Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#2919 minutes

The ongoing public health crisis has had a devastating impact on our economy.  It has led to increased unemployment and greater food insecurity for households across the country.  As a result, we are seeing record-breaking lines with people waiting in cars and on sidewalks to pick up groceries to feed their families.  On this episode of Broadband Conversations, listeners will get to meet a woman who is doing her part to help.  Leah Lizarondo is the CEO and Co-Founder of 412 Food Rescue, a food recovery organization that uses technology to link retailers who have excess food with volunteers who are able to distribute it to families and individuals experiencing food insecurity.

Transcript: 

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Welcome to Broadband Conversations. This is the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries. And, you get to hear what they are working on, what’s on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

My name is Jessica Rosenworcel, and I’m a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, as a major crisis is sweeping through our cities, towns, and communities, as we all navigate this new world with the novel coronavirus, there is so much devastation that we are managing.

We have loved ones falling ill, schools are closing, millions of people are filing for unemployment, because their jobs have been lost through the economic impact of this pandemic.

And, with that economic insecurity comes food insecurity, too. You’ve probably seen some of the pictures, because food banks are seeing record-breaking lines, cars waiting for hours, to pick up some groceries to feed their families.

I know that I saw some pictures a while back from the San Antonio Food Bank, and they are now feeding 120,000 people each week, which is twice as many as the food bank did before the pandemic.

And in Pittsburgh, where my guest is from, hundreds of families are showing up for weekly pick-ups at an arena that’s usually used for the Pittsburgh Penguins. But, the neat thing about my guest today is, she is doing something to help.

Leah Lizarondo is the CEO and Co-Founder of 412 Food Rescue, and that’s a food recovery organization that uses technology to link retailers who have excess food with volunteers who are able to distribute it to families and individuals experiencing food insecurity.

And, Leah was born and raised in the Philippines, and she started 412 Food Rescue five years ago, and it’s already helped redirect over 9 million meals from over 2,000 food retailers to over 900 non-governmental organizations. And, she operates nearly ten cities, in ten cities now. And, she counts over 10,000 volunteers.

So, she’s rightfully been recognized for this amazing work, and she’s received too many awards to mention, but I’m going to note a few that are my favorites.

She’s been named Pittsburgher of the Year. She’s been honored by Vital Voices, and 412 Food Rescue was recognized as Pittsburgh Tech’s Startup of the Year in 2018. And, she also in the following year received the Carnegie Science Award for Information Technology. And, she was the first social enterprise to receive both of those awards, which is very cool.

So, with all of that, I just want to thank you for everything you are doing, and thank you for joining us today, thanks for being here.

MS. LIZARONDO: Thank you for having me. This is, I’ve been, as you know, listening to this podcast as it’s launched over two years ago. And, I always recommend it to any women, any woman I know who is in technology.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, good, lovely way to start.

So, how are you doing? During this crisis, life in Pittsburgh, operating 412 Food Rescue, tell me, how is it going?

MS. LIZARONDO: It’s been, you know, I mean I think we use the word unprecedented a lot in the last two months, and that’s what it has been. It’s been unprecedented.

I don’t even know where to start. You talked about seeing the lines in San Antonio, how we are doing meet and distributions, at what used to be a sports arena.

You know it’s -- with unemployment rates at almost 20 percent, you know, the need has escalated so much, and so quickly, that really it’s all hands on deck.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, tell me a little bit how you got your start, and to where you are right now. Let’s roll back from these unprecedented days and talk about how you got to where you are right now.

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes. So, you know, in pre-COVID time, back in 2015, 412 Food Rescue was founded. It was really, the germ of idea started around 2012, when the National Resources Defense Council came out with a report called, AWasted.@

And, it was in that report where I first read that we are wasting about 40 percent of our food, half our food supply. And so, me coming from in the Philippines that was mind boggling excess.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: 40 percent.

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes, 40 percent in developing countries.

And, you know, and I know from living here, you know, for over a decade, that there are just so many Americans in need, that poverty and food insecurity is not something that’s unique to developing countries, where I’m from. It happens here. It happens here a mile from where I live. And, to see that almost half the food supply was feeding landfills, it’s almost a moral -- it’s definitely a moral problem. There has to be something done with it.

And, it took about three years until, you know, the solution, you know, presented itself. And, that’s when 412 Food Rescue was founded.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you said the solution presented itself, that’s sort of like the entrepreneurial light bulb at night.

Tell me how that came to be, in other words, how did it present itself? What occurred to you that made it happen?

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes. So, you know, after that article, I began studying. You know, I work in technology, but also, you know, really my passion is food. When I was living in New York City I went to a cooking school just for fun.

