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Re-imagining America's Rustbelt: Mobilizing communities to reduce food waste and hunger.

We believe in the collective power of communities to be the local solution to measurably reduce food waste & hunger in Pittsburgh.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

412 Food Rescue

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania - with a focus on Pittsburgh

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

412 Food Rescue was founded in 2015 as a direct and immediate response to the disconnect between food waste, hunger and environmental sustainability in Pittsburgh. Started as an informally organized network of local volunteer drivers, 412 Food Rescue has since emerged as one of the fastest-growing food recovery organizations in the United States.  Mobilized by technology, 412 Food Rescue has over 8,000 volunteer drivers in our network, diverting approximately 8 million pounds of perfectly good food from landfills to provide approximately 7 million meals to people who need it the most. 

Leah Lizarondo, 412 Food Rescue’s co-founder and CEO, is a resident, mother, activist and entrepreneur.   The idea for 412 Food Rescue first started in 2012 with the release of NRDC’s report “Wasted” - when Leah learned that we waste almost half of our food supply.  At the time, she was a food writer and had a large network of contacts in the industry and began to study the issue. That’s when she realized that the food going to waste from retail food suppliers was happening for one primary reason: there is no existing logistics structure that can support the movement of surplus food. There was no structure to scale. 

Understanding this issue, and as a mother of three, Leah was determined to ignite change in Pittsburgh -  specifically she envisioned harnessing the collective power of the Pittsburgh community to measurably reduce food waste and hunger.  Leah established 412 Food Rescue as a catalyst for this vision and continues to lead the organization. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Pittsburgh and the surrounding counties in southwestern Pennsylvania are part of what is commonly referred to as America’s “Rust Belt region”.  America’s Rust Belt is comprised of multiple states within the Midwest region that in the 1980’s began to experience significant economic deterioration, population loss and urban decay due to decline of the industrial and manufacturing sector, the region's largest economic engine. With a loss of over 50% of manufacturing jobs, Southwestern Pennsylvania was one of the areas hardest hit by this decline. The decades since then continued to be a challenging time for the region with continued and steady population and economic decline.  

In the past decade however, Pittsburgh has experienced somewhat of an economic and urban renaissance with an increase in new industry including tech companies, a revitalized downtown and urban center, and an increasingly robust local food and art scene.  2018 data released from the U.S. Census Bureau echoes these positive trends and shows a decrease in the regional poverty rate and an increase in median income. Pittsburgh is a city filled with enormous pride, community and kindness.  Its residents (commonly self-referred to as “yinzers”) care deeply about their city and their neighbors and are invested in being part of its success.    

Regional food waste and hunger rates mirror national trends with an estimated 40% of food going to landfills and approximately 14% of the population experiencing food insecurity. Most residents experiencing food insecurity also live in transportation deserts adding another significant barrier to accessing fresh and healthy food.  Data estimates that only 25% of people without cars have access to high-frequency transit which limits their ability to go to places where they can access food.  Compounding this, approximately 65% of all Pennsylvania adults are overweight and eating less than the recommended daily serving of fruits and vegetables.   Nutrition provided by fresh fruit and vegetables is important for growing children and adults to live a healthy life and thrive; however, only 15% of food provided through traditional food banks and other stop-gap measures is fresh fruit and vegetables.  

The new Pittsburgh “renaissance” buoyed by the rise in its technology sector, has also widened the economic gap in the City. Pockets of gentrification and segregation mark the city’s revitalization. 412 Food Rescue - with our technology-mobilized network of citizens - not only provides a solution to a difficult “last-mile” problem, we are also building connections between people, facilitating bridges to neighborhoods that are forgotten and creating bonds that cross these divides. These are the stories that are difficult to tell in numbers, but ultimately, the stories that reweave the fabric of our re-emerging rust-belt city.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The fact that 40% of food goes to waste while 14% of Pittsburgh residents are food insecure is a reality we can no longer ignore.  As are the environmental impacts of food waste which accounts for 2.6% of greenhouse gas emissions and is the single largest component of municipal landfills. 20% of the land and water is used for food that will never be consumed.   

Specifically in Allegheny County,  1 in 7 residents are food insecure, including more than 40,000 children. Research pertaining to Pittsburgh shows that people with low food security often cut portions or skip meals, rely on highly processed foods and report eating fresh fruits and vegetables only in the first few days after receiving their monthly SNAP benefits. This type of eating pattern, built on lack of access to healthy food and phases of under-eating and overeating, makes food insecure and low-income individuals especially vulnerable to obesity – a major risk indicator for many serious diseases and health conditions. These alarmingly high rates of chronic, diet related disease is inexcusable considering 52% of food that goes to waste is produce – food that is neither accessible nor affordable by households in poverty. 

The economics are also wasteful.  While food waste occurs at all steps in the value chain, in developed nations it is most prevalent in the retail and consumption phase. Within the food industry, consumer facing businesses are second only to individual households in generating the largest volume of food waste.  Individual households waste approximately 21% of the food they buy, costing them about $1,800 annually.  Consumer facing businesses waste 25M tons annually, totally $18.2B in food loss.  

As indicated in the Toolkit “technology is an amplifier that can be used to both empower and dismantle human communities...and is changing our relationship with food, on a personal, local and global level”.  New technologies including - online grocery shopping, immediate food delivery services, etc - while making food access easier for some, further divide us from our food sources and food makers, making it easier to consume and more likely to waste.  Our Food Rescue Hero technology does the opposite, it uses food to connect people to their communities and raises awareness around food waste and hunger. 

