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Last Mile Food Rescue reduces food insecurity in Greater Cincinnati, one trunk load at a time

'It's almost like an Uber for food pickup'
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 18:38:23-05

CINCINNATI — Every Wednesday, Anthony Kahny does his part to fight food insecurity in Greater Cincinnati.

He backs up his company truck to a loading dock at Castellini Company in Wilder and loads it with cases of excess fruits and vegetables, then drives it all to a Talbert House location in Corryville.

There, he helps unload the food before heading back to work at TriVersity Craft Force.

“In general, it takes us about an hour each time, so it fits pretty well within a lunch break,” said Kahny, an operations manager at the Norwood construction firm. “It feels amazing to be able to help.”

Kahny is one of a growing number of volunteers for Last Mile Food Rescue, a new Tri-State nonprofit that’s working to fight hunger by transporting fresh food from donor companies and restaurants to the people and organizations that need it most.

“It’s almost like an Uber for food pickup,” said Kurt Reiber, CEO of Freestore Foodbank and a member of Last Mile Food Rescue’s board of directors. “When you think that 40% of all the food that’s produced in the United States is thrown in landfills, so the concept of the Last Mile Food Rescue was simply to find the food that was going into the landfill and trying to save it and get it to the families that could utilize it.”

For the people and organizations that get the donated food, it means even more, said Brandon Whitaker, the food service manager for Talbert House.

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Brandon Whitaker is food service manager for Talbert House.

“The things that they’re delivering help us deliver a slice of humanity back to our clients,” Whitaker said. “Ordinarily on a budget like ours, we can’t give people cheesecake. But if we get a delivery of cheesecake through Last Mile from Frisch’s, then they’re getting a slice of humanity with their meal. A nice dessert, a treat. Something to show them that they’re people, that we care.”

Plus Last Mile Food Rescue donations to Talbert House have reduced food costs by about $4,000 a month, Whitaker said, and that’s money that the agency can reinvest into services to help people experiencing homelessness or struggling with addiction or mental health crises.

“These volunteers,” Whitaker said, “whether they know it or not, are helping our clients through a lifelong journey.”

The people behind Last Mile Food Rescue hope to help many more.

Neighbors helping neighbors, one rescue at a time

Co-founders Tom Fernandez and Julie Shifman launched the nonprofit in November after more than a year of planning.

Fernandez got inspired after reading about a “food rescue hero” app in Pittsburgh that was directing volunteers to places where they could pick up excess, fresh food and deliver it to people and organizations who needed it. When the app developer agreed to license it for use in Cincinnati, Fernandez began working to create the framework for Last Mile Food Rescue.

About the same time, Shifman was talking with her sister who lives in Atlanta.

“She told me that she was out doing a food rescue, and I said, 'What is a food rescue?'” Shifman said. “She described to me how her app on her phone told her where to go and where to pick up food and where she was dropping it off, and I just thought that was incredible.”

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The Castellini Group of Companies has excess fresh produce to donate every week.

Shifman contacted Reiber at Freestore Foodbank to discuss the idea with him. Reiber told her that Fernandez was working on the same concept, and Shifman and Fernandez quickly joined forces.

The original idea was to rescue excess food from corporate cafeterias, hotel ballrooms after weddings, the Duke Energy Convention Center after big meetings and Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium after games.

But like so many plans, those fell apart last year.

“All that completely shut down from COVID,” said Shifman, who is now Last Mile Food Rescue’s executive director. “Finding out where the food was today – after COVID – was about a four-month process. And there is still huge amounts of food being thrown away, just not the original places that we thought.”

The organization’s first food rescues took place in November.

In its first 12 weeks, Last Mile Food Rescue saved more than 180,000 pounds of food, she said, and the number of people who want to volunteer grows each day.

“I get choked up, just thinking about, this is a neighbor of mine in need that I’m helping,” said Fernandez, who’s now chairman of the Last Mile Food Rescue board of directors. “In the pandemic, it’s been one of my most uplifting activities, is just getting out there and saying, my neighbor is going to get this food because of something I am able to do.”

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Anthony Kahny picked up 31 cases of food on Feb. 17, 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis have made the need greater than ever.

Reiber said 75% of the families that have shown up for the Freestore Foodbank’s large-scale food distributions during the pandemic have never been to a food pantry before.

“Last year the Freestore Foodbank distributed just under 38 million meals,” Reiber said. “But that was only about two thirds of the overall need.”

The food is out there to provide those additional 12 million meals, he said. It’s simply a matter of finding it and getting it to those who need it.

‘We can’t expand fast enough’

Freestore Foodbank has trucks that collect large quantities of excess food from local grocery stores and other sources, Reiber said, but they don't have the ability to pick up the smaller donations that Last Mile Food Rescue volunteers can.

“It’s a trunk load of food as opposed to a truckload of food,” he said. “And that’s where the Last Mile Food Rescue allows us to be more nimble.”

Volunteers, who complete a food safety tutorial and follow COVID-19 protocols, have been picking up loads of food from local UDF stores and restaurants in addition to the crates of fresh produce that the Castellini Group of Companies donates each week.

“We’re really not set up predominantly for individuals to come with personal vehicles and pick up produce. Typically it’s truckloads that come and pick up product from us,” said Thomas Federl, Castellini’s head of communications. “But we tried that, and it worked very well.”

In just three months, Federl said Castellini donated a total of 50,000 pounds of food.

“We deal in perishables,” he said. “We have product that is still very good quality. But over the next two or three days would not be anymore. We’re more than happy to give it to somebody.”

Donating the food also reduces waste, and Shifman noted that the environmental benefits that come from that are an important part of Last Mile Food Rescue’s mission, too.

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Anthony Kahny, right, hands boxes of fresh produce to Brandon Whitaker on Feb. 17, 2021.

“We can’t expand fast enough,” Fernandez said. “You have to balance that supply availability with the demand and your volunteer network capability, They’ve got to grow together.”

Last Mile Food Rescue had hoped to rescue 350,000 pounds of food in its first year, Shifman said. But after hitting 180,000 pounds in just 12 weeks, the organization decided to increase its goal to 1.5 million pounds.

After the COVID-19 pandemic is over, the organization will work to rescue more than 2 million pounds of food per year, she said.

It takes 1.2 pounds of food to equal one meal, she said. “When you get into the millions, you’re feeding a lot of people.”

And that, Fernandez said, is the goal.

“Something special really is happening in the Cincinnati region,” he said. “Together, we will make a big dent – if not end – hunger, right here in our region.”

Last Mile Food Rescue’s homepage has information about the organization, including how to download the app and volunteer, how to donate food and how to receive donations.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.