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412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Pittsburgh’s 412 Food Rescue blends traditional community outreach with of-the-moment technology to get food to those who need it.



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The 412 Food Rescue Team. In the forefront are CEO Leah Lizarondo (left) and Program Director Jennifer England (right)
 

Every Friday at noon, Dan Thompson pulls his Ford Transit Connect up to the loading dock of the Whole Foods grocery in East Liberty. On this visit, he loads his hatchback with what he estimates to be around 500 pounds of high-quality produce — organic oranges, apples, kale, chard, at least six kinds of mushrooms, pomegranates, potatoes, cauliflower and bananas, dates, okra and a few errant cactus leaves — that otherwise would have ended up in a compost heap. “[Loading the car] is like a game of Tetris,” he says, eying the rainbow of fruits and vegetables.

Thompson, 41, is volunteering for 412 Food Rescue, a nimble, Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that aims to help alleviate hunger by rerouting food that otherwise would be discarded. “I don’t think people realize how much food we [as a society] throw away,” he says.

We throw away a lot of food. The most recent data from the USDA Economic Research Service estimates about 31 percent of food that makes it to market in the United States goes uneaten — approximately 133 billion pounds were wasted in 2010. And that is only what went unused at the consumer and retail levels, not to mention the food that never made it from the farm to the store. Rotting food emits methane as it decomposes, and scientists consider that process to be a significant contributor to global warming.

This food doesn’t need to be wasted. This food could feed the hungry.

“We just dove in and started doing it. We’ve been running full-speed ever since we started,” says Jennifer England, 412 Food Rescue’s program director.

The enterprise combines a traditional ideal of community outreach and organizing with an of-the-now promise of technological innovation and connectivity. In doing so, it has improved the lives of thousands of Pittsburghers: 412 Food Rescue has reclaimed and repurposed more than 1 million pounds of food in two years of operations. 

Leah Lizarondo and Gisele Fetterman founded 412 Food Rescue in March 2015. Lizarondo, a local activist and blogger, says she was searching for a meaningful project to work on and found inspiration in Fetterman’s work with Free Store 15104, a Braddock-based store that redistributes surplus and donated goods to those in need. (Fetterman is Braddock’s First Lady; her husband is Mayor John Fetterman.)

“Every single day at every single grocery store, they have surplus food but it is very difficult to transport it. The nonprofits can’t pick it up because they don’t have the resources, and the grocery stores can’t deliver because it’s not their job to do that, plus they already operate on slim margins,” says Lizarondo, the organization’s CEO. 

All it took was for someone to connect the dots. 

“I thought, ‘Why not work to solve this one particular problem?’ [Grocery stores] want to donate, and we know that on the other side there are a lot of people who need food,” says Lizarondo. “We won’t do anything else. We won’t warehouse. The food will go directly to the people who need it.”
 


Ava Johnson, an Allegheny County Housing Authority service coordinator, assists with a drop-off in McKees Rocks.
 

According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s 2016 report “Hunger Profile of Allegheny County,” 174,110 people, or 14.2 percent of the overall population, are considered to be food-insecure — meaning they lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. Of those people, 42,170 are children.

412 Food Rescue’s most impactful work happens with its approximately 200 donors and 240 partners. It happens on the ground at community centers and home kitchens from Arlington to Lawrenceville to Northview Heights. That work depends on a web of institutional knowledge, community enthusiasm and technical expertise. 

It starts when a donating organization notifies 412 Food Rescue that it has food to be picked up. Certain donations, such as the Whole Foods pick-up, are recurring; 412 Food Rescue picks up produce and other food from the Whole Foods store in East Liberty six days per week, and twice on Friday. Gordon Food Services, Trader Joe’s and select Giant Eagle stores also have recurring rescue partnerships. Other times, it may be a one-off or semi-regular donation. “We have no size limit. We’ll even take a single tray of something and match it with an organization that needs to feed five people,” Lizarondo says.

412 Food Rescue is not the first locally based organization to aim to repurpose food waste. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, based in Duquesne, was founded in 1980 and last year rescued 14 million pounds of food across 11 counties of southwestern Pennsylvania. It works with approximately 400 partner agencies that distribute food-related goods — everything from canned items to bread to produce to paper plates — to end users.

The Food Bank also works directly with farmers to glean what are known as seconds — produce that is misshapen, bruised or otherwise deemed unworthy for a store shelf — and distribute them in season to food-insecure individuals at monthly events known as “Produce to People,” as well as sharing the produce via its partner agencies.
 


Rescued bell peppers
 

Nevertheless, there are longstanding gaps in the hunger chain. “Hunger in our region isn’t the responsibility of one single organization. There’s an opportunity for agencies to get product from both organizations,” says Justin Lee, chief operating officer of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. 

“We realized pretty quickly that the existing infrastructure for food distribution wasn’t set up to handle the logistics of distributing highly perishable food,” says England, the program director for 412 Food Rescue. 

What distinguishes 412 Food Rescue from the food bank and other hunger-relief organizations is its focus on foodstuffs — fresh produce, meat, even trays of prepared meals left over from an event — with a clock ticking on their shelf-life. “We don’t keep any inventory. We want everything to be distributed right away,” Lizarondo says.  

“How do you distribute 400 cases of cucumbers in a couple of hours? That’s when Jen really has her job cracked out for her,” she adds.

“We created new partnerships with organizations that are not traditional feeding organizations but have direct and constant contact with high numbers of people who are food-insecure,” England says.

Notable among them are 412 Food Rescue’s collaborations with the housing authorities of the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. 

That relationship with Pittsburgh’s public housing communities began in August 2015 with a pilot program at the Caliguiri Plaza high-rise in Allentown and later at the Arlington Heights and Northview Heights complexes. “Then, like a jet plane, it bloomed into something much bigger,” says Michelle Sandidge, chief community affairs officer of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
 

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