First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Leah Lizarondo: My family is doing well and healthy – we feel very fortunate.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Food Rescue Hero.
Leah Lizarondo: I began my career in consumer packaged goods working in brand management at Colgate Palmolive. I love that I started my career there because almost everything I do now, I can attribute to the things I learned during my time at CP. Many of the people I worked with are very close friends to this day, and we are all over the world.
From there, I transitioned to technology – first working in a product at a software company that worked with CPG companies, then at a consulting firm that worked with technology startups on market strategy.
But my passion is food. Always has been. Food Rescue Hero merges all my interests – consumer product marketing, tech, and food.
Reading the National Resources Defense Council report “Wasted” in 2012 was life-changing. That was when I first learned that we throw away almost half our food supply. I co-founded 412 Food Rescue in 2015 because we needed to respond to the disconnect between this waste and the fact that 1 in 9 Americans go hungry. (In the wake of the pandemic, that number is now 1 in 5).
I know that many people have visceral reactions to waste and a desire to help. We just needed a way to connect these and give people an EASY way to TAKE ACTION. That’s the core of the food rescue model. The idea for the app actually started in 2012 when I first read the NRDC report, and in 2015, we were able to put it in motion. After coordinating volunteers through Facebook for a few months, we launched the first Food Rescue Hero app in 2016. Volunteers register on the app and then receive push notifications when there’s a food rescue available near them. And they deliver. Today that app has almost 20,000 users registered, and in four years, we have coordinated almost 250,000 trips to transport 28 million pounds of food and mitigate 13 million pounds of CO2 emissions. And our service level is at 99% – higher than some commercial food delivery companies.
How does Food Rescue Hero innovate?
Leah Lizarondo: Because food surplus at retail businesses — where almost half of the food waste occurs — is relatively small in quantity, unpredictable, and needs to be consumed immediately, conventional logistics models do not work to cost-effectively redirect extra food. That’s where Food Rescue Hero comes in. Our app mobilizes the largest, on-demand volunteer transport network in the world to rescue surplus food and bring it to charities in need. Because our network of “Food Rescue Heroes” is over 16,000-strong, it is also resilient and very agile. The redundancy and response rate is phenomenal. In traditional trucking models, if a truck breaks down, many pantries that depend on it won’t have a delivery for the day. With the Food Rescue Hero network, a back-up driver is only a push notification away.
The Food Rescue Hero platform now supports food rescue in 7 cities in North America.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Leah Lizarondo: Because rescuing food with our app is a solo volunteer activity. We were well situated to continue our work through the pandemic. We actually experienced our highest number of downloads in March as we became one of the only ways to volunteer without requiring a congregation. We still are one of the safest ways to help.
We quickly implemented no-contact rescue protocols to keep our volunteers, food donors, and nonprofit partners safe, and we continue to see a huge influx of people wanting to help. In our pilot city, Pittsburgh, new volunteer registrations increased by 53% in the month of March!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Leah Lizarondo: We did. I shared how we experienced the highest number of downloads in March, but we also had to shut the app down that month as we worked furiously to put COVID protocols in place. I had some very tense discussions with our board – it was a very tough decision. People needed help. People wanted to help. We were also receiving an enormous volume of donations as many of our partners — universities, workplaces, and events — had to cancel, so they needed to redirect all their food. We also had to ask our volunteers who were vulnerable to stay home. So we worked in the most analog way with a core group of super volunteers as well as our own truck fleet to manage the first month of the crisis.
The big lesson here is that it’s really valuable to have and be open to different perspectives when in the middle of crisis decisions. It also takes a team that trusts each other to absorb and overcome everyone’s heightened emotions — to stay focused.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Food Rescue Hero in the future?
Leah Lizarondo: I meditate. As many times a day as I can. It keeps me sane. I practice yoga – when you are tense all day, the stretches and breathing at the end of it is a gift.
Also, I trust my team completely. That takes a lot of anxiety out. That has only gotten deeper in this crisis where we are all working together, separately. I am very lucky with the team at Food Rescue Hero and 412 Food Rescue.
It’s a little hard to project myself and the organization in the future when every moment in this pandemic ratchets up uncertainty. But we are focused on supporting food rescue nonprofits with the platform in 100 cities by 2030. I have no doubt this team is the team that can make that happen.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Leah Lizarondo: Our end goal is to redirect food waste and, in the process, impact hunger and climate change — those are our ultimate competitors, so we want anyone with a good idea to push us to innovate and become more effective. It will take the work of many people to solve such huge challenges. That being said, we are unique in that we’re both a nonprofit food rescue organization AND a tech startup, so when our team develops our technology solutions, we do so from our end-users’ perspective.
Your final thoughts?
Leah Lizarondo: I share what Food Rescue Hero does. I always hear, “Wow, I have always thought that needed to happen!” It’s not a unique idea. What is different is that we decided to actually DO IT. And that is always what I want to leave people with. We all have ideas, and some of them are so seemingly simple “it can’t possibly work” or “someone already did it.” But our world is in an era where everyone really needs to work together. This cannot be underscored enough. So – make your ideas happen. Now is the time.