since her retirement in the spring. Dodd volunteers in Pittsburgh and helps do home deliveries and grocery bagging at the Good Food Project.
A few times a day, she looks at the Food Rescue Hero app to see if there are any last-minute volunteer opportunities nearby that she can fit into her schedule. She also has two weekly scheduled rescues, including one to the Persad Center.
She finds the app easy to use–users can pick up rescues or say they’re not available for a weekly delivery “easily” and the app gives the volunteers directions to the delivery location and any notes from a donor.
Dodd says she enjoys volunteering with 412 Food Rescue and is “happy to help” as she always had an interest in “food issues” and “food politics.”
“You’re saving food from landfills, you’re doing an ecological thing and you’re feeding people who need food, it feels pretty good. And the amount of food wasted in this country is amazing, so this helps rescue some of it and keep it from just being thrown away,” Dodd said. “Anytime I arrive at a pantry or whatever, they’re so appreciative and it’s fun to get to know these different people running their pantries or helping their neighbors whatever they’re doing, and they really appreciate receiving the food. You know it’s going to a good cause.”
Although she is “pretty conscious of food waste” already, volunteering has made her more “conscious at home.”
“I think it’s…reinforced that even more and it’s good to work with people who think that way, who understand those issues,” Dodd added.
Through her months of volunteering, she has noticed how appreciative people are, especially those who need home deliveries.
“You feel like you’re getting to know these folks. I’m really excited to know a pantry that’s just in my neighborhood – couldn’t be a mile away – and all the work they’re doing,” Dodd said. “It’s nice to get to know them and what they’re doing. You learn more about your community and how much need there is.”
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