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 »
AND POLICE OFFICERS IN EVERY SCHOOL
Gov. Scott Wants to Raise Gun-Purchase Age to 21
1 hours ago
THE LATEST
SAYS WE NEED “OFFENSIVE CAPABILITIES” AT SCHOOLS
Trump Wants Concealed Carry at Schools
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

At the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump announced his support for allowing teachers to carry concealed firearms at schools. "Why do we protect our airports, our banks, our government buildings, but not our schools?" Trump asked the audience. "It's time to make our schools a much harder target ...When we declare our schools to be gun free zones, it just puts our students in far more danger." Trump said that roughly "10 or 20 percent" of teachers were very adept with guns, and that "a teacher would have shot the hell out of him [the shooter] before he knew what happened. They love their students, folks, remember that."

Source:
IN THE WAKE OF NEW CHARGES
Gates Expected to Plead Guilty, Cooperate with Mueller
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

Former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates is expected to plead guilty to a raft of new tax and fraud charges filed against him by special counsel Robert Mueller on Thursday. Gates is expected to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.

Source:
IMPLICATES DOZENS OF TOP SCHOOLS
Sweeping Federal Probe Reveals Underground NCAA Economy
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Documents from a federal corruption investigation into the "underbelly of college basketball" detail an extensive recruiting operation implicating at least 20 Division I basketball programs, including Duke, North Carolina, Texas, Kentucky, Michigan State, USC, and Alabama. "The documents ... link some of the sport’s biggest current stars to specific potential extra benefits for either the athletes or their family members. The amounts tied to players in the case range from basic meals to tens of thousands of dollars." NCAA president Mark Emmert said the allegations, if true, "point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now if we want college sports in America."

Source:
TENSIONS RISE AS OLYMPICS NEAR END
Trump To Announce New Sanctions Against North Korea
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump is expected to announce a new round of sanctions against North Korea during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, later this morning. The Treasury Department "will get into the details later in the day," although a senior administration official called the new penalties "'the largest package of new sanctions against the North Korea regime.'" Pence blasted North Korea in his speech to CPAC, calling Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Jo Yong, who reportedly pulled out of a meeting with him at the Olympics, “a central pillar of the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet.”

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