How do you start a food rescue?

While visiting Austin recently, I heard about Keep Austin Fed and was impressed and intrigued. I am very interested in trying to start something similar in Columbia, Missouri. We have a food bank and Meals on Wheels, but I haven’t heard of anything like what you do before. Is there any information you could send me that might give me some ideas on getting started?

Stacey Andreasen
– Columbia, Missouri

Food rescues can be as simple as picking up left over bread from the local bakery or as complex as collecting food from different departments of a grocery store.

Looking back at the past two years I’ve been helping lead Keep Austin Fed, here are a few lessons I learned:

  • Do some research — There are many food rescue organizations throughout the country. Two we admire include Boulder Food Rescue and Forgotten Harvest. Do some digging in your town to try to find out what your community needs and what resources are available. Ask how you can support a soup kitchen, food pantry, or other charitable organization that serves people in need.
  • Start small — The co-founders of KAF (Ira and Randy) each independently started rescuing food at events or dinner services they attended and only took what they could carry. They later started picking up on a regular basis after talking to management. There’s nothing more deflating than starting out too big, then struggling to keep up with the volume, only to throw it away later because you don’t have a place to take it or enough people to move the food safely.
  • Find recipients first — Ira and Randy had already been volunteering at community centers and soup kitchens, so they already knew people who’d be willing to accept the food. Don’t just show up unannounced at a food pantry or shelter assuming they’ll take the food. Find out what kind of food they’ll take, what kind of storage space they have, times, days, contact info, etc.
  • Stay local — Chain establishments are tough to handle because there’s a certain amount of bureaucracy and they often have a huge volume of surplus food that’s difficult for a startup to manage. They’re also more resistant to changing procedure to accommodate food rescue. Mom and pop shops tend to be more flexible and often have a much more manageable volume of food.
  • Stick to a routine — Start by finding places that are near your routine: regular shopping centers you already visit, your commute to work, etc. If you or your volunteers have to travel across town to get a food run done, it’s more likely you’ll burn out sooner or find excuses not to do it on a regular basis.
  • Spread the word — At first Randy and Ira relied on their personal network of friends and family to get the food runs done. I did the same thing when I came on board, but I soon realized I needed more people. I chose to use Facebook because it’s easy to use and it’s got a built-in network of thousands of nearby people who I could tap for help. As we grew, we added a website and were later invited to have an info booth at a local farmers market. As word spread, local news outlets started to provide coverage.
  • Be available, but be wary of over promoting — If you don’t have the bandwidth or volunteer staff to handle questions from your donors, volunteers, and recipients while fielding requests for interviews or public appearances, things can turn sideways quick. If you grow too fast, your efforts can collapse. Above all else, you must save the food and maintain good relations with current partners. It’s OK to say no or revisit in 6 months.
  • Keep track — At first we used CareCalendar to keep track of the schedule, but moved to GivePulse because it’s much more robust and provides a way to manage volunteer events, volunteer profiles, etc. As we grew, we realized the value of keeping detailed account of how much and what kind of food we were keeping out of the landfill. It was a real pain trying to implement a tracking system after we already had a dozen donors, 20 drop-off sites, and 100 registered volunteers.
  • You can’t save all the food — We can only do so much and a lot of factors are out of our control: employees sometimes forget to set the food aside for donation, volunteer vehicles break down, pantries sometimes get a big, unexpected donation just before you arrive with your rescued food. Sometimes you just have to accept that you did your best.
  • Find some balance — Breaking your back every day will wear you and your loved ones thin. Any start-up nonprofit can quickly consume your life. Schedule down time. Disconnect. Learn to say no. Give yourself credit for the awesome work you’re doing.

At some point, Keep Austin Fed would love to develop a “how-to” kit and be able to support start up food rescues in other towns, but we’re not there yet. Best wishes for all you do and thanks so much for considering to start a food rescue in your town!

Joseph M. de Leon
operations director
Keep Austin Fed

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