Business Spotlight: 412 Food Rescue

Food insecurity. What does is mean? Who does it impact? What does it look like? Food insecurity is defined as “households that are uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they have insufficient money or other resources for food” (USDA, 2016). In the 21st century, in our developed, democratic country, you’d think this would be a non-issue.

The reality is that there are approximately 41.2 million people living in food-insecure households (USDA, 2016). Of those 41.2 million people, 6.5 million are children; our youth are going to school hungry. These kids are lacking one of the basic needs for survival: sustenance. How can a child reach her or his full potential if all they can think about is how empty their stomachs feel?

The USDA reported that 10.8 million adults lived in households with very low food security, meaning “in these food-insecure households, normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” These folks, our neighbors, our friends, our grocery clerk, our child’s daycare provider, or a number of other individuals we cross paths with on a daily basis, are completely missing a meal, maybe two, because they don’t have the means to purchase or access food.

At the same time, we, as globe, throw away up to 40% of our food. As a nation, the United States wastes approximately 62.5 million tons of food and spend $218 billion a year “growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of food that is never eaten.” (412 Food Rescue, 2018). So, while we throw away perfectly good food, 1 in 7 Americans go hungry. If this doesn’t enrage you and tug at your heartstrings at the same time, then maybe you don’t have heart strings to pull on. It’s simply wrong and needs to be remedied.

Enter our featured business: 412 Food Rescue. We had the honor to chat with Co-founder Leah Lizarondo to talk about the meaningful work they are doing at 412 Food Rescue. We were so energized after talking with Leah, confident that 412 Food Rescue is on the fast track to improving our food system and simultaneously reducing hunger.


How did 412 Food Rescue start and how has it evolved over the years?
412 Food Rescue was founded in late 2015 and really as a direct response to the fact that we waste 40% of our food while 1 in 7 of us do not know where our next meal is coming from. It’s really a response to the extraordinary opportunity that food surplus provides; and seeing how we can use that to create an impact in hunger intervention and environmental sustainability. We see ourselves as a logistics organization. We work in a particular segment of the supply chain, which is the retail sector. And what we do is redirect food surplus that are unsellable but perfectly good from our donor partners to non-profits that serve those who are food insecure.”


How many employees now?     
[We now have] 10 employees and we’ll grow to about 15 mid-year.


You guys rely a lot of volunteers; they are basically the foundation of 412 Food Rescue, right? Approximately how many volunteers?
We rely completely on volunteers. The big difference about our model is that the only way to cost-effectively recover food at the retail level is not through a traditional logistics systems, meaning trucks and warehousing because of the nature of food that is available at retail - particularly, food at retail is in smaller quantities, approaching it’s sell-by date, or is approaching the end of its use, meaning the vegetables and fruits are ripe and need to be used up right away. There is no other distributing transport network model except for Lyft and Uber. So, we took a cue from that and created a same model but for, basically, trucking food using cars. We have about 3,000 drivers/volunteers in Pittsburgh right now. So, 3,000 food delivery drivers available every day.


I know you said you work a lot with retailers but as far as other sources of your food, are their local food hubs or farms? Do you get a portion of your food from those avenues as well?
We do work with distributors, wholesalers, and some farms. But we work particularly with retail.


How much of it is fresh food versus processed/shelf stable food?
50% of what we recover is fruits and vegetables, 15% is bread, 35% is dairy and meat. It’s all pretty much perishables. The only non-perishables we recover makes up only about 5%.


How do you navigate food safety regulations?
We take food up to its sell-by date. Sometimes we take food past its sell-by date if we think it’s pretty stable, like bread for instance. There is really no regulation in terms of date labeling; we use our own judgement in terms of what the food is. We’re strict with things like dairy and meat. I think what’s more important to focus on is the temperature. So, things like meats and dairy, we typically transport that using refrigerated vehicles. Because that’s what’s going to impact the quality the most.


Do you have certain volunteers/drivers that have that capability or do you have your own vehicles that you dispatch for pickups such as this?
We have our own refrigerated vehicle that accepts large donations from distributors or wholesalers. Also, if there is a large donation of milk, that also goes to our refrigerated vehicle.


Your website reports that in 2016 you were working with 2010 non-profits. Has that number gronw? How many non-profits are you working with now?
We have about 400 non-profits and 400 food donors.


Do you have organizations that are bigger recipients of your food than others?
Yeah, so our biggest partner is the Housing Authority of our counties and our city. That’s who we work with the most.


What does social good mean to you?
To me, social good is something that benefits the most impoverish, people who are experiencing the most economic inequality in our world.


Looking ahead, what does the future look like for 412 Food Rescue?
412 Food Rescue’s goal is really to change the way we look at using food surplus as an extraordinary opportunity to change the way we design and think about food access. So, you know, one of the things we’ve done aside from changing  the way we transport food is we’re changing the way we distribute food. Only 20% of our tonage goes to existing food pantries which is where we typically have food access points. Because of our partnerships with non-traditional food access points, like housing, we have changed the way people can truly get food. So, ya know, they get it at the place where they live, they get it  where they pick up their kids after school, or after daycare. The barriers that people typically face when they are trying to get food support are gone. There’s the time and transportation problem. There is also the stigma of trying to get food support. What we’ve found is that it’s incredible effective in ensuring that we provide food to those who need it. It’s really the first major innovation in food insecurity and hunger intervention in 50 years and I think we’re only seeing the very tip of the iceberg in terms of how we’re going to change that.


It seems like a really scalable model. Do you have plans to expand to other cities?
Yes. We’re looking at piloting in two or three other cities in the first half of the year and then expand from there.


Thank you, again, to Leah Lizarondo for taking time out of her busy schedule to chat with us and give us a snapshot of the important work they are doing in Pittsburgh and beyond.


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