Upstanders: The Hunger Hack

Maria Rose

In contrast to the divisiveness and cynicism currently fueling our national discourse, Starbucks created "Upstanders," its first original content series, which aims to inspire Americans to engage in acts of compassion, citizenship and civility. “Upstanders” features ten stories, each told in written, video and podcast form, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities. The series is written and produced by Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman and ceo, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Starbucks executive producer and a former senior editor of The Washington Post.

After a rainstorm washed out attendance at a church event in the Washington, D.C., suburbs last year, Tierney Screen found herself in a room filled with unclaimed paper lunch bags, each containing a sandwich, fruit, chips, and cookies.

Had there been a few dozen extra lunches, she could have handed them out to families she knew personally who needed them. But there were 3,600 – far more than she could distribute herself.

The thought of having to toss them in the garbage pained her. Then she remembered an enthusiastic student she had met at an event a few months earlier. The young woman had spoken about a website she and some other university students had built through which restaurants and community groups could donate excess food to organizations that feed the hungry.

So Screen called the woman, Maria Rose Belding, who explained how to post the lunches on the site. Four hours later, a nearby food pantry claimed them. The bags would be handed out to homeless people in Washington.

Without that website, Screen said, “the bags would have gone in the dumpster, and that would have been a very unfortunate waste, especially when you have so many people who are food insecure.” 

Screen, an ordained minister, was once among them. Her parents struggled financially, and as a child she sometimes went to bed hungry. “I understand what it’s like to go to the refrigerator and it’s just the light bulb on.”

Belding’s site aims to end that agony. Built over the last two years, while she and her collaborators were taking a full load of classes, it is having a profound impact in the fight against hunger, saving thousands of pounds of food across the country every month, and ensuring that legions of family refrigerators don’t dwindle to empty.

To Belding, a petite 20-year-old college junior with seemingly unceasing energy, the solution to hunger in America is simple: Reduce waste – 30 to 40 percent of our food supply winds up in the garbage – by making it easier for restaurants, grocery stores, and other entities to put excess food in the hands of those in need.

“Hunger in the United States is a priorities problem,” she says. “We’re not in a famine situation where agriculture has failed and we can’t grow the food we need. We’re not in a failed state where the government is trying to keep food from the people. We already grew the food, and we processed it, and we shipped it, and we packaged it, and, at some point, we decided that 40 percent of that food wasn’t worth keeping. There is more than enough food produced in the United States to feed our hungry people.”

* * *

Maria Rose Belding began volunteering at the Pella Community Food Shelf, run by the church her family attended, when her age could be counted on two hands. She recalls seeing her mother donate to the church’s food pantry and asking, “Why are you giving them my macaroni and cheese?” When her mother explained that other families sometimes went hungry, it made a profound impression on Belding.

“Our family was so centered around our meals. We always ate dinner together. The idea that there were families that didn’t have that because they couldn’t afford the food just blew my tiny, elementary school mind,” she recalls.

By the time she was 14, she was a regular volunteer, organizing provisions and coordinating donations.

Her hometown of Pella, Iowa, with a population of 10,300, is far from poor – many residents have decent-paying jobs with the eponymous window-manufacturing company – but she was surprised at the number of families who needed help putting food on the table. If it’s this bad here, she asked herself, what’s it like in places with unemployment rates that are three times ours?

Because the pantry relied on donations, contents on the shelves varied by the month. Sometimes, the pantry would wind up with far too much of one item. Once, for instance, a big donation of macaroni and cheese boxes came in. Belding and her fellow volunteers sought to give away as many as they could, but recipients eventually put their hands up in defeat. They couldn’t afford the milk and butter to make mac and cheese every day.

The undistributed boxes eventually expired.

On frigid winter days, Belding insisted on carrying all of the outdated food down the church’s icy driveway to the dumpster herself. She didn’t want one of the older volunteers to slip on the ice and break a hip. But the journeys to the trash bin were agonizing.

We’re a food pantry, she thought. We shouldn’t be throwing out all this stuff.

She wished her church could give the excess food away before it expired, but there wasn’t an efficient way to do so. Most of the other food banks within an hour’s drive weren’t regular users of email. Although she could try to call each one, there wasn’t an accurate list of phone numbers, and she’d likely get voicemail if she did get through.

Besides, the process would take time that she and the other volunteers needed to spend on other tasks, and even if a message left eventually received a positive response, the food might be too old to donate by then.

Sometimes, the pantry’s director would put the excess food in her car and drive to other food banks to see if they’d take it, but this was a time-consuming, hit-and-miss endeavor.

We’re not throwing food away because food banks just don’t care or because they take the supplies they have for granted, Belding concluded. This is a system that is not working.

The problem rattled around in her brain for months before she settled upon an answer after the fashion of her Millennial generation: She’d build an app.

Except she didn’t know how to write computer code.

