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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
AT HEART OF FEDERAL RACKETEERING LAWSUIT
A.T.F. Agents Filled Secret Coffers
51 minutes ago
THE DETAILS

Agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives " used a web of shadowy cigarette sales to funnel tens of millions of dollars into a secret bank account," according to a federal racketeering lawsuit filed by a group of tobacco farmers who claim they were "swindled out of $24 million." The agents allegedly used shipments of snack food disguised as tobacco. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating the matter, though as of now it is unclear how widespread the practice was or if it is still ongoing.

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Many Signatures Has the Petition for Trump’s Tax Returns Received?
1 hours ago
THE ANSWER

More than 1 million, setting a record. More than 100,000 signatures triggers an official White House response.

Source:
TIED TO RUSSIA INVESTIGATION
Sen. Collins Open to Subpoena of Trump’s Tax Returns
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

Sen. Susan Collins, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, "said on Wednesday she's open to using a subpoena to investigate President Donald Trump's tax returns for potential connections to Russia." She said the committee is also open to subpoenaing Trump himself. "This is a counter-intelligence operation in many ways," she said of Russia's interference. "That's what our committee specializes in. We are used to probing in depth in this area."

Source:
NPR ALSO LAUNCHES ETHICS WATCH
Obama Staffers Launch Group to Monitor Trump Ethics
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"Top lawyers who helped the Obama White House craft and hold to rules of conduct believe President Donald Trump and his staff will break ethics norms meant to guard against politicization of the government — and they’ve formed a new group to prepare, and fight. United to Protect Democracy, which draws its name from a line in President Barack Obama’s farewell address that urged his supporters to pick up where he was leaving off, has already raised a $1.5 million operating budget, hired five staffers and has plans to double that in the coming months." Meanwhile, NPR has launched a "Trump Ethics Monitor" to track the resolution of ten ethics-related promises that the president has made.

Source:
DOESN’T WISH TO JOIN TRUMP
Christie Turned Down Labor Secretary
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Over a meatloaf lunch at the White House last week, Donald Trump offered the job of Labor secretary to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a longtime loyalist. Christie promptly turned down the offer, once again signaling that he has no desire to move to Washington, D.C. to join the Trump administration. The job ended up going to Alexander Acosta, who is expected to sail through the Senate confirmation process.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login