Starving for a Solution, Volunteering for Change

by Amanda A. Swan

Do you know where your next meal is coming from? Consider yourself lucky. 12.3% of US households experienced food insecurity during 2016, meaning that they were uncertain where they could obtain enough food for every member of the family to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle. That means more than one out of every ten American households struggled to consistently put food on their family’s table, despite the fact that the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. For Americans, poverty is too often imagined as a far off problem, one that exists only in penniless nations across the planet. The reality is that scarcity is your next door neighbor, a dilemma which directly impacts the very people you interact with each and every day.

Although you might imagine the food insecure as people who are homeless or panhandling on the corner, a lot of these hungry people aren’t so different from you. Their children sit in the desks next to your child at school, they pass you in the grocery store while you do your shopping for the week.  A full belly makes it easy to forget that the waiter serving your dinner might have skipped lunch to make sure his daughter could eat. We seldom consider that the smiling barista making our coffee every morning might be wondering when she’ll be able to afford to eat breakfast again.

 

Across America, the working class have increasingly become unnecessary victims of hunger and food uncertainty. When nearly one in five US households with children under 18 worry about feeding their kids, it’s hard to blame the problem on lack of motivation.  With costs of living skyrocketing, working class people must rely more and more on food pantries to support their families. Across the US, the average cost of living for a family with two children is about $65,000. The federal minimum wage currently sits at $7.25 per hour. That means if both parents work full time minimum wage jobs, they’ll still come up nearly $35,000 short of the average cost of living.

This leaves parents to make difficult choices, like buying their child a warm winter jacket instead of feeding themselves breakfast in the morning, or turning the heater on in their apartment instead of packing a lunch. Do I heat or do I eat? That’s not a situation any parent deserves to be in, but it’s especially unfair to parents working extremely hard to support their families.

While changing the reality of income inequality in the US and raising the minimum wage might seem like lofty, out of reach goals, there are things you can do on a local level to help the hungry people in your very own community. Food bank use is at an all time high, and with millions of American relying on these organizations, they desperately need the support of the more fortunate members of their communities. Just scanning local news headlines, you’ll read article after article about food banks across the nation that are “too poor to feed the poor,” and struggling to fill their shelves.

You don’t have to enact enormous political change to help feed your hungry neighbors. As Americans, we are currently living in an intensely controversial political environment, but some things truly shouldn’t be political. Citizens from every leaning and background can agree that food insecurity is a significant issue in the United States. It’s an issue facing even Americans with full time employment. Nobody deserves to starve to death or be malnourished. Feeding hungry Americans is a goal which transcends party lines.

In fact, many believe volunteerism can help us resolve this enormous problem more effectively than political action. Nonprofits fighting American hunger see this reality clearly. They recognize that activism takes many forms, and doesn’t necessarily need to be political. Volunteerism is a special brand of activism that all Americans can participate in, regardless of their political affiliation or opinion.

“We are not trying to change [government] policy,” says Alison Sherman, communications director at the nonprofit organization Food Rescue US. “Our volunteers are the heroes.” Your individual actions can hugely impact the realities of hungry families in America. If you have the time, volunteer regularly at a food pantry or soup kitchen in your local community. If you have the extra financial resources, try to make a regular donation. This can make a world of difference for these local organizations which are chronically understaffed and underfunded.

If you don’t have the time or resources to volunteer or donate on a regular basis, you are still capable of helping hungry people in need. It’s understandable if you aren’t able to contribute on a consistent basis or in these more traditional ways. Even though most people have an inherent desire to volunteer and help others, it can often be difficult to get started and impossible to commit to a schedule. When you are constantly busy with a career, children, or other life responsibilities, it may be inconvenient for you to find time to determine the best way to help others in your community. New concepts of volunteerism, like “food rescuing” might be a better fit for your life.

Food rescue is the concept of diverting edible, healthy food that is disposed of by restaurants and stores from landfills to food banks, where it can help hungry people. With more than 120 million pounds of food being thrown away in the US each year, food rescuing is an incredibly important idea. Even if you can only participate in food rescuing once per week and only load 20 pounds of food in your car, you would save more than 1,000 pounds of food from going to waste in a year. Your individual impact as a food rescuer is enormous. 

That’s why organizations like Sherman’s are committed to making volunteering accessible to everyone and rescuing this food. Co-founder and CEO Kevin Mullins was inspired to innovate the way we feed the hungry when he started Food Rescue US in 2011. Mullins recognized that hundreds of people could be fed by food that we already had. He saw that a shortage of food resources wasn’t America’s problem, the way we were distributing and using these resources was. Vast amounts of restaurant and grocery store leftovers that were destined for the landfill could feed hungry Americans if we could just find a way to get this food to them.

