The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Restaurants throw away a lot of food. These volunteers pick it up first and take it to people who are hungry.

Susan Evers checks her phone for new food pickup locations in Prince William County. (Prince William Food Rescue)

Abigail Goody’s 8-month-old daughter, Sailor, picked up the coronavirus in January from her day-care center in Woodbridge, Va.

Goody, 29, and her husband, Bobby Hawkes, 28, a self-employed remodeling contractor, soon had covid-19, too. They all had relatively mild symptoms, said Goody, but the couple quickly realized they had a looming problem.

“We had about a week’s worth of food in the fridge,” said Goody, who works as a hairstylist at a salon that is now closed. “I was thinking of things I’d have to do to stretch our meals.”

With no income, the couple were relieved when the health department referred them to Prince William Food Rescue, a group that collects food that would otherwise be thrown away by restaurants and grocery stores because it’s close to expiring.

“I was really surprised when I learned that they’d bring us some groceries and everything was free,” Goody said.

Susan Evers, a volunteer with the food rescue group, called and told Goody that she’d be over in a day or two with groceries.

Evers continued to bring groceries for two weeks, until everyone in the family had recovered from covid-19.

“She left three boxes outside our door with sweet potatoes, rice, tomatoes, beans, zucchini, tuna fish, cereal, pasta — even some chocolate doughnuts,” Goody said. “It made a huge difference to us during quarantine.

“Susan even asked if she could bring pet food for our dog, when she heard him barking through the door,” she added.

Evers, 65, is among 18,000 volunteers who use an app called Food Rescue Hero, linking them to places where they can pick up produce, meat, dairy products and prepared meals that are close to being thrown away.

The ‘garbage guy’ walks 12 miles a day around D.C. picking up trash: ‘I’ll pick up pretty much anything.’

The volunteers then deliver the donated goods to families in need in their communities or drop them off at local churches and food pantries. In Prince William County, several national grocery chains, as well as local stores such as Todos Market in Dumfries, contribute perishable items that are near expiration.

Evers makes regular trips to Dumfries United Methodist Church to pick up groceries, along with tacos and sandwiches from restaurants such as Zandra’s Taqueria, Nando’s Peri-Peri and Chick-fil-A. While families in need stop by the church to pick up free groceries, people who are homebound get deliveries from Evers and other volunteers.

Nine cities and counties, including Prince William County, Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, participate in the Food Rescue Hero program, which started in Pittsburgh six years ago.

Leah Lizarondo, a Pittsburgh food writer who is now CEO of Food Rescue Hero, said she developed the app after she read a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council saying 40 percent of the food supply in the United States goes to waste.

“It was shocking to me to learn that almost half of our food is thrown away while people are going hungry,” said Lizarondo, 46. “I thought, ‘Where is this happening and why is nobody solving this gap?’ ”

Lizarondo studied the waste problem and learned that one of the big reasons food is thrown out by grocery stores and restaurants is that they have no way to distribute it. Getting it from point A to point B was a problem.

“I started thinking about how to transport food and realized that we could use app technology, like a DoorDash or Uber Eats model, with volunteer drivers,” Lizarondo said. “We could match the drivers with somebody in need in their area.”

Anyone with 20 minutes to spare can log in and find a place where they can pick up surplus food and be linked to a person or agency in need, she added.

“No planning ahead is required — people can pick up and deliver food in whatever amount of time they have and how often they like,” Lizarondo said.

Despite the pandemic, the majority of Food Rescue Hero volunteers are seniors, she said. In Prince William, 563 volunteers use the app to work with Prince William Food Rescue. They have delivered more than 10 million pounds of food to those in need countywide, according to the rescue group’s website.

When she first launched the app, Lizarondo she said she thought volunteers would mostly be millennials because of the app technology, but it turned out it was seniors who stepped up.

“While we do have millennials rescuing food, most of our volunteers are seniors — especially early retirees who want to give back,” she said. “They have the flexibility to do it and with no-contact protocols in place, it’s perfectly safe.”

Evers said she became a Food Rescue Hero in April to help people who lost income because of the pandemic.

Since then, the retired preschool special education teacher estimates she has made about 450 runs to pick up everything from fresh milk to deli sandwiches that would otherwise have been thrown away.

“I’m in a position where I’m able to pay it forward — I do this because I can,” said Evers, who lives in Woodbridge. “And because I can, I should. There are so many people in need right now, living hand-to-mouth. And selfishly, this gets me out and about.”

She was shamed for still having her Christmas lights up. Neighbors are now putting theirs back up in solidarity.

Business owners in her area say they are happy to help out.

“We’re fortunate to still be surviving — our community has been good to us,” said Victoria Wu, who owns Cakes by Happy Eatery in Manassas, Va. “It’s important for us to give right back to the community.”

Wu has contributed everything from chicken pot pies to vegan chocolate cupcakes to the cause. Rather than donate leftovers, she and her crew prepare 100 to 150 meals from scratch for families in need every Thursday.

“Somebody looks at the app, then comes and picks it up, so all we have to do is cook,” said Wu, 52.

In Pittsburgh, Vincent Petti said he has made more than 1,500 runs in his pickup truck to rescue large quantities of produce, baked goods and meat from local food warehouses. He then delivers it to several nonprofits for immediate distribution.

“The other day, I picked up 1,800 pounds of potatoes,” said Petti, 70, a retired engineer. “I try to go out at least two or three days a week. I’m looking at my own mortality and I want to spend whatever time I can doing good things for people.”

Jake Holshuh of Los Angeles echoes that sentiment.

Twice a week, the retired veterinary pathologist picks up half-ton loads of donated groceries from the Trader Joe’s in his neighborhood, then delivers the food to two charities for distribution.

“When you pull up to a center and see 30 people lined up waiting for the food you’re about to drop off, that brings it home to me,” said Holshuh, 76.

Lizarondo said it’s her goal to have Food Rescue Hero operations going in 100 cities within the next decade. She also hopes to expand internationally.

Already, Vancouver in British Columbia is using the app with help from thousands of volunteers, including Ann Moore, 81.

“I go to a local bakery all the time to pick up leftover muffins and croissants, and a pizza place generously gives me their extra pizzas,” said Moore, a retired research nurse, who takes the food to a distribution center.

“It’s easy for me to do,” she said. “Especially when it’s so needed.”

Read more:

How is Alaska leading the nation in vaccinating residents? With boats, ferries, planes and snowmobiles.

This man mistakenly left his wallet in Antarctica. Some 53 years later, he got it back.

How a sickly squirrel offered me unexpected comfort

Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.