This culture of waste is an epidemic in the United States where food is produced and consumed faster than ever before.  This mass production of food and the disconnect it engenders is a major cultural contributor to food waste. Thankfully, and hopefully not too late, the need to address food waste is gaining attention both globally and nationally.  In 2015, 195 countries committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which included both halving food waste (SDG 12.3) and eliminating hunger (SDG 2). Most recently the United States EPA, USDA and FDA announced an interagency strategy to reduce food waste in the United States by 50% by 2030.  These visions and goals require local action with proven, scalable solutions to address both food waste and hunger.  

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

412 Food Rescue launched in 2015 as a direct response to a tremendous and overlooked opportunity - that we waste 40% of all the food we produce. The 62 million tons of food we waste every year is enough to feed everyone who is food insecure four times over.  However, interventions to food insecurity have remained essentially the same for nearly 50 years. Even if we only recover ¼ of this food, we could make tremendous impact toward mitigating one of our biggest challenges: hunger. 

Recognizing this problem as an opportunity best solved by a unique logistical solution pairing technology with civic engagement, 412 Food Rescue set out to mobilize our community to harness the potential of surplus food to measurably impact hunger and increase food access in our region.

Our mission is to prevent perfectly good food from entering the waste stream by redirecting it to community organizations serving those who are in poverty and experiencing food insecurity.

In our five years of operations, 412 Food Rescue has far exceeded our initial expectations.  We are transforming food recovery and distribution throughout Allegheny County and have ignited a civic movement with our over 8,500 food rescue volunteers. But we are just getting started.  Our goals our ambitions, our vision audacious, and our commitment and belief unwavering which is why are excited to share this vision with the Food System Vision Prize community.   

412 Food Rescue’s network includes over 750 active food donors and over 600 active nonprofit distribution partners serving six counties.  Our innovative logistics model and technology platform have enabled us to efficiently recover over 8 million pounds of perfectly good food from the supply chain that would otherwise be directed to landfills. Rather, through the work of over 8,500 food rescue heroes in our network, this food has reached people who need it the most, meeting them where they are and mitigating barriers to access.  This driver network is growing everyday - to date, food rescue heroes have made almost 60,000 trips - missing only 1% of the rescues available. 60,000 times people have said, “I will do this for my neighbor.” 

87% of what we recover is fresh food, over 40% are fruits and vegetables. Food that is difficult to access for populations in need, even in food pantries.  

In 2016, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) recognized 412 Food Rescue as an impactful partner in significantly improving food security in the housing sites it serves. Since establishing a partnership with 412 Food Rescue, HACP has cumulatively received over 1 million pounds of food to support residents and they continue to no longer receive emergency requests for food as we serve nearly 100% of HACP housing locations. We continue to replicate partnerships with public housing sites in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland Counties and other organizations not served by traditional models.

While tonnage of food recovered is important to measure, our most important measurement is our IMPACT on the daily lives of the people we serve. Working with the University of Pittsburgh to deploy the USDA Food Insecurity survey to measure our impact, we surveyed over 300 people who receive rescued food and 90% report improvements on food security with 92% reporting that rescued food helps make ends meet. In addition to our impact on food recipients, our model also addresses traditional donation barriers for food retailers while also allowing them to realize the full tax incentives of food donations. 

For 2020 and the following year, we have set the bold goal of eliminating hunger in our city’s public housing communities and expanding our impact measurably in all the counties we serve. 

And by 2050, we seek to eliminate both hunger and food waste in the Allegheny county region and serve as a global leader for how best to engage and mobilize communities to be the solution.

To do this we will continue to cultivate relationships with new food donors, recruit an active volunteer base and develop partnerships with nonprofit organizations/sites serving low-income food insecure households and continue to ensure that our model and technology are designed and continuously refined based on the needs of our users.  By expanding this network we will reduce food waste among existing and new retailers, direct more surplus to populations experiencing food insecurity, mitigate the impact that food waste has on our environment and mobilize more people to be part of the Food Rescue Hero movement so that we can feed people, not landfills. 

Because our work is measured beyond tonnage, we will once again evaluate our impact on hunger. We will collect current data using the USDA Food Insecurity Survey to compare against data from our first study in 2018 to understand the measurable impact our food distribution model has had over the past two years. We will continue to find new outlets and work in close collaboration with all our partners, including food recipients to break barriers for individuals who cannot access fresh healthy foods. 

Our ultimate vision is for Pittsburgh to be the global leader and 412 Food Rescue the model for how to effectively engage communities to radically reduce and ultimately eliminate food waste and hunger.  When we look to this vision for Pittsburgh 2050, we see our citizens not only engaged in the rescue and redistribution of surplus food, but a change in their hearts and minds as a result of that participation.  An awareness of their own behaviors contributing to food waste and a change in those behaviors to ultimately eliminate food waste at the source.

This vision for Pittsburgh is also a vision for the world. A vision for community creating measurable impact. If this Pittsburgh-born innovation grew to 100 cities, we will build a network of drivers 1,000,000 strong -- as large as the firefighter network in the US, 60% of whom are also volunteers.  

People CAN create change. 412 Food Rescue and Pittsburgh are proving this and are committed to this bold vision for our city and region. 

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’  Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”  - Mr. Fred Rogers (Pittsburgh Native)

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Conference/event
  • Prize partners

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