* * *

After graduating from high school in 2014, she left for Washington, D.C., to attend American University. On her first evening in the nation’s capital, she met Grant Nelson, a self-taught programmer who was preparing to start his second year of law school at George Washington University. As they talked, her eyes were drawn to his computer screen.

“Hey, do you code?” she asked.

“No,” responded Nelson, who knew how to program computers but was fearful that he’d be asked to waste his time on a frivolous project.

Belding refused to believe him and pitched her idea.

“Why not just use email?” Nelson responded. He told her that her idea was “a solution in search of a problem.”

She urged him to call a few food banks and investigate for himself. It didn’t take long for him to offer his services.

“Nobody had built a database that made it easy for food banks and others with extra food to simply say, ‘I have food. Here’s what it is. Which nonprofit wants it?’” he recalls. “So we set out to build that.”

Neither had much time – each was taking a full load of classes – but they were motivated to create something that nobody else had, something food banks across the country needed, something that would help feed more people. They called their project the Means Database. Means stands for “Matching Excess And Need for Stability.”

Belding and Nelson reached out to food banks – ones far larger than her church’s pantry – to learn what they needed. Nelson did the programming. They recruited a few other students keen to help. Nobody was paid. Belding didn’t have time to fundraise, and she had no intention of borrowing money because the project wasn’t going to generate any revenue. She couldn’t countenance charging food banks to use the service.

She and Nelson worked on the database whenever they weren’t in class or doing homework, often until the early hours of the morning, foregoing parties and the other diversions of college life. She convened team meetings on weekends in the basement of her dormitory.

“We were obsessed,” she says.

In early 2015, they flipped the switch on the website. Donors could list any food products they wished to give away, and recipients could search offerings in their geographic region. Registered food banks could also receive alerts when items became available. To get the word out, Belding called every food bank in the Washington area that she could find.

Then she waited.

The first item posted was beans.

Beans are far from a popular item for food banks. She resigned herself to a long wait.

An hour later, she went to her Introduction to Psychology class. Instead of listening to the lecture, she popped open her laptop and repeatedly refreshed her website.

The beans were still sitting there.

And then, all of a sudden, the status of the beans changed: This item has been claimed by another user.

A food bank in the Washington suburbs that serves a predominantly Latino population wanted the cans.

Belding pumped her fists in the air, befuddling her classmates.It worked! she thought. It’s beans and it still worked.

* * *

Both the donor and recipient of the beans had heard about Means through conversations with Belding at food-insecurity events in Washington. She quickly realized that if she wanted people across the country to use it, she would need to keep getting the word out. Most start-ups would do that with direct mail or targeted email blasts. But Belding didn’t have the money.

Although Means had won $42,500 at a student-business venture capital competition at George Washington University, where Nelson attended law school, most of those funds went toward technology and administration costs.

Belding, who has relied on loans and financial aid to attend college, has no time for a part-time job. She lives in the least-expensive place she can find.

With no marketing funds, Belding and her interns resorted to picking up their cell phones and dialing thousands of food banks.

They searched for the numbers the way hungry people might: By looking on the internet. They would type in the name of a city and the words “food bank” or “emergency food” or “food assistance.”

More often than not, they got wrong numbers. Or no answer. A few times, they wound up accidentally calling police departments.

Belding was stunned.

“There’s only one other group of people calling this many pantries, and that’s the people who need them,” she says. “Even if we’ve had a terrible day with outreach and we haven’t been able to reach a single human, we still get to eat dinner. That’s not true for the only other group trying to contact those food pantries – and that’s incredibly unacceptable.”

That realization has led Belding to her next quest: compiling an accurate, authoritative list of every organization in the country that provides food to the needy. She has harnessed the efforts of 20 volunteers and interns to track down as many food- donation centers as they can find. The goal is to make the list easily accessible to people who need assistance.

Each call also includes an exhortation to try the Means Database.

The outreach has worked. The website that Belding hatched the idea for in high school is now used by food donors and recipients in 45 states and Washington, D.C.

“Maria clearly has a passion for making a difference in the fight against hunger,” says Alexander Moore, the chief development officer at the DC Central Kitchen in Washington. “She had an idea and she acted on it. For a generation, good people working in food banks have thrown away food. Maria was the first person I met that went about actually solving the problem of that internal food waste within the hunger-fighting movement.”

For Belding, each call she makes to a food bank, each recipient she meets when she visits a food bank, propels her to work harder. The food pantry director in Ohio who told Belding that she fills the shelves using her own food stamps because “they need it more than I do.” The 90-year-old woman collecting packets of ketchup and mustard at a senior center to make soup because she can’t afford to buy it in a can.

“Hunger is wrong,” she says. “There should be no child in the United States who fails a test because they haven’t been able to eat all weekend. There should not be a single parent who has to decide between paying for medication, or paying the light bill, or paying for transportation, and food. Those are dilemmas that no one should have in a country as successful as ours. Hunger is an injustice, and it’s a solvable one.”

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