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)

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.