Fighting Food Waste To Feed The Hungry

By Rebecca Beitsch

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "Rescuing Leftover Cuisine", intercepts food from restaurants before it hits the dumpsters and delivers it by hand to nearby shelters, soup kitchens and social service agencies.


It's 10 minutes after closing time, and kitchen workers are busy cleaning up an empty Greenwich Village restaurant. What remains of the day's menu has been dropped into tin trays that are stacked and waiting for pickup.

Just a few years ago, the food that didn't make it into a $10 lunch bowl would have been thrown away, trucked out of town and left to rot in a landfill. But these leftovers are headed to a different location: A volunteer grabs the trays, and the Brussels sprouts, leafy greens and farro begin a mile-long trip down Canal Street before they arrive at a shelter.

Lunch for downtown workers has become dinner for the homeless.

How the leftover bounty from Dig Inn didn't end up buried with the rest of New York's garbage is the story of a tiny nonprofit tackling a persistent and shocking problem: that a nation so rich in resources still has trouble feeding all its citizens.

In 2013, Robert Lee created Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, which intercepts food before it hits the dumpsters and delivers it by hand to nearby shelters, soup kitchens and social service agencies.

In 2017, the organization collected nearly 793,000 pounds of food, which sounds like a lot until you learn that the United States each year tosses up to 160 billion pounds of food.

Most of that waste is committed by people at home (the average family of four throws out 1,160 pounds of food a year) but as much as 33 billion pounds end up in the trash behind restaurants, grocery stores and other food retailers.

Nationally, just 2 percent of restaurants say they donate their unused food.

Other organizations such as City Harvest and New York Common Pantry have similar missions. But Rescuing Leftover Cuisine operates in a niche many residents may not realize exists. Many shelters will pick up donations but will only make the trip if people are giving enough food to meet their "minimum pound requirement."

Most restaurants don't have the time, money or ability to drop it off themselves. The nonprofit relies on its 100 regular volunteers to pick up and drop off the food.

Another 8,000 volunteers are on their roster who can sign up online for one of the 200 pickups a week the nonprofit coordinates.

Lee, 27, grew up in Queens, the son of immigrant parents who left behind careers in Korea but, with basic English, were limited professionally once in the United States. His father worked at a grocery store, and ironically the family could not count on eating three meals a day.

"With my parents coming here not knowing any English and not understanding what they would do when they got here, they struggled a little bit and had trouble finding jobs and keeping them," Lee said. "My brother and I would watch them watch us eat or watch them struggle to pay rent."

Some days he would get no more than a bowl of ramen noodles. When he got hungry, he would try to ignore it. At school, he was shocked to see classmates throw out vegetables or the crust of a sandwich.

Founding the nonprofit, Lee discovered he wasn't the only one offended by the waste in the food industry. His organization helps retailers who are trapped between their conscience and the need to offer their customers an unceasing abundance of aesthetically perfect food.

"It just destroys me to see it go to waste," said Philip Penta, an owner of Three Guys from Brooklyn, a 24/7 produce stand and one of the few grocers that have partnered with Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.

"Eye appeal is buy appeal," Penta said. "Look at these dates. Because the stand is less full, the psychology in the consumer's head is, 'If it's not full, it's not fresh,' but the reality is we're getting these in every day."

In a typical grocery store, produce with a few dents or dark spots will be thrown out alongside packaged greens that were approaching their "sell by" dates and were bumped by new shipments.

Penta's produce stand generates enough extra food to make three donations each week. Rather than getting tossed, the food goes to St. John's Bread & Life, where half is used in the kitchen and the rest is given away at a food pantry.

Lee first noticed food waste as a child, his eyes widening when large portions where thrown away at friends' houses, but he didn't learn about the concept of "food rescue" until college. But that was by no means his priority when he arrived at New York University with a full scholarship to the Stern School of Business.

Lee, who had worked for a hedge fund doing data entry during high school, was determined to make "as much money as soon as possible" to help support his family.

But a club called Two Birds, One Stone quickly grabbed his interest. Student volunteers would collect leftover food from a dining hall and bring it to a nearby shelter. At his first meeting, Lee peppered the group's leaders with questions.

"I thought it was a huge problem that they didn't work on the weekends and only worked with one dining hall," he said. "I was like, 'Oh, do people not need to eat on the weekends?'"

Lee became the club's president in his second semester and set about expanding its reach and hours.

Even in school, Lee was thinking about how to expand food rescue beyond campus. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine was branded when he and college friend Louisa Chen entered the concept in a pitching competition for startups.

Lee took a job at J.P. Morgan after graduating in 2013, but he soon realized he needed to work on Rescuing Leftover Cuisine full time. His parents thought he was crazy, and so did his friends.

But these are the same parents, he pointed out, who told him any uneaten food is "all compiled, and in the afterlife you have to eat it all in one sitting," and "for every single grain of uneaten rice it would mean a pimple on your future wife's face."

Lee spent that year squirreling away money to support himself as he switched to working on Rescuing Leftover Cuisine full time. Eventually his parents came around, becoming the nonprofit's first donors.

"They sacrificed everything in their whole lives to come to the U.S. for us to have the opportunities they didn't have, so for me to squander that at a job where I felt I didn't have an impact ... would've been the real waste," Lee said. "To take this chance and risk while at same time learning a lot is the whole point of coming here. And I think they finally understood that."

Getting the food from a restaurant to a shelter takes more than just a long walk down New York's bustling streets. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine has seven full-time employees to help coordinate the process.

Some staff reach out to new social service partners who may want the food. Others look for new food donors, which range from restaurants to grocery stores to office cafeterias.

It often takes some convincing. Donors won't face any liability for their donations, staff assure them, thanks to the federal Good Samaritan Act, which protects those who donate food in good faith.

Recently, Lee and Clara Son, who heads partner outreach for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, made a pitch to a new social service agency that has food pantries across the city. The woman on the other end of the phone sounded hesitant.

Her agency works with vulnerable people who need safe and healthy food, she said. Once she learned the food comes from places with health department licenses that follow food safety guidelines, her tone changed, and the team arranged for food donations to start the next week.

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