Getting to Know Pittsburgh Through Volunteering: 412 Food Rescue

Volunteering is a great way to form a stronger sense of place, whether in your own neighborhood or a new part of town. Street Lark reached out to folks on social media to find out which causes and nonprofits they are particularly passionate about, and we got some awesome responses! Over the next few months, I’ll be reporting back on as many of the organizations and causes as I can.

When I first sent out a request for recommendations, my friend Andrew Exler asked to join the fun. Andrew is Founder and Chief Strategist at Andrew Exler Consulting. He is also a volunteer with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and a member of the board of trustees at Tree of Life Congregation. I really admire Andrew’s work in the community, and I’m so glad we were able to share this first volunteer experience together.

We’re excited to kick things off with 412 Food Rescue (412FR), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit fighting both food waste and food insecurity. They have recently expanded under the name Food Rescue Hero, with the goal of having their technology in 100 cities by the end of 2030. In addition to Pittsburgh, Food Rescue Hero is used in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Northern Virginia, San Francisco, and soon Los Angeles.

After learning more about the organization and serving as volunteers, we’re ready to report back on our experience!

The Problem of Food Waste

Data shows 40% of food produced goes to waste, which equates to ~63 million tons annually. According to 412FR, it would take only one-third of total food waste to feed the 12.7% of the United States population that is food insecure. Instead, this food is moved to landfills where it sits and produces gases that are harmful to the environment.

Food Hero to the Rescue

412 Food Rescue’s mission is “to prevent perfectly good food from entering the waste stream and to redirect it to nonprofits that serve those who are food insecure.” To do so, the organization is building and empowering heroic teams of three: donors, recipients, and transporters.

Food donations range in size from a small box of food to a truck load. With a focus on consumer-facing business and large-scale events, donors include grocery stores, restaurants, and even large conferences and weddings. Besides the satisfaction of doing good, donors benefit from tax deductions and lower waste management costs.

The recipients of food donations are nonprofits whose missions might not be food focused, but that serve communities who are food insecure, with the ability to distribute food to those who need it. For 412FR, it’s important that saved food actually gets used, and gets used well.

Being a Food Rescue Hero

The individuals who transport food between donors and nonprofits are called Food Rescue Heroes. If you want to volunteer as a Food Rescue Hero, it’s incredibly easy to get started. You just need to download the app and set up an account, all of which takes less than five minutes… And just like that, you’re all set to volunteer.

Rescues are organized into two categories: one-time and recurring rescues. The benefit of one-time rescues is that you can volunteer at times that are most convenient without committing to a long-term schedule. If you choose to do a recurring rescue, you’re signing up to do the same rescue every week, with the option to request a sub from time to time. This is great if you prefer a routine and the opportunity to build even stronger relationships with the donor and nonprofit.

Our Experience

For our first volunteer experience, Andrew and I claimed one-time rescues which involved moving 100 gallons of protein powder from East Liberty to Garfield and Jefferson Hills. Our rescues were a little out of the ordinary in that 87% of all 412 Food Rescues are fresh food. Either way, we know the rescue went to good use at two different housing communities.

Overall, the experience was awesome. Andrew and I learned so much and had a great time contributing to the cause. If you’re on the fence about volunteering with Food Rescue Hero, here are a few tips we learned through the process that might help you feel more comfortable with what to expect:

  • Where are the detailed instructions? The time window, pickup and drop-off addresses, and the description of the food being rescued are all provided before claiming a rescue. The specific directions (e.g. where to go once you arrive at each address, who to contact, etc.) aren’t provided until later, even after you’ve claimed a rescue. These details only become available once you initiate the rescue process, during or immediately before the rescue time. Once you start the rescue, the app leads you step by step through the process. Literally, step by step!

  • Can I handle the size or weight of a rescue? You can see a description of the items being rescues before claiming it. Check this out before deciding which rescues to claim.

  • How much time does a rescue take? You should be able to gauge the amount of time based on the distance between the donor and the nonprofit. For all rescues, but particularly for your first rescue, you should leave a little extra time. You notify the point person at each location when you are on your way, and again once you arrive. Still, it may take a few minutes for them to give or receive the donation — these are folks that have jobs in addition to helping with the rescue.

  • What if something doesn’t go as planned? We were given two pieces of advice before our first rescue: (1) have fun and (2) remember that food waste and recovery are unpredictable. This ended up being especially useful advice since we had a little difficulty reaching our point people once we arrived at the drop-off sites. We ended up using the “Help” button within the app, which includes FAQs and answers, and a tool for contacting a member of 412FR support team directly. In the end, it only added a few extra minutes to the trip, and we were happy we successfully completed our rescues. As a Food Rescue Hero, you'll likely need to adapt at times. For example, there may not always be a rescue available and each donor and nonprofit operate a little differently. But the variety seems to be part of the fun!

Reasons to Volunteer

One reason we kicked this series off with 412FR is because we could start volunteering right away. In the world of volunteering, this seems pretty rare! Here are a few more reasons we highly recommend giving Food Rescue Hero a try:

  • Community Engagement: Volunteering with 412FR allows you to travel to different neighborhoods around the city and engage with many different community members. It’s such a great way to become more active around Pittsburgh and much of Western PA. 412FR is in six counties total!

  • Flexibility: The one-time rescues let you pick and choose when and where you volunteer — weekdays or weekends — morning, noon, or night — close to home, close to work, or close to errands you’re already running. You can also set your transportation preferences including size of vehicle, bicycle, or walking routes.

  • Impact: As a food rescue hero, you are part of the process from start to finish. You can clearly see and understand the impact you’re making. Plus, the app tracks your personal impact, your metro’s impact, and the nationwide impact of all Food Rescue Heroes.

Solving the problems of food insecurity and food waste is challenging, in large part because waste is unpredictable and widespread. But 412FR has created an awesome solution that makes it easy for community members to contribute to the cause.

While each individual donation may be small in size, Food Rescue Heroes are great in number. Together, they’re making huge impacts. In the first four years of operation, 412FR saved over 5 million pounds of food, which translates to over 4 million meals.

Simply put, we have the food to feed those who need it, and we have homes for the food that will otherwise sit in landfills. By becoming a Food Rescue Hero, you can be part of a team that ensures our food, as a community, goes to the best use.

It's been a pleasure getting to know Andrew over the past few months, and I've really enjoyed learning more about our city through volunteering. Experiencing the work of 412 Food Rescue firsthand was such a great way to start this series.

What's your favorite organization to volunteer with? Send us a message to let us know and maybe we will head there next!