412 Food Rescue pivots to keep serving Pittsburghers in need

A 412 Food Rescue volunteer delivers food during the COVID-19 pandemic (Submitted Photo)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Pittsburgh-based 412 Food Rescue didn’t do home food deliveries. 

An army of volunteers and a team of operations workers would coordinate pickups of surplus food from restaurants, grocery stores and other large organizations with leftover food to bring them to food pantries and organizations that serve people in need. 

“We have absolutely had to pivot quite a bit to meet the challenges this poses,” said Jen England, 412 Food Rescue’s Senior Program Director of Food Recovery Operations. “But our model is built on being flexible and adaptable.” 

Now, the food delivery nonprofit not only brings meals to people’s homes, it also  brings lunches to kids at their school bus stops, and to community centers in neighborhoods where people are in need.

As stay at home orders enter their third month, and millions of people are unemployed because of COVID-19, many families have found themselves food insecure for the first time. Images of lengthy lines at food banks have blanketed the news, and nonprofits have had to figure out ways to keep up with the demand.

Founded in 2015 by Leah Lizarondo and current second lady of Pennsylvania Gisele Fetterman, 412 Food Rescue has a couple of trucks and thousands of volunteers who help get food that would otherwise go to waste to people who need it. 

It’s this volunteer model that allowed the company to be able to pivot more quickly and make changes on the fly to how they get the food from A to B, England says. 

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“So instead of going and picking up one 100-pound box of food and taking it to one nonprofit, they’re picking up three 35-pound boxes and taking them to three households,” she said. The organization has been able to reach people who don’t have access to cars, or who may not be able to leave their homes because they’re elderly or have pre-existing health conditions. 

They’ve had to put safety protocols in place for food drop offs, making contactless deliveries and having volunteers and staff wear masks,  but England says 412 Food Rescue actually has seen an increase in the number of people signing up to volunteer. 

“Overwhelmingly, people have come out of the woodwork to help,” she said. Their Food Rescue Hero app, which just won a World Changing Idea award from Fast Company, had a 146 percent increase in the number of people registering to volunteer during March. England expects the number could be even higher for April.

“And it’s not just volunteers that have stepped up; our donors are donating more,” she said. Local restaurants are paying their staff to make meals to be donated, she said, with the added bonus of keeping the workers employed. Those restaurant meals have been key for the organization’s bus stop project.

412 Food Rescue’s goal is to have the app available in 100 cities within the next decade, so far it’s in six others besides Pittsburgh, including Cleveland, Manassas, Va.; Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Vancouver.  

In Pittsburgh as in other cities, England says nonprofits have been besieged by need, but are working to help find ways to keep people fed. “A lot of people who were just getting by before the pandemic hit are now feeling desperate, and many can’t afford to get groceries delivered,” England said.

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 “But I have not seen anyone in this whole puzzle throw up their hands and walk away from the problem.” 

All of 412 Food Rescue’s locations have seen an increase in people wanting to help, she added. 

“But Pittsburgh is a town where we are known for being helpers, and stepping up to take care of others when there are problems. Everyone is pitching in and saying, ‘how can I help?’”

Correspondent Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star.