On Sunday, February 2, thousands of football fans descended on Hard Rock Stadium in Miami to watch the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers. There were fireworks, there was an impressive halftime show — and there was lots and lots of food.
The following day (and for a couple days thereafter), Ellen Bowen and 37 volunteers moved 30,000 pounds of it to about eight different shelters and soup kitchens in the area, including the Miami Rescue Mission, Lotus House Women’s Shelter, and more. To paint a better picture, that amount of food can feed up to 27,000 people — and it would otherwise be going to waste.
“If I ever see another tray of ribs in my life, it will be too soon!” Ellen said with a laugh. Other donated dishes included pulled pork, wings, “it was amazing, the food that they were all getting.”
Upon moving from Connecticut to Florida, Ellen noticed the growing culinary scene and started a food website to review restaurants and profile local chefs. “As I met chefs and worked with restaurants, I kept hearing about how much they throw out,” she said.
So she began researching solutions for food waste that helped the hungry. “I knew from Connecticut this organization called Food Rescue US and it turns out they had just developed an app where a donor who has extra food can get matched with a local receiving agency and volunteers would be able to claim it.”
She quickly launched the Miami branch of Food Rescue, “never realizing that it would become such a large movement down here, embraced by top hotels like the Fontainebleau and markets like Trader Joe’s.”
Today, almost 300 volunteers are registered on the app in the Miami area, and Ellen is the city’s Site Director.
“It’s been about 18 months since I picked up my first shopping bag of food at a little restaurant near where I live, to over 30,000 pounds that we rescued at the Super Bowl.”
In the lead up to Super Bowl LIV, Ellen’s team worked with NFL Green and Centerplate to coordinate moving the uneaten food served at and around the big game.
“We did rescues just prior to the Super Bowl at some of the big hotels that were hosting Super Bowl parties,” she explained. “After the game itself, we were onsite at the stadium, gathering from a couple professional tailgate parties that had over 25,000 attendees, to Centerplate, which runs all the food services from the VIP club to the concessions.”
Each of the receiving shelters and social service agencies sent a refrigerated truck. “We had so much food that I would’ve had to have a fleet of cars,” Ellen said. “It was much easier and safer for the food to have refrigerated trucks on site. We obviously needed a lot of wheels.”
By spreading to different shelters, the team was able to make the food go farther. “A lot of the food can be frozen and served at a later date,” Ellen said. “There was bread, and pallets upon pallets of non-perishables and beverages. But the lion’s share were pans of prepared food that went right into the dining room.”
As former VP of Sales for a fashion shoe company, Ellen relied on her organizational skills to make this massive undertaking happen.
“From day one, I made a schedule and I had shifts for volunteers and made sure we had enough trucks and gloves. I’m proud of how it turned out because I think that being organized really made the difference when the time came to do the actual work. At one point, we were packing up the food so quickly that the chef even said, ‘Can you slow down? We can’t wash dishes fast enough!’”
Food Rescue began in 2011 as Community Plates, until it rebranded in 2017. Its original mission, according to CEO Carol Shattuck, was to end food insecurity and hunger. “But one of the interesting things that has happened over the past few years is that we now talk about our mission as both ending food insecurity and food waste because we really operate at the intersection of the two.”
Food Rescue is getting ready to launch the third generation of its app, which, as Ellen mentioned, connects food donors (markets, restaurants, corporate dining, hospital cafes, schools, stadiums) with the social service agencies that are feeding the food insecure. There’s a matching process to make sure the food being donated is in line with what the agency can receive.
Volunteers can then “self-select their rescues,” Carol explained. “They may decide to do a rescue once a month or multiple in a week. You can actually refine it so that you’re seeing what rescues are in your five-mile radius. At the end, they report back on what’s been picked up.”
“We’re really able to get deep into a community and not just go to the larger social service agencies. We find shelters that may help 20 veterans or kids in crisis,” Carol said.
“We very much believe in communities helping communities,” National Site Director Melissa Spiesman added. “We operate 25 locations in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The food is usually never moved more than 20 minutes.”
“We’re really looking for those pockets of need that aren’t being identified. Food insecurity exists everywhere.”
Where Food Rescue sets itself apart is in the type of food it provides.
“It’s about access to the fresher, healthier, more nutritious foods that people really don’t have access to,” Melissa said.
Food Rescue moves food that is mostly fresh: “produce, poultry, fruits and vegetables, eggs and dairy. And then anything from hot dogs and pizza all the way up to gourmet meals from some of the highest-end hotels in the country.”
In its eight years, the organization has rescued over 37.5 million meals. That comes out to approximately 52 million pounds of food, valued at around $84 million.
Food Rescue is able to do this, in part, thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, which protects donors from any liability if the food is donated in good faith.
Melissa joined the organization months after it was formed, back in the fall of 2011. “I just didn’t understand how people in the wealthiest country in the world didn’t have access to good, fresh, nutritious food. That just didn’t make sense to me. I had to get involved.”
“If you don’t have food, it impacts everything, including certainly your health,” Carol added. She joined the Board of Directors in 2015 and became CEO in early 2018.
“The board of Food Rescue has set a goal to be in all 50 states in the next three to five years,” she said. That said, not all locations are the same.
As Melissa pointed out, some of Food Rescue’s sites are volunteer-led, like Miami. In other communities, the organization is further empowering existing 501(c)(3)s through its technology and best practices. Some sites do four rescues a week, others do up to 150.
Regardless of the size and scope of each community, Carol and Melissa both recognize the impact this work has all over, not just on those at local shelters, but for the organization’s 7,000 volunteers across the country.
“You’re able to go to your local market or the restaurant that you eat at for special occasions and pick up that food and bring it to these agencies in your community,” Melissa said. “You immediately get to see and feel the impact that’s going to have.”
“With a lot of volunteer things, you don’t really see the benefits,” Ellen said. “With this, you see it right away, and you see it not only in the people you’re delivering the food to, but in the chefs who are so appreciative that the food they worked so hard on isn’t ending up in the trash and is actually going to people.”
“When one of the largest markets in our communities had their freezer go down, our site director reached out to our volunteers and within three minutes she had over 10 volunteers say yes,” Melissa recalled.
As the Super Bowl mission proves, and as Ellen, Carol, and Melissa can all attest to, the important work of reducing food waste starts at the local level.
Still, there’s more work to be done. “We’ve proven we can scale and we’re growing. We know we’re going to reach more food-insecure people. That’s a given,” Carol said. “But there’s so much work that needs to be done at all levels. We should educate people on the role that food waste plays in climate change.”
“What I really hope to see is more awareness around food waste and what donating food can do for the community and the environment,” Melissa reiterated. “I hope we get to a place where every food business is aware of donating food and is required to do it.”
Project Drawdown recently listed 100 of the top solutions to climate change. The third on the list was reducing food waste. “When you think about all of the activities that are being done to impact climate change, and you think about food waste as being the third one, that’s a pretty powerful statement,” Melissa added.
The Super Bowl haul was historic, but Food Rescues’ work continues year-round.
“I did a rescue today at the Fontainebleau of about 1,200 pounds of food,” Ellen said. “We did this before the Super Bowl and we’re doing it after the Super Bowl. It wasn’t a one-shot thing for us. This is an ongoing mission to keep food from decomposing and producing methane gas in landfills, to be able to feed hungry people, and feed them with some amazing food.”