The plan to “rescue” this unused food was extremely successful — the organization has provided more than 21.3 million meals so far, and they’ve saved 32 million pounds of food from the landfill. Now more than ever, the nonprofit needs ordinary community members to help them expand their efforts. They’ve made it simple by designing a creative and modern approach to volunteerism that works from an app on your smartphone. You can download the app and sign up to pick up donated food from grocery stores of all sizes, farms, farmer’s markets, and restaurants and deliver it to food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other organizations in your area, all on your own schedule. There’s no minimum time commitment, so you can help others when you have time, even if that’s only once or twice a week.

There’s no questioning the facts. Working class Americans are struggling to feed their families, and food that they could eat is being thrown away. It’s up to us, right now, in this very moment, to decide how we can help these people and the charitable organizations that provide for their needs every day to build stronger, healthier communities. Whether you become involved with a food pantry or kitchen in a traditional volunteer role, donate to support these organizations financially, or give your time when you can by becoming a food rescuer, you will make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of Americans who are struggling to put food on the table even after a long day at work.

Helping for the Holidays: Food Rescuing Ushers in a New Era of Volunteerism

By Amanda A Swan

As the holidays come and go, many American families will begin cleaning out their pantries to donate to organizations that help their neighbors in need. You know the drill: Every November, we are barraged with requests to donate non-perishable food items by our offices, our children’s schools, churches, and other organizations who organize canned food drives.

While donations to these types of food drives are inarguably a good way to help the hungry, it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a better way. After all, canned food is heavy and difficult for charities to manage, sort, and distribute. If a soup kitchen is operating out of the back of a church, it might not have the manpower or tools to sort huge quantities of heavy canned goods. It’s time to reconsider our response to hunger.

Cash Instead of Cans?

Because cans are so unwieldy for organizations to manage and distribute, recent pushback against traditional canned food drives has pointed out that efforts to serve the hungry would be more effective if people donated money to food pantries and other organizations that help the homeless instead of making donations. After all, a box full of randomly donated goods may not meet the needs of the distributing organization, and charitable organizations can often buy food that would be better suited to demand at slashed wholesale prices.

Your $5 will go a lot further towards helping those in need in the hands of a non-profit volunteer purchaser than in your own hands at the local supermarket. So why don’t people just donate money to these charities? Journalist Katherine Martinko argues that it’s because “writing a check isn’t nearly as gratifying to the giver as handing over a bag of canned goods.”

She’s piggybacking on Canadian Tristin Hopper’s idea, that people get a certain “generosity high,” so to speak, from the physical aspect of donation. Hopper writes in the Vancouver Sun that, “Non-profits know that people get a buzz from loudly dropping $6 worth of cans into an office hamper…They also know it’s a tougher sell to convince schools and offices to merely pass the hat for the hungry, rather than big photo-worthy gestures like building towers of creamed corn.” And perhaps, they’re both right. Charity, like all things, can have a self-serving aspect. Signing a check made out to a local food bank or entering your credit card number to make a donation online doesn’t feel as good or as satisfying as taking physical and tangible actions to help the hungry, so people aren’t as likely to do it.

But it seems to me that the solution is not so dichotomous. There are more than two options: charitable acts are not split in a stiff binary of either donating money or canned food. While Martinko and Hopper might be correct in saying that money is worth more than canned food, there is something you can give that’s even more valuable than either of these things. If you want to have the most direct result on those in needs, consider donating a few hours of your time.

Food Rescuing: A Different Solution

While you might be imagining giving up your Saturday off to sort canned food at a food pantry or prepare and serve a meal at a homeless shelter, I have a different solution in mind. 60 million tons of American produce is thrown away every year, and a huge chunk of it is thrown away by grocery stores and restaurants. Usually these items are still perfectly edible and just slightly misshapen or discolored. In either case, this food could certainly still be used to prepare healthier, tastier meals for the hungry than something poured out of an aluminum can that’s been sitting in someone’s pantry for two years.

So, what if you just swung by a local supermarket or your neighborhood restaurant after work and picked up some of that food that was destined for the dumpster? You could become a food rescuer, someone who reroutes edible food that would otherwise be disposed of, by donating mere hours of your time each week.

Imagine that you could pick up one donation of trash bound produce from the local grocery every week in December. In just a few weeks, you would have rescued a dozen boxes of perfectly edible food. By Christmas, you would have diverted more than 600 pounds of food waste from a landfill. You wouldn’t have to fork over any extra cash during the holiday season, when money is exceptionally tight. You wouldn’t have to figure out how to plan to spend a whole Saturday volunteering for a nonprofit, when you’re already trying to find time to Christmas shop during weekends that are already filled to the brim with holiday parties and school recitals. And you’d be contributing to the prevention of hunger in America in a way that’s just as accessible, but far more useful, than cleaning out the canned food in your pantry.

