MEANS against the clock

Maria Rose Belding (bottom center) poses with the rest of the MEANS Database team at the Lincoln Memorial after receiving The President’s Volunteer Service Award. Photo Courtesy of Matt Waskiewiczs.

Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly, year-long series called the Nourishing Effect. It explores how hunger affects health through the lens of the 2016 Hunger Report. The report is an annual publication of Bread for the World Institute.

By Maria Rose Belding

Just-in-time donations have long been the lifeblood of emergency food providers. In a typical scenario, a local grocer might give 400 jars of peanut butter to a food pantry. But those jars expire in just two weeks, and some will end up in a landfill. This is especially frustrating when you consider how there is likely another pantry nearby that needs peanut butter and is going without or paying for it at cost.

In tens of thousands of food pantries, soup kitchens and food banks across the United States, volunteers and staff are in a battle against the clock to distribute donations before they expire. For decades, the clock has been winning. American emergency feeding systems threw out an estimated $650 million in product in 2012—and that number may be rising. As emergency food providers commit to serving healthier options, moving those goods is becoming a steeper challenge. Fresh fruit expires far faster than foods heavy with preservatives.

Our team at MEANS is representative of a growing population of young leaders challenging the status quo of how the emergency food system operates. MEANS is an acronym: Matching Excess And Need for Stability. We’re an online database system that allows food pantries to communicate with each other and with the donors who want to supply them. The same account allows users to alert their neighbors to their extra food and to receive targeted alerts that the food they’re looking for is available—all at no cost.

MEANS represents a unique opportunity to move more highly perishable goods to kitchen tables instead of landfills. Donors and recipients work together to arrange how to move the food. Retailers, businesses and other groups with leftovers now have an option far better than a dumpster. They can type what they have into a computer and someone will come pick it up. The food goes to the first agency that claims it by clicking a button in the alert.

MEANS is proud to be working with emergency food providers representing 1,500 partner agencies in 12 states and dozens of cities, such as the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. We know emergency food providers work incredibly hard and are up against overwhelming need. They are the last resort for millions of hungry Americans.

This article originally appeared in Chapter 2, pg. 100 of the 2016 Hunger Report: The Nourishing EffectRead the full report and find references for the information shared above.

Maria Rose Belding is the founder and executive director of the MEANS Database.

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