Hungry to Help
“We would be told that if we throw out food, that all the food we ever wasted would have to be eaten after we die, as a form of punishment.”
Robert Lee knows hunger. Not just imagines, or has read a bunch about it — but actually knows what it’s like to live off barely a meal a day. Lee’s parents moved to America from South Korea, just before he was born. They couldn’t speak a word of English, and struggled to make a living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
“I didn’t know that hunger was not normal, until I grew up,” Lee says. In Korea, food waste is deemed almost sinful — both practically and culturally. “It was something that we never tolerated at home,” Lee says. “We would be told that if we throw out food, that all the food we ever wasted would have to be eaten after we die, as a form of punishment.”
Childhood memories of foraging through waste, starving, inspired Lee to do something about it: In 2013, along with co-founder Lousia Chen, he left his corporate gig at J.P. Morgan and started the NYC-based non-profit Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.
The volunteer supported model works to connect food business, hotels, movie shoots — anyone with leftover food — and deliver it to homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens at the end of the day. Lee believes even the smallest amount of donated food can make a big difference.
Simultaneously feeding hungry mouths and tackling food waste seems like a no brainer, but actually making it happen is not as easy as it sounds. “When we first started off, we obviously had a lot of difficulty bringing on new partners and new food donors to work with, because we were so new and there was no track record, they didn’t know who we were,” Lee says.
“We noticed after about a year of operations that we’re supplying a lot of carbs to homeless shelters and soup kitchens that we worked with…But it isn’t the best, or the most healthy, and obviously it’s not the highest quality food that we could be getting.”
He also noticed most of the donations were coming in the form of leftover bread. “We noticed after about a year of operations that we’re supplying a lot of carbs to homeless shelters and soup kitchens that we worked with, which is great, because they can replace what they’re buying with what they’re getting in donations,” Lee says. “But it isn’t the best, or the most healthy, and obviously it’s not the highest quality food that we could be getting.”
Lee has now started working with a wider variety of food providers — Dig Inn included — to offer nutritious, locally-sourced food to those most in need of a real, good meal. “We had a comment the other day about the avocados Dig Inn was contributing— that is an item typically never donated, and people are so grateful.”
Key to Rescuing Leftover Cuisine’s ability to scale, Lee says, is an innovative web app. “This technology really allows us to automate all the logistics and communication with our volunteers.”
As for what’s next for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine? Lee hopes to start working with companies to nip waste in the bud. And if it puts him out of business, he’s quite alright with that.
Dig Inn is proud to have donated over 2000 pounds, or nearly 1600 meals, to Rescuing Leftover Cuisine since May, 2016. Two of our restaurants — 275 Madison and 350 Hudson — are currently participating in the program, with goals to involve all 11 by 2017.