Most people don’t do this because it seems complicated to organize. You’d have to call the grocery store or restaurant you want to pick up food from, and find a charity willing to take the food. But an innovative idea has eliminated this problem and made it incredibly easy for willing community members to participate in this kind of activism. Budding nonprofit Food Rescue US has designed a smartphone app that allows you to find willing donors and recipients with a few taps, and schedule a pickup and drop off time, all from your smartphone. It’s a great idea because it allows people to find the same physical gratification they get from donating canned food while channeling their energy in a much more useful way.

Whether it’s right or wrong, journalist Tristin Hopper is right when he says that people and organizations like to have a tangible aspect to their charity. It’s true that there’s something rewarding about seeing a photo of yourself with all your coworkers standing next to a monstrous pyramid of canned food, but I think we can find just as much satisfaction from seeing our back seats and car trunks filled with fresh produce that would’ve otherwise been thrown away.  When your coworkers see what a difference you’ve made, perhaps they’ll be inspired to become food rescuers too.  By changing our methods, we can make a greater impact on the hungry individuals in our community.

Making the Difference

If you’re still not convinced that food rescuing is a great alternative to canned food drives, consider the difference in impact you’ll make on people in need. Fresh food is much healthier than the canned food that is typically donated. While it might be true that, as long as no sugar is added, a can of pears and a fresh pear have roughly the same nutritional value, much of the canned food that is donated does have salt or sugar added.  Even more of this food is just not nutritionally practical. You can’t nourish a struggling body on cream of mushroom soup or condensed milk. And even for foods with the same nutritional value, the BPA resin on the inside coating of the can could potentially cause dangerous health effects.

But even more importantly, we have to consider the difference felt by the hungry people being served. What is tangible for volunteers is tangible for recipients as well. There is an extremely important psychological difference between being offered a box of fresh, nutritious food and a box of mismatched cans when seeking nourishment from a food pantry. There is a crucial difference between being offered whatever a soup kitchen could manage to make, and being offered food people would’ve paid for in a restaurant when seeking warmth after a long, cold day. There is dignity in choices.

The way that our charitable acts make us feel about ourselves makes a difference, but the way that our volunteerism makes others feel should have an even greater impact. Making those we seek to serve and help feel important, worthwhile, and valued can be every bit as important as filling their bellies with food. The hearts of our struggling community members are often just as in need of nourishment as their bodies.

So this holiday season, I encourage you to make a new kind of difference by becoming a food rescuer. It will take you 90 seconds to sign up after you’ve downloaded the app to your smartphone from FoodRescue.us. You can immediately start rescuing landfill-bound food and redirecting it to hungry bellies. You’ll feel better about making a tangible difference as a food rescuer than you would if you just wrote a check or punched in your credit card number. Skip the office canned food pyramid without guilt and do something better to help the hungry. Spend just a few afternoons filling your backseat with food donations instead —  I promise taking concrete action to help others will fill you with a holiday warmth like nothing else could.

From Ride Sharing to Food Sharing: How Food Rescue US is Revolutionizing Community Service in America

by Amanda A Swan

If you’ve ever used Uber, you know just how easy and convenient it is. There’s no waiting to hail a cab or walking from the bus stop. You simply make a few taps on your smartphone and in five minutes or so, voilà, a car appears and takes you right where you need to go.

Ride-sharing apps have revolutionized American transportation options, and made us wonder: What else can we share using our smartphones? Startups like Food Rescue US are demonstrating that smartphones can indeed help us share quite a lot. According to a recent study by the Guardian, about half of produce in the US is thrown away every year — that’s about 60 million tons of fruits and veggies. A 2016 study by the Food Waste Alliance claims that a whopping 122.3 million pounds of food was unused by restaurants over the course of the year. 93.7% of this unused food was “disposed of” and only a measly two percent of this massive amount was donated. So, what if it was just as easy to press a button and give this wasted food to the some 50 million food insecure Americans as it is to call an Uber?

Food Rescue US is a food-sharing app that prevents food waste by connecting restaurants and organizations that have too much food with hungry people. With just a few taps, you can sign up to donate or deliver food through Food Rescue US. Just like Uber, the Food Rescue US app works because it’s easy and it’s convenient. You don’t have to work around a soup kitchen’s schedule or seek out a food pantry to help others in your community, the opportunity exists right at your fingertips.

 This convenience is incredibly important for the American population. Millennials work an average of 45 hours per week in the US, and even though many would like to find time to volunteer for their communities, it often just doesn’t fit into an already jam-packed agenda. Food Rescue US eliminates this problem by letting users volunteer on their own schedule. You determine your own volunteering hours straight from your smartphone. If something comes up at work, there’s no going through the hassle of calling a volunteer coordinator to cancel. Instead of an awkward and apologetic phone conversation, you can just update your availability in the Food Rescue US app. It’s the difference between having to call the cab company to cancel your taxi and just pressing “cancel ride” in the Uber app. Plus, once you cancel in the app, another volunteer in the area can then take over that duty, just like an Uber driver can pick up another customer when a ride is cancelled. It’s just flat out simpler to help the local community using Food Rescue US.

