Literally tons of prepared food in the US ends up in the trash. The Pittsburgh nonprofit 412 Food Rescue is on a mission to reduce this waste.

Second Helping

Story Aaron H. Bible
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According to the USDA, an estimated 1 in 9 Americans were “food insecure” in 2018, equating to more than 37 million Americans, including more than 11 million children. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.” And if you’re wondering what that 40 percent figure on food waste looks like, it’s about 20 pounds of food per person per month, worth about $165 billion per year in the US.

Adding to these startling stats, the United Nations says that if we recover all the food that is lost or wasted, we would have enough to feed all those who are hungry, four times over.

There’s a group of folks in Pittsburgh who are doing something unique to eradicate this issue, a problem that we often think of as happening in other countries, but not right here in the United States. Founded in 2015, 412 Food Rescue simply wants to keep perfectly good food from entering the waste stream. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask. 

This Pittsburgh- born startup is creating a national impact, driven by the belief that good food should go to people, not landfills. It works to redirect healthy food from the waste stream to nonprofits that serve food to populations in need. 

According to the group, in the US, one in every seven people goes hungry, while 40 percent of food produced is wasted. The 412 Food Rescue group addresses both these problems through technology-coordinated, community-powered networks. As the only organization in Allegheny County focused on food that would otherwise be discarded, 412 Food Rescue has developed innovative solutions to eliminate food waste in the region—and is now expanding its model to cities nationwide. The solutions are tested right here in Pittsburgh, as they are developed, benefiting local communities, then scaled up for what works nationally. To date, 412 Food Rescue has redirected more than seven million pounds of perfectly good food from landfills. The organization works with 1,600 food retailers, 650 nonprofit partners, and more than 8,000 volunteers. 

There are also environmental consequences to food waste. According to stats available on the group’s website, food production uses 10 percent of the energy budget, 50 percent of the land, and 80 percent of all fresh water consumed in the US. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 97 percent of food waste generated ends up in the landfill. It makes up the single largest component of municipal solid waste—generating a large portion of US methane emissions (a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide).

Appetite for Life

Of note, 412 Food Rescue is the parent company of Food Rescue Hero, a platform that helps food rescue and hunger organizations launch and scale food recovery, tackling the growing problems of food waste and food insecurity. In 2016, the group launched the Food Rescue Hero app, and that has saved more than seven million pounds of food by mobilizing the largest on-demand network of volunteer food-recovery drivers anywhere on the planet. Food Rescue Hero has been thriving in Pittsburgh, and now measurably reduces food insecurity in Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, northern Virginia, and soon, Los Angeles—with a goal of 100 cities by 2030.

“I like to call myself an ‘app-stalker.’ If I’m already running errands, I always check the app to see if I can fit a food rescue into my day. I usually can,” says 412 volunteer Lorien Benet Hart, also a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “Everyone is busy, but we all have 30 minutes or an hour to rescue food that will make a huge difference in someone else’s life. When you see the impact that a little time makes, you’ll want to go back for more.”

The group’s 2018 Impact Report details its new transport and distribution model, which, leveraging technology, civic engagement, and public-private partnerships, effectively responds to the opportunity of retail food surplus and has significantly impacted hunger in the Pittsburgh community.

An active advocate for food, health, and innovation, Leah Lizarondo cofounded 412 Food Rescue a year after her TEDx Talk entitled, “Why the Farm is Not Getting to the Table.” By 2017, she was named by SmartBusiness as one of the individuals “poised to shape the Pittsburgh region in 2017 and beyond” and one of FoodTank’s “17 Food Heroes to Inspire Us in 2017.”

Lizarondo brings a 15-year track record of leadership positions with global corporations and nonprofits. She left her career as a product manager in Southeast Asia, where she worked in consumer-packaged goods and technology, moving on to pursue her passion in food and health advocacy. She has also trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City and received a Certification in Plant-based Nutrition from Cornell University. 

Built on the “Impossible”

Lizarondo is interested in the intersection of social good and technology, and she has mined her experience in launching startups as she works to grow 412 Food Rescue. 

“412 Food Rescue’s model is fully built around something we were told was ‘impossible’: our unwavering belief that people will step up,” she says. “That people will take action. One day at a time. Thirty minutes at a time. Over and over again. And our volunteers deliver (pun intended!). Together, we’re proving that change is only possible if all of us participate, if all of us take responsibility, if all of us let the good in our hearts prevail.”

Lizarondo is one of five We Empower honorees recognized for advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. During the UN General Assembly in New York City, September 23–27, the group participated in summits and a pitch competition hosted by Diane von Furstenberg. Lizarondo won, receiving a $20,000 grant.

“We have set audacious goals for 412 Food Rescue. We are aiming to truly end hunger in communities here in Pittsburgh, working with some amazing organizations to do so,” Lizarondo says. Our tech platform, Food Rescue Hero, is also expanding nationally. By the first quarter of 2020, we will be in 10 cities.” 

Visit 412foodrescue.org for more information on how to get involved.

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