Fighting Hunger the Millennial Way

From opposite ends of the political spectrum, 2 college kids tackle a problem beyond the grasp of government and other institutions.

Maria Rose Belding and Grant Nelson are cofounders of MEANS, Matching Excess and Need for Sustainability, a nonprofit that connects food banks to supply surplus food where it's needed.
Chet Susslin
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Dec. 22, 2015, 8:20 p.m.

Taunted and shoved in­to lock­ers, Maria Rose Beld­ing found refuge from middle-school bul­lies at her church’s food pantry. A place that provided gro­cer­ies and hope to the poor of Pella, Iowa, offered Maria Rose “a place of calm and quiet and safe,” she says, “and I felt good about my­self.”

That is, un­til one cold, rainy day four years ago when dozens of boxes of ma­car­oni and cheese ex­pired on the pantry’s shelves. Maria Rose lugged the food past a line of hungry fam­il­ies and threw the boxes in­to a dump­ster – one at a time, with tears stream­ing down her cheeks.

“Why are we do­ing it this way?” the teen-ager asked her­self. “This is not a hu­man fail­ure. This is a sys­tem fail­ure. What about the in­ter­net? Cer­tainly, some­body has fixed this prob­lem?”

This is the prob­lem: While nearly 50 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans don’t have enough to eat, the coun­try wastes 40 per­cent of its food – and not for a lack­ing of caring.

The typ­ic­al U.S. food bank is over­stocked on a few food­stuffs but its over­all ca­pa­city can’t meet the com­munity’s needs. The na­tion’s largest donors – res­taur­ants and gro­cery stores – of­ten can’t get a par­tic­u­lar ship­ment of sur­plus product to a food bank that need it, or fast enough to avoid spoil­age.

Maria Rose is now a 20-year-old sopho­more at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity in Wash­ing­ton, where she is fight­ing the dec­ades-old war on hun­ger in a way unique to the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion. She and her busi­ness part­ner, George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity law stu­dent Grant Nel­son, are so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs us­ing tech­no­logy and a pur­pose-driv­en spir­it to tackle anew what gov­ern­ment and oth­er 20th cen­tury in­sti­tu­tions can’t – or won’t – fix.

They cre­ated an elec­tron­ic plat­form that con­nects food pan­tries with people and in­sti­tu­tions with sur­plus food. MEANS, which stands for Match­ing Ex­cess and Need for Sta­bil­ity, works this way:

  • The hold­er of sur­plus food re­ports the type and amount of food it wants to give away. An email no­ti­fies them when a food pantry says it can claim and dis­trib­ute the food.
  • Food pan­tries use the site to log their needs and claim the food.

In Loudoun County, Va., or­gan­izers of a com­munity fair pur­chased 10,000 boxed-lunches for a Septem­ber event that, due to heavy rain, drew far few­er people than ex­pec­ted. Nor­mally, the 3,600 leftover lunches would have been thrown out, but the or­gan­izers re­por­ted their sur­plus on the MEANS web­site. A food pantry claimed the boxes with­in four hours.

“We’re us­ing tech­no­logy that should have been avail­able to food banks be­fore I was born,” Maria Rose said. “Al­most as a rule, these are really good people work­ing in food pan­tries, and de­cent people who want to donate their food. It’s a shame to see their hard work and all that food go to waste.”

I met Maria Rose and Grant at a bakery on Pennsylvania Av­en­ue, eager to learn what I could about their young com­pany and how it might point to tech­no­logy-based solu­tions to prob­lems bey­ond hun­ger. When Grant stepped away to buy a cup of cof­fee, Maria Rose giggled, “OK, he’s gone. I can brag on him.”

She told me that while it was her idea to build a plat­form con­nect­ing food pan­tries with food sur­pluses, she had no idea how to do it. She met Grant by chance dur­ing her fresh­man year and con­vinced the pro­gram­mer/en­tre­pren­eur to help her. He ex­per­i­mented with sev­er­al ap­proaches be­fore de­cid­ing on the email-based sys­tem.

It’s quite a part­ner­ship. Maria Rose is the face and heat of the pro­ject, named one of 10 “wo­men of worth” by L’Oreal Par­is and fea­tured in a Wash­ing­ton Post story. Grant is the busi­ness mind of MEANS, already identi­fy­ing three po­ten­tial rev­en­ue streams, in­clud­ing selling to food dis­trib­ut­ors their ag­greg­ated dona­tion data, which en­ables them to claim char­it­able tax de­duc­tions.

It was Grant who re­cog­nized months ago that MEANS needed to re­cruit more food pan­tries, be­cause po­ten­tial donors were walk­ing away from the pro­gram when they couldn’t con­sist­ently un­load food. “That is not a prob­lem we ex­pec­ted to have,” he said.

Maria Rose is a lib­er­al who has no pa­tience for people or in­sti­tu­tions that stand in the way of feed­ing the hungry. “It shouldn’t take a 15-year-old get­ting shoved in her lock­er and re­treat­ing to pan­tries to make this hap­pen,” she said.

Grant is a con­ser­vat­ive who doesn’t think gov­ern­ment is al­ways the an­swer. “Any­thing we can do in the non-profit world to quickly and ef­fi­ciently help people – and that we can prove works na­tion­ally – gets me ex­cited,” he said.

From op­pos­ite ends of the polit­ic­al spec­trum, Maria Rose and Grant are help­ing people. They’re not de­mon­iz­ing, pun­ish­ing or ig­nor­ing the poor. They’re not rais­ing taxes or cre­at­ing a new gov­ern­ment pro­gram. They’re not even ar­guing over the size of gov­ern­ment.

That’s be­cause they’re not Baby Boomers. They’re part of a gen­er­a­tion shaped by eco­nom­ic tu­mult, tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vances, and war: More than past gen­er­a­tions, mil­len­ni­als seek pur­pose in life and they want to wit­ness vast change, or dis­rup­tion, to the na­tion’s in­sti­tu­tions. Tech­no­logy gives them the power to make both hap­pen.

“I think what makes our gen­er­a­tion dif­fer­ent is we have dif­fer­ent ex­pect­a­tions” than past gen­er­a­tions, Maria Rose said. “Yes, we want in­stant grat­i­fic­a­tion but in­stant grat­i­fic­a­tion can be good when you’re talk­ing things like hun­ger. We won’t wait to fix something just be­cause it hasn’t been fixed be­fore.”

Could their pro­ject go na­tion­al and tackle hun­ger on a large scale? “Sure,” Grant said. Could it re­place or sup­ple­ment a 20th cen­tury gov­ern­ment pro­gram? “Why not?” replied Maria Rose.

Fi­nally, I asked: Could this be how the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is re­formed over time – one so­cial “app” at a time? Maria Rose replied, “We could do worse.”

We already are.

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