Robert Lee is the founder and CEO of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), a nonprofit organization working in 16 cities and headquartered in New York City. RLC volunteers pick up excess food from participating restaurants, caterers, and hotels and deliver it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
Lee attended New York University’s Stern School of Business, and upon completing his undergraduate degree, he began working in the finance industry. In the summer of 2013, at the age of 23, he founded Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. The following year, he left his job in finance to work full-time at the nonprofit. Lee was named a CNN Hero in 2015.
Food Policy Center (FPC): How did your childhood experiences influence your decisions to first go into finance, and then to leave the finance world to focus on feeding the hungry?
Robert Lee (RL): My parents were South Korean immigrants, and they encouraged me to be a lawyer or a doctor as typical immigrant parents from South Korea would! But after learning how much time and debt I would have to go into to pursue these options, I decided to pursue a career in finance to earn money for my family as soon as possible. There were times when my family struggled to pay rent on time, and skipping meals was the norm. I hoped to never be in that same situation again.
After being fortunate enough to be a Gates Millennium Scholar, which allowed me to graduate from college with no debt, I worked in finance full time. However, I continued to be heavily involved in reducing food waste and hunger on the side, and I decided to leave finance to focus on this full time. My childhood experiences definitely influenced my decision to take a risk on this idea, and the opportunity to come full circle to try to eliminate these problems was impossible to pass up.
FPC: What were the biggest obstacles you faced when starting RLC? What are the biggest challenges of running the nonprofit now?
RL: The biggest obstacles when we were starting RLC were prioritization of the important tasks and finding food donors. In the beginning, there are just so many things to do and we had to prioritize the decisions that would move RLC as far forward as possible. There were many distractions and more interesting projects that came up, and it was a challenge to stay focused on the important things such as finding food donors. Finding food donors was difficult in the beginning because many people did not trust a newly formed organization and did not feel comfortable being the first group of partners.
Today, our biggest challenges are growth-related. One challenge is finding talent. The nonprofit space has a reputation for having lower salaries, and it is sometimes difficult to attract talent. Another challenge is marketing. RLC has grown tremendously, and marketing on a wider level while also retaining local roots has been a challenge.
FPC: What are the main reasons that restaurants or other potential donors decline to partner with RLC? Why do you think more restaurants do not donate their leftover food every day? Is it any easier or harder to find partner businesses in the other cities RLC works in?
RL: Currently, the main reasons potential food donors decline to partner with RLC are logistical challenges and a lack of interest or low prioritization. Many cite the time it takes to prepare the food for donation as a burden they do not want their employees to take on, while many mention that they have other projects they’re focusing on and food donation is not a large priority at the moment. I believe more restaurants would donate their excess food if it became a priority by either customer demand, monetary incentives, and/or eventually, cultural norms.
I believe it’s just as difficult in NYC as in other cities to find partner businesses.
FPC: You have explained that 40 percent – 90 billion pounds – of food in America is thrown out, and just one-third of that wasted food would be enough to eliminate food insecurity. RLC collects leftover food from businesses, but most food waste is actually produced at home. What tips do you have for avoiding food waste at home? What can individuals do to be more conscious about not buying and preparing too much food?
RL: That’s right! Unfortunately, we cannot donate personally created food because we cannot guarantee the safety of it, but there are ways to reduce food waste at home, and it would make a huge impact. My tips begin at the supermarket: never shop when you’re hungry. I would also recommend using a portion of the fridge as a “use immediately” area, and cook not based on what you feel like eating, but by what you have in the fridge. It’s a bit of a habit change, but it would help you save the money that you used to buy this food!
FPC: As of 2018, you had rescued more than 2 million pounds of food in the 5 years of RLC’s existence, and you now have a presence in 16 cities across the country. What are the main factors that have contributed to your successes?
RL: Yes. As of January 2020, we’ve now rescued 4.4 million pounds of food. We definitely benefited from a growing public interest in reducing food waste. We also had a focus on providing a level of professionalism and reliability with our food donation pickups that contributed to our growth.
FPC: Are you aware of any other countries that have better systems in place for minimizing food waste and reducing hunger? What do you think is/are the greatest cause(s) of food insecurity in America?
RL: There are many countries making great strides in fighting food waste. France and Italy have made food donation a legal requirement, while South Korea has a pay-as-you-throw model that helps incentivize consumers to use what they have and throw out less food.
Food insecurity in America is a very complicated issue that is multifaceted. I believe by bolstering the food budgets of food pantries and homeless shelters, those organizations could use the saved money on more long-term solutions such as job skills training, soft skills training, and more shelter.
FPC: You have mentioned that you started to notice food waste as a young child eating lunch at school, when other students would throw out large portions of their packed lunches or would complain about eating the cafeteria food. Is there anything that school cafeterias can do to reduce food waste? Do you think that teaching kids about food insecurity and hunger should be part of the educational curriculum?
RL: There are things school cafeterias can do to reduce food waste, and RLC does work with many private schools to get their excess food donated. I believe having speakers come into schools to talk about food insecurity and hunger would be beneficial for students, but I have not thought much about having it be a part of the educational curriculum.
FPC: If you worked in government, what is one policy you would like to introduce or enforce to support RLC’s mission?
RL: On the federal side, I would make financial incentives around enhanced tax deductions simpler to calculate and also make it a tax credit. Currently, the enhanced tax deductions are good incentives for making donations. To make the enhanced tax deductions more accessible to small businesses who can benefit from donating their excess food, I would make it simpler to calculate.
On the state/local side, I would push for sustainability certifications to include food donations and mandate that agencies donate their excess as a way to lead by example. I believe this actually has already been proposed.
FPC: What are your hopes for RLC’s future? Where do you see the organization going in five, ten, or twenty years?
RL: I might be too optimistic about RLC’s future! It’s been highly encouraging to see the amazing progress we’ve made over the past few years, and also to see how much food rescue organizations have accomplished. When we first started, there were people asking if what we were doing was illegal. Now, the conversations are nearly always about logistics and making it convenient for all parties involved. I see this trend continuing and becoming a real movement. I believe people will gravitate towards the reduction of food waste and the donation of excess food to reduce their environmental footprint. I see RLC continuing to expand within NYC to new restaurants and food businesses, as well as continuing to expand our impact across the nation!
Grew up in: Queens, NY
City or town you call home: NYC
Job title: Co-Founder & CEO
Background and education: Graduated cum laude from New York University
One word you would use to describe our food system: Broken
Your food policy hero: Dana Gunders
Your breakfast this morning: Banana
Favorite food: NYC style Pepperoni Pizza
Favorite last meal: Deep fried spring rolls for appetizers, then Kimchi fried rice with a coke, and a bucket of chocolate ice cream to finish it off