Since 2011, Food Rescue U.S. has been working to tackle two crises in America: hunger and food waste. It aims to distribute the 40 billion meals estimated to be wasted each year to more than 40 million people who need it. Think of Food Rescue U.S. as a food delivery app, but with volunteers instead of delivery workers. Food Rescue U.S. is powered by an app, and regional volunteers serve as the pipeline, rescuing uneaten food from restaurants, hotels, hospitals, corporate dining facilities and event spaces and shepherding it directly to local social service organizations who feed their communities. It’s been nimble, successful and scalable ... until COVID-19. The pandemic has shut down restaurants, canceled events and dried up the food donations Food Rescue U.S. communities rely on. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has only driven up food insecurity, by as much as 30%.
In the latest edition of Voices in Food, Food Rescue U.S. CEO Carol Shattuck and Development and Marketing Director Jennifer Guhl, a team now working apart due to COVID-19 restrictions, talk about pivoting to meet the moment. Because, as Guhl said, “Hunger doesn’t take a holiday.”
How does Food Rescue U.S. operate?
Shattuck: Our mission is twofold: to end hunger and food waste in America. We operate at the intersection of both. We make it very simple. We’re direct transfer. We don’t have warehouses; we don’t have trucks. The app is the engine. Food donors can go in and list what food they have — for example, say, every Wednesday, I will have food to donate. Social service organizations go in as organizations who can receive food. Volunteers go in and look at the rescues available on any given day, either as a single rescue or every Wednesday at Trader Joe’s at 9 a.m.
If Food Rescue U.S. is largely app-driven, how do you know? How do you connect with people and agencies?
Shattuck: We have site directors in every location making introductions, maintaining relationships with the donors and finding social service agencies. We’re able to go very deep in the community and find pockets of food insecurity, reaching people who might not otherwise have been receiving food.
How did COVID-19 impact the food pipeline and hunger statistics?
Guhl: When it first hit, a lot of organizations and companies had to close very quickly. We did large-scale rescues with a lot of hotels and corporate dining facilities, clearing out fridges. Then everything shut down.
“America is an incredibly philanthropic country. I’ve seen over and over again. So many people in this country want to help their neighbors. It’s a privilege to be able to help, to give back. It’s a spirit, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Guhl: Before the pandemic, about 37 million people went hungry in America. Now it’s 54 million. It’s a pretty big increase and we’re seeing it in every location.
Shattuck: So many people are unemployed and food insecure for the first time. To recognize they have to go out and get food donations to feed their family, what a frightening, devastating experience — it’s unacceptable.
When it became apparent COVID would have such a dramatic impact, we sat down and said, “Our mission is to help feed people who don’t have enough food, and donations keep diminishing. How are we going to increase the amount of meals, when there’s more need and less supply?” We thought what programs might we create. We created three.
There’s the community kitchen program. We work with a number of restaurants to supply meals for their community. It operates like a takeout service. They’re able to keep their restaurants open and staff employed. It supports the restaurants and also provides for the community in need.
There’s the restaurant meal program. We pay the restaurants to produce individual meals volunteers distribute to service agencies. It’s a big win-win in many communities.
With farm distribution, we’re working with local farmers or a national distributor to receive large amounts of produce, dairy, meat, like the USDA Farmers to Families food box program. We’re up to distributing 8.5 million pounds of produce.
How are these programs funded?
Guhl: We have received funding from foundations, corporations and individual donors to support the community kitchens/restaurant meal programs. The funding goes directly to the restaurant or food provider, and they produce the individual meals that we then distribute or deliver to our social service agency partners.
Food Rescue U.S. now serves 39 locations around the country. What challenges do different regions face?
Guhl: Every community is a little bit different. One issue is access to transportation. In Detroit, a lot of people don’t have access to vehicles, so people are walking to social service agencies. We want to understand what each community’s needs are and meet those needs. With community kitchens and restaurant meal programs, many of these kitchens are providing for different communities. We’ve worked with restaurants to provide food that’s healthy but that’s familiar to those communities, to provide food they’re connected to culturally. That’s another important part of the social service relationships.
Shattuck: It may look a a little different depending on size and scope of community, but the idea is the same everywhere. Hunger, unfortunately, is in every community.
What about volunteers? Did you lose a lot during the pandemic?
Shattuck: We’ve actually had a surge of new ones.
Guhl: People have really come out — college students away from school, people working from home or furloughed, over 1,600 new volunteers have joined during the pandemic. Volunteers use their own vehicle to pick up the food and deliver. It takes maybe 30 minutes, you’re taking food to people who need it, and it makes people feel great. We’ve made it as contactless as possible, and we keep hearing it gives people a safe way to give back.
How does Food Rescue U.S. plan to address the holidays and this new COVID-19 spike?
Guhl: Hunger doesn’t take a holiday. We have rescues going on every day of the year. With the holidays and unemployment, we’re going to rescue as much food as we can and get it out to the folks who need it.
Community kitchens will definitely continue through the holidays. Some of our larger food donors are coming back in some capacity. In Detroit, one provider was able to get access to veggie burgers we used for meal programs. In Miami, it was frozen pizza dough. It’s connecting with people and finding a way to make it work in an ever-changing situation. We’re being flexible and finding new opportunities when we can.
How can people best help out this holiday?
Shattuck: If you’re a potential food donor ― a grocery store, a restaurant with excess food ― donate and make sure that food is going to a good use. If you’re an individual or a family who wants to participate by rescuing food in your community, sign up. If you have the ability and the means to make a financial donation, help us and other food organizations. And if you’re interested in launching a location in your community, we’d love to talk to you.
America is an incredibly philanthropic country. I’ve seen over and over again. So many people in this country want to help their neighbors. It’s a privilege to be able to help, to give back. It’s a spirit, it’s a beautiful thing.
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that Food Rescue U.S. started in 2017. It started in 2011 under another name and was rebranded in 2017.