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Rescuing Leftover Cuisine’s Lee Tells How to Grow Food Business Donations

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About 40% of wasted food is thrown out at consumer-facing businesses, and while many of them—restaurants and others—say food donation is a top priority, these early adopters are not the majority. But Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC) has brought 300 businesses on board in 16 cities to help them ensure that their excess food is eaten.

Rescuing Leftover Cuisine CEO Robert Lee explains how the nonprofit has grown from its early work that began in New York City to an operation that has helped rescue over 5 million pounds of food to date. Lee not only tells RLC’s story but explains the challenges restaurants face in working to donate food. He tells what he thinks needs to happen to get more restaurants involved. And he discusses what is unique in each of the 16 cities where RLC operates.

Waste360: Can you describe Rescuing Leftover Cuisine’s business model?

Robert Lee: RLC engages volunteers through a web application to bring excess food from food businesses such as restaurants, food manufacturers, and grocery stores to those in need at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and community centers. The over 5 million pounds of food we have rescued to date from our food donor partners has fed over 4.1 million meals to the hungry at over 200 human services agencies across the United States.

Waste360: How did you scale your business model?

Lee: We have grown organically as more food businesses and volunteers joined the movement. Through word of mouth, advertising, and direct outreach, RLC has grown the number of partnerships each year. Branches have been started to extend the impact of RLC from the headquarters of New York City to 15 other cities across the nation. Passionate individuals from across the nation have also contributed donations to spur the growth of the organization.

Waste360: How have you incentivized restaurants and other food businesses to donate excess food?

Lee: Not only is it morally satisfying to know that food that is proudly produced is fed to people instead of the garbage, but the food donor has financial benefits as well. Firstly, donating excess food reduces the amount that must be thrown away, and thus may reduce the disposal costs for the business. Secondly, food donations are eligible for enhanced tax deductions that may be more than 50 percent more than the deductions for throwing the food away as a cost of doing business. Finally, positive brand association especially during difficult and uncertain times displays values that resonate with customers.

Waste360: You left a job in finance with J.P. Morgan to launch Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. Why did you make this major shift? And tell us a little of your life before finance that led you to food rescue work.

Lee:
I grew up thinking hunger/food insecurity was the norm. My parents were immigrants from Korea and did not know English, which made it difficult to hold down jobs. I chose a career in finance to reduce the time spent in school and to make sure my family would not go through what we did again. However, in college I came across a school club that brought leftover dining hall food to homeless shelters, and it resonated with me on many different levels. It dispelled the myths around donating food for me, and I also found it to be an elegant and efficient solution for two co-existing problems. When I graduated and started to work full time at J.P. Morgan Asset Management, I could not stop working on expanding the concept of food rescue. Thus, I left my career to work on RLC when the opportunity came.

Waste360: What are some of the greatest issues restaurants have in their day-to-day operations that impact their ability to donate?

Lee: One of the issues that restaurants have that impacts their ability to donate is that of conflicting priorities. Because of the fast-paced nature of the business, there are many priorities that unfortunately come before feeding the hungry. To help get around the hassle of setting up a food donation program, many food businesses appreciate an easy plug-and-play solution that does not require much attention.

Waste360: Can you give an idea of how much food is wasted at consumer-facing businesses, and which are the largest generators?

Lee: According to ReFED’s 2016 report, out of the total 63 million tons of food wasted each year, 40 percent comes from consumer-facing businesses. The largest of this comes from supermarkets with 8 million tons, followed by full-service restaurants at 7 million tons, then institutional and food service at 5 million tons, and limited-service restaurants and government at 4.5 million tons.

Waste360: What is unique in each of the 16 cities where you operate as it pertains to your work? 

Lee: Each city that RLC operates out of is run by a branch of RLC that should be thought of like a franchise. Each of them operates RLC’s model with its own unique approach or interpretation based on the local environment. For instance, some may work with more restaurants and cafes while others work with more warehouses and grocery stores.

Waste360: Can you help us get a sense of the size of the movement whereby U.S. restaurants donate? And what barriers may be why many of them say it’s a priority but are not doing a lot of it?

Lee: At this stage of the movement, I believe only the early adopters have engaged in donating food. As we move towards the early majority, the value proposition that food rescue as a whole provides must be clear. I believe people have good intentions, but without the financial incentive to prioritize and act, the intentions do not go anywhere.

