Like many children, Robert Lee was taught never to waste food. But growing up the son of Korean immigrants who struggled to get by, he really took the idea to heart.
In college, Lee joined a student group that delivered leftover dining hall food to homeless shelters. That was when he learned the magnitude of the problem.
One in six Americans struggles with food insecurity. Yet in the United States, 40% of food goes to waste.
“Just the sheer amount of food that’s being wasted is enough to eradicate hunger,” Lee said.
After graduating two years ago, Lee decided to help take the concept of rescuing food off campus. Together with fellow NYU alum Louisa Chen, he co-founded Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. The nonprofit picks up fresh food that would otherwise go to waste from New York City restaurants and gets it to people in need.
Seven days a week, the organization engages volunteers to pick up and deliver any amount of food, no matter how small. Lee says operating on foot makes the group highly efficient.
So far, the group has rescued 100,000 pounds of food and delivered it to homeless shelters and food kitchens. Seeing the impact he was making, Lee gave up his finance job at J.P. Morgan last year to focus on his nonprofit full time.
The group is partnered with more than 50 food providers throughout New York City. But it’s just the beginning, Lee says. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine recently expanded to six other cities across the United States.
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I talked with Lee about his efforts and what he’s learned. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
CNN: In a short amount of time, your group has already made a big difference. Why do you think it works so well?
Robert Lee: We don’t have a minimum pound requirement because every little bit of food counts. It can help feed someone.
It’s also so easy for people to come on and volunteer. The volunteers are crucial to the work that we do. They can sign up on a public calendar on our website. They choose their own commitment. If they want to do weekly, monthly, it’s all up to them. And each of our slots are only about 30 minutes long. So it’s very easy to fit in to your busy schedule, either along the way home from work or nearby your home.
We are working on an app for volunteers to sign up which will be launched this fall. We hope it will be like Uber for delivering leftover food to the homeless! We want to expand our operations so we can rescue millions of pounds of food, by bringing on more volunteers and more restaurant partners.
Volunteers learn about the issues of food waste and hunger firsthand. They see how much food is being wasted; they get to actually carry that food.
CNN: Has it been challenging to find restaurants to partner with?
Lee: It has been surprisingly difficult. When we first started out, we got about five partners for every 100 people that we reached out to.
A lot of the restaurants have never even heard of the concept of food rescue. And they thought they would be legally held liable for the food that they were donating. So I’d have to explain to them the legislation (that) basically covers and protects all food donors from legal liability, except in the case of gross negligence.
But after we had more partners, we were able to basically point across the street and be like, “Hey, we work with them. This is how it works. We make it very easy for you to do this.”
CNN: Your group came up with an idea to help the restaurants reduce their waste. How does that work?
Lee: On a monthly basis, we supply the restaurant a consolidated report that shows on every single day how much food is being donated to us. They can get a sense of how much food they’re actually throwing out and also how many mouths they’re able to feed instead.
The first partner that we ever had realized they were throwing out $65 a day. And instead of getting their pastries from a wholesaler, they decided to make their own from scratch. So they were able to control exactly how much they were going to produce and the quality of the food they were going to produce.
So the quality went up and the food waste went down. Now we only pick up from that restaurant twice a week, and there’s very little food, if any at all, to be picked up. That’s kind of the best-case scenario. As we tell our partners and restaurants how much excess they have, ideally they would reduce it to the most minimalist level.
CNN: You are very passionate about the issue of food waste. How did your upbringing influence that?
Lee: It was very difficult for my parents when they first came to the United States. Since an early age we were moving around a lot. It was difficult even to get food sometimes. Hunger is interesting because, at least from my personal perspective, it was not only physical, it was psychological. You don’t know where your next meal is coming from.
The first time I really realized how much food was being wasted was in elementary school. I always used to eat the school lunch. But there were so many classmates who always talked about how bad it was, and sometimes with no thought, people would just throw it out. To see all that food go to waste is just crazy, you know?
Having that perspective puts an urgency to the work that we do. There is so much food being wasted, and we just wanted to make sure that it’s going to the right place.