Even before the pandemic, 40 million Americans struggled to consistently put food on the table. Many organizations look at hunger as a supply problem, but Pittsburgh nonprofit 412 Food Rescue has always viewed hunger as a distribution problem. The supply is there, but 40% of “perfectly good food” is disposed of. That irked Leah Lizarondo, the organization’s founder, who grew up in the Philippines. “Coming from a country where we ate everything nose to tail, root to stalk—before it was a trendy, foodie thing,” she says, “I couldn’t understand that.”
412 Food Rescue, named for Pittsburgh’s area code, aimed to tackle that challenge. It teamed up with Pittsburgh institution Carnegie Mellon University to develop an algorithm for an app to help solve the distribution problem. They launched Food Rescue Hero, the 2020 winner in the Apps category of Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards.
On this week’s episode of the World Changing Ideas podcast, Lizarondo talks about how the platform, now licensed to 11 other cities in the U.S. and Canada, can facilitate delivery logistics for getting excess food to those who need it. “I’m sure our friends at DoorDash are tired of [this analogy],” Lizarondo says with a laugh, but “it’s the DoorDash for food recovery. It’s a DoorDash for the food insecure.”
It may be a tired analogy, but it’s an accurate one: A “network of thousands of drivers,” using their own cars, pick up surplus supply from grocery stores, or catered supplies from offices, universities, and even sports events, and drop them off to an array of social services organizations that work closely with local residents who may experience hunger. But the “magic sauce” of this workforce is that they are all volunteers.
Lizarondo discusses how it’s a more efficient model than having trucks travel indiscriminately to central food pantries. “This is not actually reaching people, or considering how they live,” she says. In her model, volunteers get push notifications to make deliveries nearby, which cause little inconvenience to their daily routines. And they’re dropping off at a range of locations, including—during the pandemic—to people’s homes, helping the least mobile, who are often the most at risk of hunger. “It can serve the senior who certainly cannot carry a 15-pound box for a mile,” she says.
On the podcast, Lizarondo discusses how the platform has remained resilient during the pandemic and actually increased operations fourfold, now delivering 1.2 million pounds of food per month in Pittsburgh alone. She also discusses the value of putting time into cooking meals at home—something some of us tinkered at during lockdown (sourdough, anyone?). “Cooking is the simplest and most primary intervention that we can have,” she says, “to go back to being a healthy society.”
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