This “at-will” design for volunteering proposed by Food Rescue US mimics the ride-share giant’s “drive on your own time” employment tactics. They both, of course, offer a greater flexibility, but Food Rescue US gleans an extra benefit from this attitude by empowering younger volunteers to draw a benefit often restricted to an older population. The accommodating platform allows older and younger volunteers to work together to provide an incredible service to those in need. While citizens of both older and younger generations participate in community service activities, older volunteers tend to reap greater psychological health benefits because their work provides them with a more “purposeful social role,” whereas younger volunteers often take up community service work as a requirement related to other obligations in their lives. 

For example, American parents are often required or strongly encouraged to volunteer at their children’s schools. Studies have found that this kind of obligatory volunteering lacks the benefits of more “discretionary volunteering”— or the type generally more available to the older population with more flexible schedules. Food Rescue has eliminated this problem with its at-will design that allows its users to respond to the needs of others in their community when they have the time to help, without requiring a long-term commitment or a regular schedule. This gives volunteers a unique opportunity that might not exist otherwise: Community service performed on a want to basis rather than a have to one. This opportunity gives Food Rescuers the benefit of participating in their communities in a more genuinely altruistic way, which according to recent Harvard studies, could actually help them live longer.

This flexibility also provides a unique circumstance for the huge population of older volunteers who want to help the food insecure. Even though a lot of older volunteers are retired from working traditional jobs, many of them have new constraints on their time. For example, many retired Americans dedicate time to caring for their grandchildren — a third watch their grandkids five or more days each week. Other older Americans dedicate their time to auditing courses at local universities or become highly involved with their religious community. These non-professional commitments and activities mean that Food Rescue US provides a freedom of schedule as beneficial to Boomers as it is to their younger counterparts.

Furthermore, beside being more beneficial for volunteers themselves, Food Rescue US is far more efficient than other hunger solutions. Most food banks accept expired food and specialize heavily in canned foods. This means that hungry people are being fed, but they are eating food that isn’t fresh and that is heavily processed. Food Rescue US gives the hungry access to fresher food and the same culinary preparations that would have been served to paying customers, saving room in our landfills and providing better meals for the food insecure all at once. Since restaurants produce more food waste every single day, accessing food for the hungry via Food Rescue US is sustainable indefinitely.

And just like Uber, Food Rescue US functions because it utilises our existing resources effectively. Why do people drive for Uber when they could (theoretically) make more money running their own company? It’s because they can use their own vehicle, so there’s no real start-up costs. Uber enables its drivers to use assets they already have — their cars — to reap a benefit, just like Food Rescue US does. In the case of Uber, that benefit is monetary. For Food Rescue US volunteers, the reward is a greater sense of connection and purpose within their own communities, as well as the potential of a longer, more satisfying life. In either case, all you need to get started is your smartphone, a vehicle, and your own desire.

Participating in Food Rescue US can fit in the hustle and bustle of your crazy schedule, and it will undoubtedly benefit the lives of people in your community — more than 20 million meals have been provided so far. So, how exactly does it work? You can get started now just by downloading the Food Rescue US app on your iPhone or Android or registering at foodrescue.us. There are several roles available for volunteers. If you own or manage a restaurant or grocery store, you can take on the role of food donor. Food Rescue US will help you arrange to have edible food products that would otherwise be thrown away picked up and transported to a receiving agency. You won’t have to bother with disposing of this food, and it will fill empty bellies instead of landfills.

If you have access to a car, you can become a Food Rescuer by delivering this donated food to community kitchens or food pantries. Use the app to pick delivery times that work with your schedule, and take responsibility for rescuing food from a donor in your neighborhood. This is an amazing way to make a huge difference for the food insecure in your community in as little as an hour per week. If you are already making a difference for the hungry in your community by working or volunteering with a food pantry or community kitchen, you can use Food Rescue US to indicate your organization’s food needs and have food delivered directly to you. This will provide your recipients with better, fresher, and tastier food than what you could provide without Food Rescue US.

No matter what role you are able to play in feeding hungry Americans, your participation is incredibly valuable. Food Rescue US is a platform that has the potential to transform how Americans treat food, but the program is useless without volunteers like you. Donating just a little bit of your time could make a big difference for the 12.3% of American households dealing with food insecurity. The potential to help is just a few taps away. Food Rescue US needs you to be of service to America’s hungry, and they’ve made it so simple that there is no reason not to assist those in your community who truly need access to fresh, healthy food.