Last spring, I worked a catering event for e2. The menu was extravagant and the head count was estimated to be 150. In the end, only 50 people came and after the client took food home, and after we fed the band, the valet parking guys and everyone on staff, there was still a ton of leftover food. It felt criminal to all of us, but many things simply had to be thrown away.

Scenarios like these have often made me think back to an organization in my hometown called Rachel’s Table where restaurants could easily donate excess food and help feed hungry people. I have often wished for something similar in Pittsburgh.

Thanks to 412 Food Rescue, a new venture by Leah Lizarondo (Brazen Kitchen and NEXTpittsburgh) and Gisele Fetterman (The Free Store), my wish has come true.

“I was really inspired by The Free Store in Braddock,” says Lizarondo who is a food writer, educator and activist. “I noticed a lot of what was donated was food that would have gone to waste. I started asking Gisele where she got it and why it was given to her.”

The Free Store, started by Fetterman two and half years ago, redistributes everything from clothing and furniture donated from movie sets to mislabeled produce or prepared foods nearing their sell-by date from major grocery chains.

“As I read about it more, I was shocked to learn that 40% of food goes to waste. And when you think about the fact that up to 1 in 5 are food insecure, there is a glaring disconnect. We need to redirect as much of this food to those in need,” says Lizarondo.

Fetterman adds, “The Free Store has already made a big dent in the food insecurity in Braddock. Now we want to spread this help to the whole region.”

After only a few months of planning, 412 Food Rescue has become a reality. One of the first official rescue missions was for 1.5 tons of mislabeled sweet potatoes from a local Costco.

“The sweet potatoes were gone in a few hours and for the next couple days we received thank you notes and photos of the meals from residents who benefited,” says Fetterman.

“Retailers don’t want to throw these quantities of food away, but they also can’t bear the cost of keeping it or transporting it somewhere else,” adds Fetterman. And transporting 1.5 tons of sweet potatoes is no small effort.

 To the rescue

How does it work?  Whoever has food to be rescued calls or sends a text to 412 Food Rescue and then Lizarondo, Fetterman or one of a handful of volunteers picks it up. Sounds simple but finding a recipient for the food and a fast means of getting it there makes it tricky.

To ensure that no donation is ever too big, the project’s founders are in the process of fundraising for a vehicle large enough to rescue a donation of any magnitude so that nothing has to go to waste.

Leah Lizarondo, second from right and Gisele Fetterman next to her with the winning team at Steel City Codefest. Photo by Tracy Certo

Leah Lizarondo and Gisele Fetterman with the winning team at Steel City Codefest in March. Photo by Tracy Certo

“We are dealing with waste—there is no real economic value for donors. The goal is to keep costs as low as possible and technology allows us to do that. We aggregate and match donors and beneficiaries but the key is we mobilize volunteers to help transport the food,” says Lizarondo.

412 Food Rescue is launching an app that efficiently connects the dots between food that needs to be rescued, volunteer drivers that can pick it up and beneficiaries that can distribute it to those in need. Beneficiaries include organizations like The Free Store as well as soup kitchens and shelters. Thanks to developers at Steel City Codefest, a weekend-long competition earlier this year, they’re getting a jump on the prototype.

Here’s how it’s intended to work. Volunteer drivers sign on when they want to be a rescuer “on duty”—similar to how Uber drivers sign into the app when they want to take passengers. Then, say a grocery store has some boxes of produce that cannot be sold. An employee inputs this into the 412 Food Rescue app. The donation gets matched to a beneficiary and the volunteer driver on duty that happens to be closest will be notified. The volunteer then picks up the boxes and delivers them to the beneficiary for rapid response rescue.

Leah Lizarondo, left, and Gisele Fetterman. Photo by Tracy Certo

Leah Lizarondo, left, and Gisele Fetterman. Photo by Tracy Certo

“Food will eventually be transported three different ways: by truck, by car and by bike,” says Lizarondo. She points to Boulder Food Rescue in Colorado that uses 80% bike power as an example of what’s possible.

“Eventually, we want this model to be replicated in other cities and to other forms of waste that can get redirected,” Lizarondo adds. “This technology has the potential to truly make a large-scale impact on sustainability.”

Current partners of 412 Food Rescue include Costco, Whole Foods, McGinnis Sisters, the East End Food Co-Op and big Burrito. According to Lizarondo, this list is growing rapidly. “Jennifer England, who is core to the 412 Food Rescue team, has been instrumental to growing our partnerships. We’re already getting inquiries from lots of individual restaurants and retailers who want to know how they can get involved.”

The women have also been able to provide for the Dilworth and Linden backpack projects so that kids who depend on school lunches have food for the entire spring break.

And they are starting to get volunteers to make pick ups and deliveries for them, through the group’s Facebook posts. “Rebecca Maclean picked up two trays of really good sandwiches from Carson Street Deli on the South Side because she was on the way there, anyway, and then delivered them to a youth shelter downtown,” says Lizarondo.

Want to get involved? Sign up to be a volunteer driver and help complete the food rescue circle.

Author’s Note: Since I don’t have time to be a driver, I’m fundraising for this great cause while I run the half marathon. If you’d like to help, please donate here.