One in seven Americans are food insecure, which means they don’t get enough daily nutrients – some don’t even know where their next meal will come from. Meanwhile, 40% of food in the United States gets thrown away.
Robert Lee experienced hunger growing up, and felt troubled by the widespread food insecurity in the US. So he decided to do something about it.
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Along with fellow NYU grad Louisa Chen, the two co-founded Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), a New York-based non-profit that collects excess food from restaurants and donates it to homeless shelters.
The organization has experienced exponential growth since its launch in 2013. To date, RLC has rescued more than a million pounds of food and delivered more than 842,600 meals (including more than 39,631 pounds of food so far in 2017, which has translated to more than 33,000 meals).
RLC also provides monthly reports detailing the amount of food they picked up and how many people were fed. The reports also encourage sustainability by showing the restaurants exactly how much food they throw out each day.
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“There are tons of restaurants, and almost all restaurants have leftover food that they throw out, or unsold products they couldn’t sell that day or don’t want to sell the following day,” Lee told the Huffington Post. “It’s a matter of engaging our volunteers, as well as convincing those restaurants to work with us.”
After identifying shelters with the greatest need, RLC partners with restaurants and schedules times to pick up leftover food. Volunteers then make the deliveries. The entire process can take as little as a half hour, and involve no more than a walk down the street.
Still, with so much wasted food and so many hungry people, the demand is constant, and the organization relies on a devoted army of volunteers to accomplish its mission.
“We need volunteers every week.” Margarita Simon, RLC’s Community Outreach Analyst, told Global Citizen. “We have twenty events every day so it’s hard to find volunteers on a regular basis.”
Organizations like New York Cares help with recruitment.
“Most volunteers are students and professionals who have past experience with hunger – they know what it means to be food insecure,” Simon said.
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The desire to feed the hungry is personal for Lee, who faced food insecurity as a child. His parents came to the US from Korea and, like most immigrants, faced limited work opportunities. His father, a civil engineer, found a job in supermarket management while his mother, a banker, became a homemaker because of the language barrier.
As the family struggled to put food on the table, Lee developed a strong desire to eliminate food waste.
“When I was growing up, there were these two Korean myths,” Lee said. “One of them is that if you throw out food scraps or whatever leftovers you have, then your family’s future generations will start with that same amount. The other is that if you throw out food, then in your afterlife, you have to eat all the food you ever wasted as a form of punishment.”
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Having worked at a hedge fund in his junior and senior years of high school, Lee chose to study business at NYU. There, he met Chen, who served on the executive Board of Two Birds One Stone, a student organization that delivered leftover dining hall food to homeless shelters. Lee immediately volunteered, and served as president for seven of eight undergraduate semesters.
Upon graduating, Chen accepted a job at J.P. Morgan while staying on part time at RLC. Thanks to seed funding he and Chen won in their senior year at a social entrepreneur competition, Lee left finance and joined RLC full-time.
RLC currently operates in 12 US cities, ranging from metropolises like Los Angeles, to small communities like Niskayuna, NY. The organization plans on expanding across the country. All that’s needed to open a chapter is a volunteer who wants to reduce food waste and feed the hungry in their home town.
“The two issues [food waste and hunger] go hand in hand,” Simon said. “We produce enough food to feed everyone. We just have to get it to them.”