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.


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.
 

 

 
 

Now, between 3,500 and 5,000 people at six community locations and 11 high-rise buildings receive regular donations from 412 Food Rescue. “You see the truck pull up with all of the stuff. It’s overwhelming, even for me,” Sandidge says.

As soon as England pairs donated food with an organization, pickup and delivery information is entered into the 412 Food Rescue smartphone app. Volunteers — there are approximately 1,000 active users — then receive an alert. If they are available, they can ping the app to claim a pickup-and-delivery run. “We have unbelievable acceptance rates. Sometimes it happens in under a minute,” England says. 

Volunteers drive personal vehicles — some even ride bicycles or walk — to the pick-up point. At Whole Foods, most of the food that Thompson arrived to rescue looks shelf-worthy. There’s an occasional blemished apple, a smattering of taupe bananas and slight droop on some kale, but otherwise, the produce is in excellent condition. It’s shocking to see so much food is pulled from the store’s shelves. “A logical system wouldn’t let this happen,” Thompson says. 

From a market perspective, it’s a more nuanced decision. Grocery stores, particularly higher-end markets such as Whole Foods, have to account for customer perception of their products. Plus, they need to make sure that the produce they sell will maintain freshness in shoppers’ homes; food purchased on one day might not be used until a few days later.

“Devotion to quality is what sets Whole Foods Market apart. Our team selects and hand-stacks produce daily to guarantee our fruits and vegetables are at their peak and meet our rigorous standards of flavor, appearance, quality and freshness,” Annie M. Cull, a company spokesperson, says via email. 

Cull says produce departments at each store are inspected several times per day and managers at individual stores make the call about what and when to pull items from display. “Each time, the central question they are asking is, ‘Would I buy that product?’ and they’re making an evaluation consistent with our standards around any visible bruising, discoloration, ripeness, etc.,” Cull says via email.

“Because of the types of food that is coming in — it’s different from the Food Bank in that these are perishable items such as eggs, fresh fruits and meat — [412 Food Rescue has] given our residents an opportunity to get food that they don’t normally buy. They can learn how to prepare food that is really good for you. It’s helped the quality of food improve. It’s helped the eating habits of our children improve,” says Bev Moore, deputy executive director of the Allegheny County Housing Authority. 
 


Volunteer Dan Thompson loads his car “like a game of Tetris” on his weekly run to the Whole Foods store in East Liberty
 

Rescue volunteers often drop off the food at a location that offers easy, direct access for recipients. Residents of buildings and communities managed by the city and county housing authorities pick up and deliver in community centers, daycare centers and gymnasiums. Volunteers in the communities sort the delivered items to ensure equitable distribution. “When you witness the volunteers in the community come and take the delivery … They break down all the big bulk items … so that everyone can get some of it. You have some happy campers when they’re done,” says Moore.

Elderly and disabled residents can arrange to have food dropped off at their door. “Just because you can’t get down there doesn’t mean you can’t get any food,” Sandidge says.

Or, as in the case of Thompson’s regular Whole Foods run, the produce lands at a community-centered organization that will orchestrate the final leg of distribution. Thompson’s weekly rescue ends at Lawrenceville United, a neighborhood nonprofit group. 

From there, it’s picked up by its intended recipient, Zainabu Musa, a Bantu refugee from Somalia. She uses the supply to augment the food buys with food stamps to feed her family of 10, and she also shares the bounty with five other refugee families. She takes it all back to her small townhouse in Northview Heights, where her front room is decorated in what she says is a traditional African style: seafoam sheets line the walls, shimmering with silver threads woven in a leaf pattern. A rainbow of multicolored drapery undulates on the ceiling.
 

 
 

Musa, dressed on this day in a flowing, floral-patterned purple and turquoise outfit and a red-and-white headscarf, sits with her eldest daughter, Asha (a high school student who helps to translate from Somali to English). “Food is good, and this food helps me,” Musa says.

Even though some of the food was unfamiliar at first, Musa says she’s never been fazed by what she gets.

“I’m from Africa. I know how to cook everything. I mix up African food and American food. I’ll mix fufu (an African and Caribbean staple food made with cassava and unripe plantain) with American greens,” she says. 

Still, England says she does her best to match each of the organization’s rescues with recipients who won’t have a hard time cooking the food they receive; there’s no point in saving food if it’s going to end up going to waste because recipients don’t have the knowledge or capacity to cook with it. 
 


Zainabu Musa, a Bantu refugee from Somalia, prepares and enjoys a dish of chicken, potatoes and romenesco served over boiled corn meal and pasta 
 

According to Sandidge, the recipients in Pittsburgh Public Housing often help to make England’s job a bit easier. “Food is community. [The donations have] created intergenerational activity. People are sharing recipes and learning the benefits of eating healthy. Some of the young people had never seen mangos before. And then some of the seniors showed the young people what to do with them,” she says.

The benefit of this shared knowledge extends beyond the immediacy of the delivery, Sandidge says. Before the exposure to the array of fresh produce and meat delivered by 412 Food Rescue, many low-income people wouldn’t buy a wide variety of produce because they didn’t know how to prepare it, and they didn’t want to spend their limited resources on food that might then go uneaten. Now, with a greater culinary knowledge base, they are confident enough to purchase some of those foods at the grocery store. 

“We want to move people to self-sufficiency. When they’re well nourished and well-fed they can be productive, healthy and feel good about themselves,” says Sandidge.

412 Food Rescue received its first grant — $150,000 — from the Hillman Foundation, which continues to support the organization. It also receives funding from the Heinz Endowments, the Pittsburgh Foundation, BNY Mellon Foundation and a host of smaller foundation and individual donations. It raises money and boosts awareness through an active social media presence, crowd-pleasing events such as Jamilka Borges’ all-female chefs’ dinner and “Ugly CSA,” a community-supported agriculture program that encourages consumers to purchase a subscription that supplies previously unsellable produce from Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. Lizarondo herself is a energetic force in promoting the organization at events, speeches and on social media. [Editor’s note: Lizarondo also has contributed to Pittsburgh Magazine as a freelance writer and blogger.]

If Lizarondo and her team have their way, 412 Food Rescue is just beginning to pave the path to hunger relief. “There’s a lot of room to grow. We’re only scratching the surface of what we’re capable of recovering,” she says.

For example, 412 Food Rescue has a partnership with Giant Eagle and currently rescues from 10 of 75 stores in Allegheny County. It would like to rescue food from all 75, and eventually expand outside the county, too. Working with restaurants to salvage food that doesn’t make it to diners is an idea that’s just beginning to be explored. Lizarondo says she already is working with Borges on developing affordable, healthy frozen meals that are eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits. They also are collaborating on producing consumer products such as juice and granola bars prepared with rescued food. Their goal is to open a commissary and production kitchen in Millvale, which could happen as early as this summer. 412 Food Rescue is a finalist for the UpPrize, a social-innovation challenge that awards its winner up to $300,000 in grants and investments.

Lizarondo says she also hopes to bring the organization’s infrastructure and app technology to other midsize cities such as Columbus and Austin in 2017.

For Musa, the Somali refugee, it’s already been a life-changer. “I love the people that give us the food,” she says. “They are part of my family now.”  
 

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