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412 Food Rescue Fights Hunger While Helping Environment

Jan 01, 2018 02:05PM ● Published by Vanessa Orr

Gallery: 412 Food Rescue Fights Hunger While Helping Environment [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

One in seven people in Allegheny County suffers from hunger, and one in four households with children experience food anxiety. At the same time, 40 percent of food that is produced in the United States is wasted, much of it going into landfills that create methane, polluting the environment.

While these two issues may seem separate, local nonprofit 412 Food Rescue has figured out a way to feed the hungry while cutting down on food waste. 

“412 Food Rescue brings together two problems, food waste and hunger, and works to find an elegant solution,” explained Jennifer England, senior program director. “By partnering with food businesses from all over Allegheny County, we are able to pick up any surplus food they have and deliver it to organizations that help the food insecure.” 

The brainchild of Gisele Fetterman and Leah Lizarondo, 412 Food Rescue started as a grassroots attempt to get still-good food that was being discarded by stores to people who could use it. “We started posting on Facebook asking people to help, and the response was overwhelming,” said England. “It grew like gangbusters!”

Companies that want to donate food contact 412 Food Rescue, who then pick it up and deliver it to organizations that distribute it where it is needed. The rescue force is made up of about 50 percent staff and 50 percent volunteers who take part in scheduled rescues as well as pick up impromptu donations.

“We have a refrigerated truck that was donated by Andrew McCutchen that we use to pick up large donations or perishable foods,” said England. “Our volunteer hero army picks up deliveries that average less than 100 pounds, and takes those to wherever they are needed.”

The organization originally used texts, phone calls and Facebook to contact volunteers, but has since created a 412 Rescue App that works similar to Uber. “Contacting everyone individually was incredibly labor intensive,” said England. “Now, once we match a donation with a recipient, we put it in the app, and if any of our 1,000 volunteers is available, they just accept the rescue. Now we are able to rescue food on a much larger scale.”

This is especially important in light of how many people are hungry, and how much food is being wasted in the county and the nation. “It’s really jarring to realize that one in seven people in Allegheny County is hungry,” said England, adding that some communities have much higher rates of hunger than others. “Certain segments of the population also have higher rates, including the elderly, and female-headed households, which have a one in three chance of food insecurity.

“The other side of the problem is food waste; it doesn’t make sense that 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. is wasted when you look at the tremendous amounts of resources—like water, fertilizer and human labor—that it takes to create something that is just going into the garbage. And that garbage in landfills creates methane which is really bad for the environment. The U.S. is one of largest producers of methane in the world.”

So far in 2017, 412 Food Rescue has delivered 1.36 million pounds of food to those who need it, and has delivered 2.5 million pounds since its start in 2015.

“412 Food Rescue shows up with an overabundance of nice fresh food including fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood, and nothing gets wasted,” said Michelle Sandidge, chief community affairs officer, City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority. “What we can’t use in our own high-rise communities we take to community centers in the neighborhood.”

When the 412 Food Rescue truck arrives, community volunteers and residents help to unload and sort items so that it is all equitably distributed. The Housing Authority serves 20,000 residents in Pittsburgh.

“We used to get five to seven calls a month about residents who needed emergency food, and we would scramble to get them gift cards or something to get them through,” said Sandidge. “Since the 412 Food Rescue program started in 2015, we saw the number going down, and now, it’s gone away. Period. In almost two years, we’ve received no calls for food help—that’s phenomenal.”

Even if it’s not a delivery day, 412 Food Rescue has stepped in to help when needed. “We had a family recently arrive from the Puerto Rico with just the clothes on their backs,” said Sandidge. “We called 412 Food Rescue, and they showed up with food, as well as dishes and pots and pans to outfit their kitchen. The family was so appreciative—and so were we.”

By delivering the food to where it is needed, 412 Food Rescue also makes fresh, healthy options available to those who may not receive it otherwise. “A number of these people live in ‘transit deserts’ so they have no way to get to a foodbank or a grocery store,” said England. “And because we’re delivering highly perishable food, we want to get it in people’s hands as quickly as possible—we pick it up in the morning, and it’s on someone’s table that night.” 

The program has been so successful in Allegheny County, in fact, that in September, 412 Food Rescue started a new offshoot, 724 Food Rescue, to help people in Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland and Fayette counties. 

Of course, 412 Food Rescue couldn’t do any of this without the help of its partners, who include everyone from Giant Eagle to Paragon Foods. “We began the pilot program with Giant Eagle in 2015, and have ramped it up this year with the goal of having 100 percent coverage at their corporate stores in southwestern PA,” said England, adding that they are about 90 percent of the way there.

In addition to taking food to where it is needed, 412 Food Rescue has other programs in place to end food waste. These include Cooking Matters classes, which help families learn how to cook healthy meals; Hidden Harvest, in which staff and volunteers harvest fruits such as apples, mulberries and persimmons from city-owned trees to distribute to its partners; and the Ugly CSA program.

“Through the Ugly CSA program, we purchase local farms’ B-grade ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables that there isn’t a market for, and we create our own CSA boxes that are less expensive than regular CSA boxes,” said England. “The proceeds from this support our mission.”

“What 412 Food Rescue does goes far beyond providing food for those in need; they bring together families and communities,” said Sandidge, adding that some of the Housing Authorities residents now take part in recipe sharing, along with other food-related activities. “Everyone gets together around food, and it’s great to see so many different cultures, ages and lifestyles uniting around a common cause.”

To learn more about 412 Food Rescue or to volunteer, visit www.412foodrescue.org or call 412-407-5287.

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