The U.S. restaurant industry discards tens of billions of pounds of food each year, making waste one of the biggest problems in the food industry. To proactively combat food waste, many restaurants implement sustainability practices, such as meatless options, eco-friendly containers, and locally sourced ingredients. But what can be done with excess or leftover food at the end of the day?
412 Food Rescue and its app, Food Rescue Hero—which is currently being used in 16 cities in North America—are working to solve this exact problem. Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Food Rescue Hero’s distribution model is the link between food-based businesses and communities facing food insecurity. Simply put, they’re the logistical savior behind the food rescue movement.
How 412 Food Rescue and Food Rescue Hero work
Food donors, like the businesses featured below, include retailers like restaurants, grocery stores, wholesalers, and caterers. Some businesses use leftover ingredients to cook up full dishes while others give away individual items that are still perfectly good but unsellable. Donations include:
- Baked goods (e.g., bread, pastries)
- Dairy (e.g., milk, cheese)
- Meat and protein (e.g., beef, chicken, eggs)
- Non-food (e.g., latex gloves, disposable cups)
- Non-perishable (e.g., canned vegetables, granola bars, uncooked pasta)
- Other (e.g., water, seedlings)
- Individually packaged prepared food (e.g., sandwiches)
- Trays of prepared food (e.g., lasagna)
- Produce (e.g., peppers, eggplant)
The food must meet specific requirements in order to be donated. For example, it must have been stored and refrigerated appropriately and produced in a facility certified by the county Department of Health.
The food retailer submits a donation intake form, then the Food Rescue Hero app coordinates the pickup. When food is ready to be picked up, volunteers are alerted via the mobile app. They then pick up the food items and distribute them to nonprofit organizations or in some cases, directly to the doorsteps of the food insecure.
Tips from restaurant owners fighting food waste and bolstering community
To learn more about how restaurant owners reduce food waste with Food Rescue Hero, we spoke with three local Pittsburgh restaurants that donate food on a weekly basis to 412 Food Rescue. They share that food rescue, while not always easy, helps them contribute to their goals of environmental stability and support communities in need.
Meet the businesses
Bae Bae’s is a Korean-inspired eatery focusing on the freshness and quality of its ingredients. Since opening in 2017, Bae Bae’s mission has been driven by the movement of reducing food waste. Besides its involvement with 412 Food Rescue, the restaurant is also part of the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program. We spoke with co-owner Edward Lai to learn from his extensive experience in the nonprofit sector and how to take part in the food rescue movement.
Revival Chili is a food truck that employs disadvantaged individuals in the community. As a key player in Pittsburgh’s nonprofit scene, the food truck was also behind the Revival Relief initiative, which helped provide meals to medical professionals and other front-line essential workers during the pandemic. Founder Jordan Robarge shared with us the value in giving back to your community and how his own nonprofit led him to 412.
The Vandal is a charming neighborhood wine bar located in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. During the pandemic, restaurant owner Joey Hilty wanted to use his influence in the food industry to help give unemployed individuals meals. Joey shares how he got involved with 412 and tips on getting creative with transforming produce scraps into meals.
How did you become involved with 412 Food Rescue?
Edward, Bae Bae’s: I just realized that we have so much waste. As a part of the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program, our philosophy has always been to reduce food waste in general. It was always in the business plan itself. Being in the food industry, there’s always waste—no matter where you go. I knew we weren’t technically allowed to give out any extra food that we couldn’t serve. I thought maybe there was a program out there where we could donate, so I started doing some research. That’s how I stumbled upon 412.
Jordan, Revival Chili: We started an initiative called Revival Relief… and it fell in line with this community takeout program. We raised money in order to bring free meals to first responders, medical personnel, and low income communities. We also went to protests to provide free food. It provided food to people that needed it, but it also kept our staff employed and paid them at the rate they were getting before the pandemic for the first couple of months. When I saw 412 Food Rescue was doing something similar, I saw it as a great opportunity to connect with them.
Joey, The Vandal: I saw what 412 was doing through word of mouth and social media. It really picked up steam because it had so much community support. It felt like something we should have had a long time ago. It’s one of those great ideas that permeated through the fabric of our city. As a restaurant business owner, I just really appreciated what they were doing. It was always special.
How do you participate in the food rescue process?
Bae Bae’s: We provide 150 meals once a week with all the extras that we have left over. 412 facilitates the logistics of it and supplies the food to people. They’ve partnered with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and Sustainable Restaurants Pittsburgh, which provides meal kits to people in need as well. It’s a nice challenge and feels great to be able to do that once a week for the community.
Revival Chili: The food gets picked up every single Wednesday. We have it all boxed up and ready to go. Then the volunteers show up and know how many meals they’re picking up, and we send them on their way. Working with them is extremely helpful because you get your meals ready and have them ready to go at your location. With the Revival Relief program, I was the one coordinating everything. I was doing the vast majority of deliveries myself and bringing my employees along with me. 412 definitely takes a big load off my back.
The Vandal: They make it so easy for a restaurant to participate. They say, “Okay, you have 200 meals going to wherever, and we’ll have a driver there at 11 o’clock to pick them up.” Sometimes they’ll have two drivers and stagger them by 15 minutes. On top of that, we’ll get a sheet of who’s picking up and when and where they’re taking them. It’s incredibly streamlined.
How has being a part of 412 Food Rescue impacted your business?
