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.