“Growing up, I thought it was normal that food was scarce. I thought everyone was going through the same thing we were,” says Robert Lee. As a child, he often watched his immigrant parents skip meals while making sure that nothing on their kitchen table went to waste. That early life lesson left a deep impression on Lee. So much so that at the age of 23, he’d leave his job in finance to launch Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), an organization that’s rescued over 4 million pounds of food and provided 1.7 million donated meals nationwide.
So how do you fix a food waste system in a country where 40 percent of all uneaten food is trashed each year? With one food pick-up at a time. Lee, along with co-founders Louisa Chen (CAS ’13) and Paul Sun (STERN ’11), created RLC as the crucial bridge between the businesses looking to donate "excess wholesome cuisine” and the hungry individuals who need that food the most. RLC’s approach, which combines the power of technology with crowdsourced transportation solutions, is as innovative as it is efficient, aiming to “tackle food waste at its root.”
However, the heart and soul of RLC lies in its 10,000+ volunteer network. Community members sign up through the non-profit’s web application to transport food donations by foot, on bikes, or via their own vehicles. “Our philosophy is that every little bit counts,” says Lee. On average, RLC engages hundreds of volunteers a day and 400 active volunteers a month who collect and drop off anywhere between 50- to 500-pound batches of leftover fare to local homeless shelters. And since its humble start as a two-person operation, RLC has expanded to 16 U.S. cities and partnered with over 150 establishments—from restaurants to cafeterias to catering companies—across the country.
After the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of food RLC transported ballooned tenfold as food establishments closed and looked to donate unspoiled inventory that would otherwise go to waste. But Lee also sees “massive opportunities” for RLC to increase its national impact and lead the charge to make food rescue universal rather than the exception. “Our number one competitor is the garbage can,” says Lee. “If there’s a silver lining to the crisis, it’s that it’s more of a shame to throw away food now than it has ever been.”