'It's a given that food is a right,' said Lizarondo. 'My counter is that convenience is just as much of a right.'
Food has been a lifelong passion for Leah Lizarondo. Therefore, she was staggered when she read a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council that revealed that 40% of the food supply in the United States goes to waste. "It was shocking to me to learn that almost half of our food is thrown away while people are going hungry," the 46-year-old told The Washington Post. "I thought, 'Where is this happening and why is nobody solving this gap?'" Wanting to make a difference, the Pittsburgh food writer studied the waste problem and learned that one of the biggest reasons why food gets thrown out by grocery stores and restaurants is because it's hard to predict when there's going to be a surplus and they have no way to distribute it.
"I started thinking about how to transport food and realized that we could use app technology, like a DoorDash or Uber Eats model, with volunteer drivers. We could match the drivers with somebody in need in their area," Lizarondo said. Speaking to TechSoup, she added: "It's a massive logistics issue that they solved by using technology—and I knew it could be applied in the nonprofit sector."
Using a similar technology platform as those adopted by food delivery apps, Lizarondo and her team created Food Rescue Hero, an app that makes it easy for volunteers to pick up surplus produce, meat, dairy products and prepared meals from grocery stores and restaurants to nonprofit food pantries and similar organizations on the other end. Lizarondo explained that anyone with 20 minutes to spare can log in and find a place to make pick-ups from and be linked to a person or agency in need. "No planning ahead is required—people can pick up and deliver food in whatever amount of time they have and how often they like," she added.
According to the company's website, "since its launch in 2016, the app has redirected more than 68 million pounds of perfectly good food from landfills to the people who need it." The app reportedly had its biggest ever surge in volunteers in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. "People just really wanted to help," said Lizarando. "The biggest challenge was how to reach the people who needed us. They couldn't get to the food pantries, and the pantries couldn't field enough volunteers to pack the boxes."
Surprisingly, the majority of Food Rescue Hero volunteers are seniors. Lizarondo admitted that when she first launched the app, she thought volunteers would mostly be millennials because of the app technology. "While we do have millennials rescuing food, most of our volunteers are seniors—especially early retirees who want to give back," she said. "They have the flexibility to do it and with no-contact protocols in place, it's perfectly safe." The functionality of the Food Rescue Hero app made home deliveries possible and volunteers had to undergo an extra layer of background checks. "There's not a crisis we're built for better than COVID-19," Lizarondo added.
"It's a given that food is a right," said Lizarondo. "My counter is that convenience is just as much of a right. We can't assume that because food is available it's also accessible. Public transit might not be an option, and if you're home-schooling kids, you may not be able to leave the house. It's our job to get the food to the most vulnerable, which is why I emphasize that Food Rescue Hero is not a hunger relief organization. It's a transportation company that services hunger relief organizations. The reason we're able to attract so many volunteers is that they're able to interact with the food they're saving and the people they're helping. It's a very meaningful experience."