And, trying to study the problem in 2012, tried to understand why we are wasting almost half our food supply, where that food waste was coming from. You know, why, with this 50-year old food banking system, was still not capturing it.

And, it’s really, you know, it became clear that it’s a logistics problem. You know, it’s -- which is, you know, one of my favorite subjects when I was at Carnegie Mellon was, you know, operations research, it’s all about efficiency.

And, this logistics problem has been true for a long time for many industries. And, around that time, you know, shared transportation was coming to fore, all of these companies that are doing delivery were doing at that time only, you know, taxi service, without owning a single cab.

And it was all mobilized by technology. And it’s possible because of technology. And so, at that point I was like, well, why can’t we create a transportation network that is mobilized in the same way, but really tapping at this American desire to volunteer and to do something.

And, basically, that’s what it is. It’s a mobile app that coordinates thousands of drivers, we are at about 12,000 now, and it alerts them of passengers or food that’s available for them to pick up.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, if you are someone right now, and I’m wondering, you know, we are familiar with all these platforms that we use that increase efficiency and give -- have this exchange of services. So, here you are applying it to the Social Services sector and food banks. But, I’m wondering like if you were someone who wants to volunteer, what does a typical rescue look like? How does it work?

I know that you call your volunteers food rescue heroes, which is so true, especially now, but how would it look like to them? How would the rescues work?

MS. LIZARONDO: Yeah so, you would download the app, and the closest to where you are, Commissioner, it would be in Manassas, in Manassas area there’s Prince William Food Rescue, which is one of the organizations we work with, and you would download that app. And then, it will start sending you push notifications of food rescues that are available near you.

So, one day you might -- you won’t take all of them, but one day you might be driving from one meeting to the other, which is how I basically accept rescues, and I’ll say, you know, I’ll check the app. And then, I see one that’s one that’s on my way, and I’ll just say, I’ll take that. It takes me about from door to door on average about half an hour, and I have redirected perfectly good food from going to a landfill to feeding somebody in need that day.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow. So, let’s talk for a moment about how this typical rescue process is working during the current pandemic. I mean, obviously, we talked a little about there being a greater need, but are there new tools, or programs, or new volunteers? What’s it looking like during this crisis?

MS. LIZARONDO: One of the biggest surprises to us was when, you know, most cities and states, basically went on lockdown, and everyone, you know, had stay at home orders. And, you know, physical distancing is being enforced.

You know, we experienced the largest surge in volunteer downloads ever. And, the reason for that is, you know, volunteering as a food rescue hero is a solitary endeavor. There’s no congregation.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: It’s just you and the car.

MS. LIZARONDO: Just you, and the car, and the food. And, we instituted no contact protocols in our app.

So, you know, our donors know to leave the donations outside with a pair of single-use gloves, and the volunteers know to leave -- when they get to the non-profit, or now we deliver to homes, leave it outside.

So, everyone is safe in the process, and everyone is, basically, you know, helping in this way now more than ever, because when we used to only serve NGOs, now we also serve households. So, in Pittsburgh, for instance, we used to serve 600 NGOs, but there are 20,000 seniors in poverty. So the escalation of our service, again, I’m going to use the same word, has been unprecedented in these times.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, that’s a really amazing surge in volunteer-ship, too, right, people wanting to help. And, what a neat thing.

I’m wondering also, what cities you are in? You mentioned outside of Washington, D.C., where I’m at. Obviously Pittsburgh, where you started.

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I’m curious where else you are at, and do you have plans to expand to specific cities? Is that being changed by this crisis, or is it being accelerated?

MS. LIZARONDO: Right. So, we are currently in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Prince William County in northern Virginia, which is about to expand to multiple counties. We are in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and soon, hopefully, next week, in Vancouver.

And, what has changed in this crisis is that we are, actually, accelerating our technology expansion, and allowing non-profits to have easier access to it so that they can do home deliveries if they want.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Is there something specific about the cities you’ve chosen? Is there like a partner you look for, or a restaurant culture, or a donations culture, or volunteer culture, or technology? What is it that makes a city a good candidate for an expansion of this process?

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes. There is, I think -- people ask me this all the time, and I always say there’s one thing that makes me say yes to a city or a non-profit, and I really look at the leader. I look at how passionate that leader is about, you know, ending hunger and food insecurity. I look at how much this leader values volunteering and understands our own inner desire to volunteer. And, it is their job to make sure that, you know, that we have that opportunity, especially, now.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, you don’t really look at whether or not they are technologically savvy, you bring the technology. You just look for the commitment to do good, you know, and to improve food security in a community.

