412 Food Rescue volunteers load a ZipCar with donations. Image courtesy of 412 Food Rescue.

Was it one thousand pounds of chicken? A few hundred cartons of eggs, maybe, and a thousand tomatoes, too? 412 Food Rescue doesn’t keep track of the particular foods they’ve kept from being wasted. But we know that since its beginnings in Braddock in 2015, 412 Food Rescue has saved 3 million pounds of excess foods and distributed it to its partner organizations around the region.

That adds up to an estimated 2 million weeknight dinners and healthy lunches and hearty breakfasts for Pittsburgh families.

A stunning amount, and yet the statistic is doubly shocking because it represents only a small pile of the total food wasted across the Pittsburgh region over the past three years. Imagine how many nights a few hundred pounds or gallons or crates of fresh food go straight from a restaurant’s kitchen to a garbage heap, bypassing the tens of thousands of hungry people who might put them to good use?

“There’s so much food, and we are only redirecting a fraction of it,” says Leah Lizarondo, co-founder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue. “The challenge is really understanding how best to distribute it.” 

As the group continues grappling with that challenge, it’s been growing: 412 Food Rescue now works with more than 600 charity groups spread across seven counties, including Westmoreland, Butler, Fayette, and of course Allegheny. And their most well-known endeavor — a simple but brilliant Uber-like app that connects charities and businesses with leftover food to volunteers willing to make deliveries — may soon become available in communities far from Pittsburgh.

While the team is always fine-tuning the app, they feel confident enough in their digital infrastructure that starting this year, they plan to make the underlying code open-source. That way, other community groups across the U.S. can use it to combat food waste their areas.

At the moment, Lizarondo declines to say which cities they have been in contact with. But she tells us that an official announcement will come at the end of this year.

The group also organizes a variety of workshops and events around the city, and works with local housing authorities to support existing food programs.

Lizarondo says one of her biggest surprises over the last several years is how closely food security is tied to the simple logistics of commuting and urban planning. That’s especially true, she says, in chronically underserved communities. Can residents get to jobs that will help pay for food? Can residents get to a place where they can buy affordable, healthy groceries? 

“Limitations in mobility and transportation access — all of that can limit a household’s food support,” Lizarondo says. 

While the green trucks driving around town may be the most iconic part of the project, Lizarondo says the real impact on their partners comes through simple but powerful information and technology. Of their team of 12 full-time staff members, half are dedicated to technology and operations. Along with designing their widely popular app to help volunteers get involved, the 412 team has also conducted in-depth research into the relative food security of various Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

It’s given them a wealth of data to apply to their work with local schools and housing authorities, and has played a role in their earning some high-profile grants and awards. In late August, they were included on the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s list of Top 50 tech innovators in the region.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.