hether it’s getting to know people over the course of a weekly class or simply sharing a wave during a one-time delivery, creating human connection is Kim Ressler’s favorite part of volunteering with 412 Food Rescue.
“Even if that person that I drop a box of food off to just knows somebody is out there caring … to me, that is worth the time,” she said.
Ressler, Kewanna Avenue, is among several Mt. Lebanon residents who are committed to the 412 Food Rescue mission of keeping usable food out of landfills. There’s a reason staff at the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit refer to volunteers as heroes. Over the past six years, the organization has distributed roughly 18 million pounds of food throughout the region—volunteers moved close to 8 million of them.
“They are the lifeblood of our organization,” said Sara Swaney, vice president of advancement and engagement. “They really do contribute so much, and it is just amazing to see it happen each and every day.”
The organization, which was co-founded by Leah Lizarondo and Pennsylvania Second Lady Gisele Fetterman, connects businesses of all sizes that have surplus food and people who can use it. Businesses alert 412 Food Rescue, which then notifies members of its volunteer pool who pick it up and deliver it to its destination.
The nonprofit developed a user-friendly app, called Food Rescue Hero, to let volunteers know what’s available and where it’s going along with step-by-step instructions (the app is so intuitive, more than a dozen other cities across the country are using the exact software 412 Food Rescue created). Volunteers download the app and can immediately begin, either signing up for regular weekly deliveries (with substitutions available) or seeing what one-time rescues are up for grabs. Some involve multiple boxes; some are smaller. Most take about an hour to complete.
Every rescue, no matter its size, makes a difference, Swaney said.
“While someone may think, ‘This is just two boxes of produce from a local Giant Eagle,’ in the grand scheme of things, it ends up being over 4 million pounds in a given year,” she said. “These small acts of kindness all add up into really amazing work.”
The organization doesn’t just do rescues. It offers a CSA program, an urban gleaning program and a community takeout program in partnership with independently owned restaurants, among others.
Ressler started with regular rescues then became an instructor for 412 Food Rescue’s series of classes aimed at cooking healthy on a budget. Ressler, who works for Williams-Sonoma, taught in several locations, including the Dorchester of Mt. Lebanon. Two of the classes were made up primarily of members of the immigrant and refugee communities. Each class helped Ressler expand her perspective of the issues impacting the people she taught.
“In those classes, you really got a sense of what these families are facing,” she said.
Ressler’s story is just one in a book the nonprofit published highlighting the work of its volunteers—Love is #FREE: 100 Food Rescue Hero Stories to Inspire, which came out over the summer.
“It’s really a celebration of our volunteers and of their work,” said Swaney. “There are just so many different people that take part in this each and every day—the stay-at-home moms, dads taking their kids on the weekends, retirees, young adults. It’s really a nice variety of people.”
Ressler said she has “consistently found 412 Food Rescue to be very conscious of its reliance on volunteers to ‘get the job done.’”
“I think that is what makes the organization so special—the network of volunteers truly is the vital link in food distribution,” she said. “It is humbling to be a part of such an expansive network.”
Sara Dougherty, Academy Avenue, who is featured in the book as well, also has gotten to know many people during her nearly five years of involvement with the organization. She said having her story told alongside those of other volunteers in the book is an honor.
“Hundreds of volunteers make the mission of 412 work, and I absolutely believe in the mission,” she said. “What could be better than preventing food waste and fighting food insecurity?”
Dougherty has picked up from grocery stores, restaurants, schools and the convention center, and delivered to everywhere from food pantries to individual homes (home delivery started during the pandemic). She appreciates the personal connection she’s been able to make with the people she meets through her rescues. She also appreciates how efficient the organization makes the process.
“I love the organization. I love what they do,” she said. “They’re great people to work with. They make doing something very important, very easy.”
So easy, in fact, they even take into consideration what kinds of vehicles volunteers drive and what they can fit in the cars. Depending on the delivery size, Dougherty either uses her minivan or her husband’s Prius, though she usually opts for the latter.
“You’d be amazed at what you can get into a little Prius,” she said with a laugh.
Holly and Bruce Rudoy of Mayfair Drive agree. They have been volunteering since before the app was developed. While Holly used to do a regular weekly rescue, today the couple mostly sticks to one-time runs.
“If I’m thinking about my day the next day, I check the app before I go to bed and I see what is around—it’s just easy,” she said.
The variety of rescues also adds to the fun, the Rudoys say. Holly once rescued a hefty order of lobster, salmon and steak from the Capital Grille and delivered it to the Salvation Army where it was used for soups, stews and numerous other meals. Bruce did a pandemic-era pickup of boxed lunches left over from a game at PPG Paints Arena.
“That was the biggest one I’ve ever done,” he said. “I filled the car from front to back. There was a crew of guys loading my car with me, and everybody was having a good time with it.”
Some rescues are extremely close to home. Bruce has rescued food from Mediterra Cafe, just a few blocks away on Beverly Road.
Adrea Sustarsic, marketing and office manager for Mediterra, with café locations in Mt. Lebanon and Sewickley and a wholesale bakehouse in Robinson, said 412 Food Rescue has been a perfect fit for the business for the last two years. Staff store surplus food in freezers, and volunteers come three times a week to collect it.
“We basically give them as many boxes as they can fit in their vehicle,” said Sustarsic.
In 2019, those rescues amounted to nearly 13,000 pounds of food, or 11,000 meals—the vast majority of which, Sustarsic said, would likely have been thrown away otherwise.
“All you have to do is make a call or submit a form online and somebody just shows up and takes it off your hands,” she said. “There’s really no reason not to.”