NEW YORK—William Gomez, 16, stood awkwardly in the entrance of the Long Island Bagel Cafe. There were more bags of excess bagels than he had expected, and he was the only volunteer on this sweltering summer evening.
He called his supervisor to see if anyone could send a cart. But all the carts were in use. And so, Gomez proceeded to carry 60 pounds of leftover bagels to the NYC Rescue Mission, a nonprofit a mile away that feeds, houses, and rehabilitates the homeless.
As he turned the corner after one block, he bumped into Tiffany Perez, 18, who was rushing to meet him with her empty cart. The cart was wobbly and it was held together by duct tape and string, but it held the 60 pounds of bagels just fine.
Gomez and Perez are volunteers at Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a nonprofit food rescue organization that collects leftover food from restaurants, cafes, and caterers and passes it on to homeless shelters.
It’s a loose network of 1,500 volunteers, and 100 of them are lead rescuers who make sure the food gets delivered, rain or shine, with help or no help. They are also licensed to handle food safely.
They collect bagels and bread, as well as fresh sushi, organic milk, and grass-fed meats that would have otherwise been thrown away.
It’s not an easy job for Gomez and Perez, who are group leaders. There was a time when Perez single-handedly carried 200 pounds of surplus prepared food to a shelter. It took multiple trips, but she didn’t mind.
“It feels good. The homeless are so happy to see me,” Perez said. “People at the shelter thank me. They don’t stop thanking me no matter how many times I say you’re welcome.”
Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is a relatively new food rescue organization. It’s among several food recovery organizations throughout the United States—such as Second Helpings, Food Rescue, and City Harvest—that safely collect edible food that would have been thrown away.
But Rescuing Leftover Cuisine operates with a low production cost and minimal resources, creating a system that could potentially be replicated globally.
How It Works
Rescuing Leftover Cuisine has grown exponentially with only one full-time staff.
In 2014, they recovered 50,000 pounds of food. In the first three months of 2015, they retrieved another 50,000 pounds.
Rescuing Leftover Cuisine requires few monetary resources. They operate on a 10 cents per pound pickup cost, which allows a $10 donation to go a long way.
According to Robert Lee, co-founder of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a $10 donation enables them to rescue 100 pounds of food, which can feed 83 people.
“The cost of one lunch provides 83 lunches,” Lee said. “Our philosophy is that every small bit helps.”
Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is still a small organization compared to NYC’s first food rescue nonprofit City Harvest, which has been doing this type of work in New York since 1982. City Harvest retrieves around 136,000 pounds of food every day. But since they pick up food using trucks, it isn’t cost-efficient for them to go to any locations that are donating less than 50 pounds.
Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is able to have a low operating cost because they avoid using trucks as much as possible. Most of their volunteers walk instead.
For the most part, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine picks up food from restaurants and grocery stores within a mile from a shelter.
The average amount of food they collect during each trip is 60 to 80 pounds. Ideally, it’s divided between five people so that each volunteer would only carry 15 pounds.
This walking model can be hard on the volunteer leaders, especially if not many volunteers show up for a particular shift.
They walk during humid summers. In the winter, their carts get stuck in the thick layers of snow.
But that doesn’t stop the group leaders. Perez has been volunteering since January. She covers three shifts a day, five days a week.
“Most days she carries in 60 to 80 pounds,” said Martin Bowman, a front desk supervisor at NYC Rescue Mission. “She just keeps coming back and forth, back and forth, until it’s all here.”
“We call her the beast mama,” he said, laughing. “She looks skinny, but don’t let that fool you.”
Volunteers like Perez and Gomez don’t get paid in money or food. But they continue with their efforts anyway, because it bothers them that a significant amount of food is wasted every day while many are hungry.
One in seven Americans experience food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yet 86 billion pounds of food were wasted by households, restaurants, cafeterias, and caterers in 2008.
“It makes me feel good to know that it’s going to help someone,” Gomez said.
Lee, 24, knows what it feels like to be perpetually hungry.
He grew up eating instant noodles. His parents, who emigrated from Korea to the United States, had a hard time coming up with the money to pay rent and buy groceries. When his family decided to treat themselves, they bought a slightly more expensive brand of instant noodles.
When Lee was studying at NYU Stern School of Business, he joined a student group that delivered excess dining hall food to shelters.
After graduation, he got a job as an Investment Management Risk Analyst at J.P. Morgan.
But he felt a need to carry on with his food-rescue work on a larger scale.
The United Nations estimate that 868 million people around the world are hungry.
The United Nations also estimates that by 2050, the world population is expected to grow by 2 billion.
So Lee quit to work full time at Rescuing Leftover Cuisine in 2014.
So far, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine has expanded to Hillsborough, New Jersey.; Washington D.C.; and Albany, Miami, Portland, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Lee hopes the model can be eventually replicated in other countries.