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes. So our technology is extremely easy, no one really taught us how to use all these video conferencing apps, we just use it, same with our technology. And, one of the things that I always tell our product managers is if we need a manual, then it’s not designed well.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that’s such a good commentary about so many user interfaces right now, but also if you want people to volunteer you want to make it easy to use. Like your instinct in that is just right.

All right. So, you’ve been this incredible social entrepreneur. You’ve been honored for your entrepreneurship. You’ve managed the technology and logistics agenda here. That’s amazing.

So if there’s someone out there listening who is dreaming up the next big idea for a business, or even a social good startup, like your own, what do you think is important for them to do? How do you get started? What advice would you have for them, given your incredible record of growth and how you just made this happen?

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes. Well, what is the biggest advice. Well, I think that, you know, one of the important pieces of advice I received, when we were starting out, was really from consistently with all of the social entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs that I spoke with, that, you know, what you see in public is 1 percent. The 99 percent that happens in the background is usually full of pain.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And sweat, and tears, right?

MS. LIZARONDO: Blood, sweat and tears. So, there would be, you know, it’s not rose colored glasses. You get in there and you expect to slowly develop a thick skin, which, you know, you might not think is needed in social entrepreneurship, or the non-profit world, or public service, because the intentions are, you know, very much, you know, you can’t -- it’s not for profit.

So, I think that that piece of advice me going in with that piece of advice, gave me the reserves that I need to keep on going.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I like it, I like your candor, too, about the 1 percent looks easy, it’s the 99 percent behind the scenes.

So, a lot of what we talk about here is all about the internet. So, when I sign off I like to ask a guest a few questions before they go. And so, now I’m asking you to go into your wayback machine, and by that I mean well before you became a hero in food rescue.

What was the first thing you did on the internet?

MS. LIZARONDO: I don’t remember the actual first thing, but I think -- but I definitely remember the first thing that made me say wow, and I remember playing backgammon, for some reason, while I was in the Philippines, with someone from Denmark, I was just blown away. I was saying if there’s someone on the other side of world who is playing this backgammon game with me, that I only play, you know, in the physical world with my friends, and that really, you know, imprinted upon me the potential of this thing we were calling the internet. And, that was -- that’s the one thing I’ll always remember, I don’t know why.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Well that’s fantastic, I mean it feels so small, and yet so grand at the same time, that you’d be playing a game with someone a world away.

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, what was the last thing, totally mundane last thing you did online before joining me here today.

MS. LIZARONDO: Aside from email. Well, last week while the 412 Food Rescue won the Fast Companies, World Changing Ideas award.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow, awesome.

MS. LIZARONDO: So, that’s just something that, you know, we feel extremely honored to receive in the apps category among all of the other -- among 3,000 candidates.

So, I was responding to an email about that from an individual in another city that wants to replicate the model.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that’s good stuff. All right, because you really built an incredible model for tech for good, and social entrepreneurship using technology. I think I’d love to hear your answer to this question.

What do you want the future of the digital world and internet life to look like?

MS. LIZARONDO: Oh, I mean, that’s again, fairly easy, and again --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I love that you say it’s fairly easy, to me that’s like almost metaphysical, but you say fairly easy. This is the get it done attitude you need I think.

MS. LIZARONDO: Well, what I want -- I can fairly easily identify, it’s definitely not easy to do.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.

MS. LIZARONDO: And, it’s really one of the reasons why I’ve followed your work for a long time. And, you know, I think -- I know we definitely need equity in access.

And, in this crisis, it has brought that inequity to, you know, the fore. My kids go to public school, and they are extremely lucky, you know, and blessed to have everything in their home, access to high-speed internet, laptops.

But, our public school system wasn’t able to online learning for almost six weeks, because not all children had access to the internet. Not all children had laptop computers.

So, this was -- and, my kids will be fine, you know, missing six weeks of school for them is not going to affect them in the long term, but for some children that is -- that’s a big difference. And, you know, there was no, aside from food insecurity there was no other pain in this crisis that, you know, I felt really that was as visceral as the inequity in internet and technology aspects.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, my gosh, so we are going to take all your energy devoted to the logistics of improving food security, and I want to now convert them to broadband access for all.

I think there’s more in common with them, and this crisis is revealing it, too. We’ve got work to do on both accounts.

But, I am thrilled that you’ve been able to chat a little bit about your good work with me, and before we go I want you to tell me where folks can follow you and keep up to date with what you are doing, the cities you are expanding to, and how you are navigating in this crisis.

MS. LIZARONDO: Yes. So, 412foodrescue.org is our website, and on all social media we’re just slash 412 Food Rescue.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Thank you so much. That wraps up an episode of Broadband Conversations. Really appreciate Leah being here, and thank you for the work you do, and thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.

MS. LIZARONDO: Thank you for having me.