Small, But Impactful: A Day in the Life of a Food Rescuer

by Alexina Cather, MPH

“Food Rescuer” Volunteers for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine Make Big Contributions Through ‘Small’ Deliveries

By Claire Anselmo Keady

It’s 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday – Matt Kang, a lead rescuer working with the national nonprofit food rescue organization Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, is on his way to make a pick-up from the cafeteria at AIG, the multinational insurance corporation whose headquarters are at 175 Water Street in lower Manhattan.

On the 16th floor, Kang enters the nearly empty cafeteria and proceeds to the back of the kitchen where he quickly finds what appears to be a catering order on a stainless steel prep table. In fact, it is uneaten food that was prepared for a canceled lunch meeting: Six aluminum foil trays of chicken, rice and steamed vegetables; two more aluminum trays of soup that are well-wrapped in foil and plastic to prevent leaking; two additional trays of sandwiches; two trays of romaine lettuce with a pint of dressing, and one clear plastic clamshell container with an assortment of cookies.

Rescuing Leftover Cuisine was founded by Robert Lee and Louisa Chen in the image of a program from their days at NYU called Two Birds One Stone, which distributes leftover dining hall food to local homeless shelters. Since its inception in 2013, RLC has grown to include almost 8,000 general volunteers and 106 lead rescuers in New York City, alone, and a total of more than 8,600 volunteers serving more than half a million people in 16 cities nationwide.

Corporate office partnerships like the one with AIG are among the relationships Lee and RLC are trying to increase. “We work with offices and cafeterias within offices,” says Lee, “and we’re looking to increase those relationships to include events like fashion shoots, weddings and bar mitzvahs and even stadiums. It can be frustrating to see so much waste from these places, but these are also exciting opportunities for us to try to scale up.”

On almost any given day, New York City’s sidewalks bustle with people heading to school, work, yoga, coffee, lunch, dinner, first dates, playdates and many other commitments. Walking among them is a small, but growing team of volunteers for RLC who have committed to not one, but two missions – to fight food waste and to feed the hungry by “rescuing” excess food from various locations and delivering it directly to those in need.

These volunteers don’t stand out in a crowd. They don’t wear branded T-shirts or hats. They don’t emerge from large commercial cargo trucks to haul hundreds of pounds of food. RLC’s volunteers are ordinary New Yorkers incorporating extraordinary tasks into their days. They vary widely in age and ethnicity, come from various professions and travel on foot, by bus or by subway to deliver small batches of food to homeless shelters in 46 neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

“The amounts of food we pick up may be small compared to what larger food rescue organizations can and do pick up, but when that ‘small’ amount of food is going to waste across, say, 30 restaurants in the city, that shows there’s still a big role we can play,” says Lee, who, in addition to being a co-founder is also the organization’s chief executive officer.

According to the most recent estimates from the United States Department of Agriculture, 40 percent of the available food supply is sent to landfills annually. The collaborative nonprofit, ReFED, which seeks to reduce food waste, has calculated that, in the United States, 63 million tons of food are sent to landfills. This means that each year $218 billion, or 1.3 percent of the gross domestic product, is spent growing, processing and transporting food that is never eaten. Further, while waste occurs throughout the food supply system, including on farms and by food manufacturers, 80 percent occurs at the end of the chain, such as in grocery stores and restaurants.

Meanwhile, the USDA reports that an estimated 15.6 million U.S. households were food insecure in 2016. This equates to about one in eight Americans – many of them children – who don’t have reliable access to affordable and nutritious food.

Raised in an immigrant family that sometimes struggled to make ends meet, Lee remembers what it was like to be hungry. “Two Birds One Stone brought me to the larger world of food rescue and operations,” Lee says. “But that work at NYU served just one neighborhood, and I realized there was a gap we could fill across the whole city.”

RLC now works with approximately 150 food organizations including restaurants, delis, cafés and office cafeterias with whom they have agreements to secure almost any amount of unspoiled food that has not been consumed by a certain point in the business day.

