How One College Student is Optimizing How Food Pantries Get Donations
Three years in, MEANS has reached people in 49 U.S. states and territories, and boasts some 3,000 users and partner organizations. And it’s recovered 1.6 million pounds of food.
Fourteen-year-old Maria Rose Belding skirted past the block-deep line of hungry people, and launched another box filled to the brim with expired macaroni-and-cheese into the dumpster. It wasn’t the first time she’d tossed food into the trash at this particular food pantry—Belding had begun volunteering at the Pella, Indiana location when she was just 5-years-old—but this time was different: this time, she was really, really, really angry.
“I remember really thinking: how have we not done better than this?” Belding tells Food & Wine. “And it was really frustrating because it was very clear there wasn’t someone to be mad at—it didn’t appear that someone had screwed up and that’s why we were in this situation. The donor who gave us all of that macaroni-and-cheese had done so out of the very best of intentions. The food pantry director had worked incredibly hard trying to move it and place it within other communities and organizations. The volunteers had done everything they could do. I was so angry, but there wasn’t an easy person to get mad at.”
The tech-savvy teen figured there had to be some sort of online communication system on which food pantries could communicate with one another about their stock—a system that her local pantry simply had to sign up for. She searched and searched—and found nothing.
“I thought it was real because I would watch [the pantry director]—who is a saint of the woman—make so many phone calls to landlines, and she would get calls back weeks later to try to move this macaroni-and-cheese,” recalls Belding. “It was so incredibly inefficient, and I remember standing there going, but we have the Internet. But we have the Internet.”
Five years later, with the help of a fellow college student Grant Nelson, Belding launched MEANS, a nonprofit communications platform for emergency food providers and donors.
“When a grocery store or a restaurant or a caterer or anyone who makes or sells food for a living has excess food they would like to donate,” Belding says, “we allow them to send automated text messages to every soup kitchen, homeless shelter, food pantry, after-school program, house of worship, or charity feeding the hungry in their community—and it’s free. They can make connections quickly without having to go out of their way or dip into their budgets.” Donors and nonprofits are vetted through an automated system—or by hand, in special cases—“but the barrier to entry is intentionally quite low,” Belding says.
After three years, MEANS has reached people in 49 U.S. states and territories, and boasts some 3,000 users and partner organizations. And it’s recovered 1.6 million pounds of food.
Most often, donations run smoothly. A donor sends a message to his or her network with the food he or she would like to move, and arranges to deliver (or ready for pickup) any nonprofit that needs the items in question. Sometimes, MEANS staff—which has grown to about a dozen members, including interns and volunteers—has to step in to move the food.
“We had a really interesting donation out of California,” Belding recalls. “It was 42,000 pounds of milk. And we had 36 hours to find a new home for it. It worked—we did it!”
That’s hardly the only unusual donation that MEANS has received. “We get everything from fresh vegetables to 5,000 pounds of pizza sauce in individual one-ounce packets,” Belding says. “There are so many stories where you just go: what? How did this happen? But we are so grateful that it ends up with us [MEANS] and more importantly, the people who need it.”
Belding, now 22, runs the organization full-time—while attending American University to one day become a doctor. Her staff is also impressively young: “We are 16 to 25 [years old], we’re from a host of different backgrounds and gender identities and races and religions and socio-economic backgrounds,” says Belding. “But one of the things that we all have in common is the same kind of sense of … a collective dumbfounding that hunger is still such a prevalent problem and how we have so much food waste, when this is so, so solvable.”