As restaurants struggle, food donation may be the furthest from a restaurant owner or manager’s mind. However, as new restaurants start up, food donation must be top of mind and must be included in the steps to be displayed as a company that cares about its community.

Waste360: How has COVID-19 impacted food businesses’ donation efforts, and what might this mean for the future?

Lee: COVID has pushed many food businesses to create meals for the hungry to survive. I believe that in the long term this may open up many possibilities for being more open to food rescue. The current situation of well-known restaurants creating meals for the hungry and surviving by providing this service would hopefully allow for a relationship for food rescue organizations to emphasize the importance of giving back to the community.

Waste360: What are some unique things individual restaurants or chains have done in the food donation space?

Lee: Grubhub’s work in supporting restaurants during the pandemic is exemplary. (Grubhub is an online and mobile prepared food ordering and delivery platform that connects diners with local restaurants). Through their support, RLC was able to engage Black-owned businesses to produce meals for communities hard hit by COVID. This allows these food businesses to stay open while also filling a critical need in their area. 

Waste360: How can individual consumers learn what specific restaurants are doing with regard to food donation?

Lee: We have found that the best way consumers can learn what restaurants are doing with excess food is to simply ask them.  If consumers signal interest, businesses will respond by displaying more about what they do, and it also would generate a reason for businesses to do more. Businesses can learn about what other food businesses are doing at conferences and industry events. And both groups can learn more about what different groups are doing by joining the RLC newsletter.

Waste360: Why should individuals and companies care?

Lee: Individuals and companies should care because food waste and hunger are multifaceted issues that affect our lives. The impacts of climate change have been on full display in 2020. Wasted food contributes to carbon emissions so much that if it were measured as a country it would be ranked third right, behind the total emissions from every source in the USA and China. We as individuals have three chances a day to impact this (with every meal we eat). Wasted food also affects individuals’ wallets. Not only are subsidized foods like corn wasted, but also individuals’ tax dollars are spent growing and transporting food that is ultimately wasted. Companies should care because wasted food is wasted money.

Waste360: What changes are happening to help restaurants donate? What changes have yet to happen?

Lee: More awareness has helped food businesses donate their excess. Despite being passed in 1996, the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act has been hidden in obscurity. The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 helped make enhanced tax deductions permanent for all types of companies and not just C Corporations. But more must be done. Enhanced tax deductions are great, but we should consider tax credits, and we should consider making the calculation less complex. We should also consider other incentives or even penalties such as what France has done.  

Waste360: What is everyday food waste doing to the environment? 

Lee: Everyday food waste is contributing to climate change. We have the opportunity three times a day to reduce our carbon footprint. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, in the United States, over half the land, 80 percent of freshwater, and 10 percent of the energy budget is used to produce food. When food is wasted, we waste these precious natural resources. Not only that, but everyday food wastes also end up in landfills where they do not go through natural processes and instead are piled on top of each other and produce methane gases. These emissions from food waste would be ranked third if measured as a nation, right behind the emissions of USA and China.   

Waste360: What does the future hold for the hard-hit food and beverage industry? 

Lee: COVID-19 has affected the food and beverage industry just like it has in many industries. With demand down, limitations on activities, and an uncertain future, the food and beverage industry has a difficult road ahead. However, there are many opportunities as well. This industry has an opportunity to support communities hard hit by COVID, by providing excess inventory to those in need. Forecasting demand may be even more difficult because of the pandemic, but that does not mean that excess has to be wasted.  

Waste360: How do you think technology is helping, and what are the most important features of those technologies?

Lee: Technology is helping in many ways. More awareness, more opportunities to be engaged in donating food directly, and more efficient transportation can be attributed to technology. Technology has helped RLC engage more people in fighting food waste and hunger by making it extremely easy to sign up online. By seeing the issues of food waste and hunger firsthand in their own neighborhoods, the public can be engaged to fight these issues at home as well. Technology also makes the process more efficient. Rather than having staff members who would manage and send confirmation and reminder emails, all of the logistics are now automated.

Waste360: What have been the most important considerations you have had to focus on as you help restaurants be able to easily donate? 

Lee: The most important considerations were liability, ease of logistics and incentives.

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