Because those points vary depending on individual business hours and according to fluctuating business patterns, volunteers are needed at different times throughout the day. RLC allows people interested in helping to select a 30-minute window on any given day when they are able to make a pick-up or drop-off.

A Day the Life

Volunteers like Matt Kang, however, might go on multiple food recovery missions in a single day. A high school junior, Kang is an intern who sometimes leads other rescue volunteers on pick-up/drop-off jobs and sometimes operates solo.

On his mission today, Kang is equipped with a sturdy folding metal utility cart – known fondly in New York City as a “granny cart” – which he now begins loading. RLC has securely locked 11 of these carts to bike racks in strategic locations throughout the city for use by its volunteers.

His RLC shift might span three to five hours, and he could cover almost five miles, transporting more than 150 pounds of food. The Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center joined Kang in lower Manhattan one day to experience how RLC fights food waste and food insecurity first hand.  Here is the continuation of Kang’s three-hour shift:

2:46 p.m. – Corporate leftovers in hand, Kang makes his way to the New York City Rescue Mission, about a mile northeast of AIG, at the corner of Lafayette and Center Streets, on the outskirts of Chinatown.

RLC provides volunteers detailed instructions, including the addresses and walking directions between all pick-up and drop-off points. Kang, however, has made this trip several times and knows exactly where he’s going.

3:08 p.m. – Kang arrives at the NYC Rescue Mission and introduces himself to the receptionist, who nods and produces a metal scale from under the counter, then turns to retrieve a pre-printed triplicate receipt form for Kang to fill out.

Each of the 13 containers is weighed individually. The total is 59 pounds of food. Kang records the information and enters appropriate identifying codes on the receipt, which he then photographs. He sends the photo to the RLC office, where the information will be compiled and passed on to the supplying partner (in this case AIG), who will a receive tax deduction based on IRC Section 170(e)(3).

Having made the trip from AIG to the NYC Rescue Mission in less than 30 minutes, Kang easily meets the food safety standard set by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which mandates that any potentially hazardous food cannot be left out in the temperature danger zone of between 41 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours. RLC volunteers complete a rescue in about 30 minutes on average, and the organization has set a one-hour maximum to ensure their deliveries are made well below the legal limit.

Other regulations to which RLC and its partners adhere include making sure that containers are properly sealed. If any food containers are leaking, or if the food is spilled on its journey, it must be discarded.

3:22 p.m. – Just five blocks from the NYC Rescue Mission is Baz Bagels at 181 Grand Street, where Kang typically starts his shift. For this leg of his route, he is joined by a new volunteer, Tamme (pronounced “Tommy”) Garvin, a student at SUNY Stony Brook where she is majoring in political science and environmental studies. Garvin proudly announces that this is her 10th job for RLC since joining.

She and Kang both know that the amount of food picked up at any given location will vary from day to day. On previous rescues from Baz Bagels, she has received as many as 40 pounds of bagels for delivery to the Bowery Mission. “It’s usually fine, but toward the end of the walk, you might have to take a break,” Garvin says.

Kang is recovering from a weight-lifting injury to his back, which forced him to miss his shifts for RLC the previous week.Therefore, he has kept the cart from his previous pick-up at AIG, sparing him and Garvin from having to carry too much weight and allowing them to chat en route to the drop-off.

“You get to make new friends,” Kang says of his experience with RLC. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people while leading rescues.” Many of them are students, recent graduates or young professionals who might volunteer for a pick-up on their way home after work.

Another of RLC’s newest volunteer workers is a bicycle courier who occasionally finds himself with some free time in various parts of the city and will then check the RLC website for a nearby pick-up.

Lee’s goal has been to automate operations wherever possible. Based on his food-recovery experience at NYU, he knows that coordinating volunteers can be difficult and that operating on a scale significantly larger than NYU’s, requires a tech-based system.