Bae Bae’s: It goes hand in hand with us helping the community. Also, it gives back to us just in terms of the message that we’re spreading. I think people gravitate toward that, so that in turn helps our bottom line with getting more guests in. And food waste itself, it’s really waste. That’s an environmental impact itself. We’re not adding more to the landfills. I think that’s a good benefit as well. It’s not all monetary, but it comes back many times.
Revival Chili: It allows more people to learn about our brick-and-mortar location from a marketing perspective. Even though the diner has been around for 47 years, you’d be surprised how many people that live even within a mile radius do not know about it, which is crazy. Marketing during the pandemic with online delivery platforms was a big help with that too.
It also helps assure me that I can keep my employees employed as we continue to navigate the struggles of COVID-19. That little assurance that we have this consistent thing that we definitely are going to be doing, that gives a little peace of mind for me.
The Vandal: I think first and foremost, it’s enabled us to keep staff on. Having the responsibility to feed so many people a week, it kept jobs in a time where it was a little harder to do. The reduction of product waste is also huge. Being able to turn anything we had into a nutritious, balanced meal for people, it’s always great to actually use your product and not have to get rid of it because of an expiration.
I know it sounds cliche, but [it’s allowed us to] be more active in the community. Being able to use your skills to help people in need is incredibly rewarding. And I feel like, in a time when everything was really not that fun, you could look forward to having someone come pick up the meals and know that something good is happening.
Were there any challenges you had to overcome while you were integrating this model?
Bae Bae’s: One of the biggest challenges we had early on was realizing just how much 200 meals were at one time and the logistics of it. At first, I estimated it would take us two hours to do 200 meals because it seemed easy enough. But the logistics behind it were more intricate than I planned. It definitely took us a couple of weeks to properly calculate how long it would take to make because 200 meals is a lot. When we’re used to doing one or two at a time in a restaurant, going to 200 at once was a big change. A very welcome change—but nonetheless, it had its own challenges.
Revival Chili: Making sure your packages are durable during transport is a big one. Definitely do some test runs. For the food trucks, we use all compostable containers, so we had to be especially cognisant. With chili, it’s tough. I mean, we make it that morning, so it can be pretty damn hot. Obviously, a styrofoam container is not going to work with that. Cardboard containers have wax coating, which helps. But is that still a sustainable product? Just trying to make sure our boxes won’t soak all the way through from the chili was one of the things we dealt with. Cold food is much easier. So that was definitely a challenge we had to adapt to.
The Vandal: We definitely got a lot more creative with produce and vegetables. Things that we never thought we were able to do, we were able to do. I didn’t know that I could turn certain vegetables into gnocchi. Just getting really creative with it. It’s unlocked a lot of extra creativity that wouldn’t have been tapped into. I feel like a lot of good ideas come from limitations.
How have you seen your involvement make a positive change within your community?
The Vandal: My staff loved it. I think they loved it because they saw an opportunity to help people who needed it. They saw a chance to use our skills to help others, and I think it was during a time when there was a lot of uncertainty. It definitely gave us all something, a bigger goal to work towards to distract us a little bit. The perspective shift that it creates, when you find you’re making food for people who would otherwise not have access to it, really puts things in perspective. It created a lot of clarity during the past year and a very needed perspective shift. It’s hard to imagine the past year without them helping everybody essentially achieve the same goal. Even if everybody was coming from different angles on it, they were the common thread through most good things that were being done.
How do you engrain sustainability into your restaurant strategy?
Bae Bae’s: Sustainability is always a big focus of ours. We train our staff to make sure they’re aware of that as well. We have a recycling program here and try to compost. All our packaging is compostable since we switched to wood utensils and installs. We’ve been doing that for the past two or three years now. Everything’s pretty much paper. We try to use as little plastics as we can and limit single-use plastics.
Revival Chili: We try to source locally as much as we can for what makes business sense. For the neighborhood that we’re in, we want to make sure things are affordable as possible for decently healthy food and good portion sizes. It’s a balancing act. We get our eggs from a local farmer and use all locally sourced meat for the chili. Composable products are a big one. We also try to vastly minimize food waste as much as we can—and that’s kind of why I picked chili in the first place when I was getting started with the business. We can make a whole pot of chili and make a lot. You can reheat it, and you generally don’t have to throw product away as much as with other food.
How to get involved
There are a number of ways that people work with 412 Food Rescue and Food Rescue Hero, including donating food, donating money, volunteering their time, or becoming a corporate sponsor or partner organization.
Food retailers: If you’re a restaurant in the Pittsburgh area and are interested in becoming a food donor, simply fill out 412’s online form.
Corporate sponsors: There are several ways that a company can become a corporate sponsor, including corporate giving, group employee volunteer opportunities, and event sponsoring. 412 Food Rescue can also put together a customized corporate sponsorship for interested parties.
412 Food Rescue is one of the largest and fastest growing volunteer food rescues in the country. Based in Pittsburgh, it’s one of 16 cities in the U.S. powered by the Food Rescue Hero app, which was purposefully designed to turn food rescues into movements. By 2030, Food Rescue Hero aims to power 100 cities. Check out the Food Rescue Hero website to learn more.
Additionally, Food Rescue Hero technology tracks the impact its services have on the community. The data it collects is intended to shed light on food security issues and set a precedent that other organizations can follow. The Food Rescue Hero Network, comprised of 16 cities in the U.S. and Canada, has diverted 80 million pounds of perfectly good from the landfill and mitigated 42 million pounds of CO2 emissions, measurably supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2, 12, and 13. Historically, there has been little documentation to measure the impact of food rescue. 412 Food Rescue’s initiatives aim to change that.
Editorial contributions and interviews by Vy Duong
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