On RLC’s homepage, volunteers can find an event calendar, which lists rescue opportunities by neighborhood. They can then sign in and sign up for any that work for their location and/or schedule. Lee’s next goal is to create a hybrid web/mobile app that will give volunteers more direct access to the calendar on their phones and will allow them to sign in more easily to select opportunities and potentially receive alerts when an opportunity near them arises.

3:55 p.m. – The Bowery Mission is just a quarter of a mile from Baz Bagels. Kang and Garvin arrive at the same time as another food rescue operation with a large delivery of food. Garvin takes the lead on coordinating the Baz Bagels weigh-in with the front desk.

The bagels weigh in at 20 pounds, and because Bowery Mission’s staff is busy unloading the larger delivery, Kang carries them from the front desk into the kitchen.

When they’re done, Garvin heads north to meet some friends, and Kang organizes his next pick-up.

4:10 p.m. – The next stop is scheduled for 5 p.m. at Hudson Eats, which would give him plenty of time to walk, but, for efficiency, Kang checks to see if his 5:15 p.m. pick-up is ready at Brody’s Bagels, which is on the way. Serving breakfast and lunch to the Wall Street/City Hall crowd, Brody’s closes at 3:30 p.m. and employees are ready for Kang at the back entrance of the restaurant on Ann Street with the day’s unsold bagels in two large black plastic bags. Again, the cart proves useful, although somewhat unwieldy on the cobbled streets of lower Manhattan.

4:35 p.m. – From Brody’s, Kang proceeds west on Ann Street, which turns into Vesey, headed for the new indoor shopping center, Brookfield Place, where Hudson Eats is located. As we pass the 9/11 Memorial and One World Trade Center on Fulton Street, Kang tells me that he was just a year old at the time of the terrorist attack and that the routine challenges of parenting an infant had caused his father to be late leaving for work in the financial district that morning. As a result he was still at home when the first plane hit the north tower, possibly saving his life.

Like his father, Kang is poised to pursue a career in finance. He has also participated in community service work since he was seven years old.

“I’m pretty open to going down a different path, but for right now I’m going with business. I’ve cultivated both interests myself, and these weren’t just things that my parents influenced me into pursuing,” Kang says.

4:55 p.m. – To make his way through Brookfield Place more easily, Kang locks the cart containing the bagels from Brody’s to a light pole that just happens to be about 20 yards from the Irish Hunger Memorial at the end of Vesey on North End Avenue. Although the cart itself is locked, the bagels are easily accessible, but Kang says, “No one will take them here. If they do, I’d like to think it was someone who really needed it.”

After entering through the revolving glass doors at Brookfield Place, Kang makes his way up the escalator to Hudson Eats, a collection of fast-casual restaurant counters that make up the shopping center’s food court. Down the main aisle and at the back of Hudson Eats is Black Seed Bagels, a circular kiosk with a prominently featured espresso machine behind the counter. Noticing Kang approach, the barista produces a shopping bag filled with bagels. With space in the cart already at a premium, the bag’s handles will prove useful. The cart is exactly as he left it, with both plastic bags untouched.

5:15 p.m. – Kang makes his way back to the NYC Rescue Mission, which is busier than it had been earlier. Men and women are filing through the lobby toward an event space before dinner, so Kang enters through a back door, and the receptionist meets him with the scale. Another RLC team arrives with food from a different corporate pick-up, leaving the staff busy sorting through the deliveries. In total, Kang’s bagels weigh in at 70 pounds (60 pounds from Brody’s and 10 pounds from Black Seed).

“RLC is one of the volunteering experiences that really shines when rubber meets road,” Kang says later. “It’s pragmatic and easy for people to get involved. It’s a volunteering opportunity I’d recommend to anyone. Deliveries take no longer than an hour; it’s quick, it’s easy and the payoff is immense. The difference you’re making is tangible, concrete, and leaves you with a sense of satisfaction.

“My internship experience with RLC team has not been easy – not that they claimed it would be,” he says. “But some days I’d be sitting on the subway after a long day of spreadsheets, deliveries and tracking down carts, and I’d feel great pride in knowing that I have made a tangible difference in the lives of the food insecure.”

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