Carnegie Mellon University

Photo of Leah Lizarondo

May 06, 2020

Food Fight

Alumna Leah Lizarondo demonstrates leadership that defies obstacles in the global fight against food waste and food insecurity

By Deborah Taylor

Leah Lizarondo (HNZ 2003), co-founder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue, refuses to let COVID-19 call the shots in her personal quest to prevent food waste and alleviate hunger 

“We built our model for emergencies, so we were prepared to evolve rapidly when the need arose,” she says. 

Through nimble, skillful leadership that has earned her international recognition, Leah, entrepreneur in residence at the Block Center for Technology and Society in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, is guiding the nonprofit to adapt to the challenges caused by the pandemic.  

Pre-COVID-19, 412 Food Rescue focused on alerting its volunteers via its Food Rescue Hero mobile app to pick up unsellable yet fresh food from retailers, restaurants and food-service companies, who delivered it to nonprofit partners for distribution. In 2019, 412FR saved more than 3 million tons of food in the Pittsburgh area with the help of 9,000 volunteers. 

But when most of those partners closed their doors due to the economic shutdown, Leah forged new partnerships and modified the app’s existing technology to accommodate new volunteer opportunitiesAs a result, 412FR collected 5,000 pounds of food from the Pittsburgh Penguins for distribution and worked with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Sysco Pittsburgh to distribute 9,000 pounds of fresh produce and dairy items.  

Partnering with A+ Schools and the Latino Community Center, 412 Food Rescue is distributing food directly to children and families at school bus stops to complement the grab-and-go meals provided at Pittsburgh Public Schools for students. 412FR volunteers delivered more than 9,000 meals over three days in early April. 

"In the face of this pandemic, there’s a sense of helplessness, but there’s still so much we can do for each other. Our platform gives people a safe way to help their neighbors."

For the first time in its history, 412 Food Rescue also is delivering directly to homes. The organization piloted the service in March and is gradually expanding its reach.  

“In this time of risk and isolation, our most vulnerable neighbors are those who cannot leave their homes, making it impossible for them to access much-needed food support,” Leah explains. “Pre-crisis, we delivered food to a network of over 600 nonprofits. Now, we need to be able to scale to serve thousands of households.” 

Besides operational changes, 412 Food Rescue has adopted a no-contact rescue protocol. Volunteers are no longer allowed to go into establishments; they arrange for food donations to be brought outside to them. Sign-off procedures for partners receiving donations have been eliminated. Volunteers must wear gloves and masks, and during public distributions, they are spaced at least six feet apart. 412FR has asked its volunteers who are age 60 or older, immunocompromised, or living with anyone at elevated risk to refrain from performing rescues.  

Leah has spread 412 Food Rescue’s message and influence beyond Pittsburgh for the last five years. Its proprietary app is licensed to food rescue operations in six cities in North America, with a combined 10,000 volunteers. She plans to expand 412FR’s model to 100 cities around the world by 2030 to support the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals 

In recognition of her transformational leadership, Leah has been selected as one of six women who will receive 2020 Global Leadership Awards from the nonprofit Vital Voices Global Partnership in September ceremonyPast recipients include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Melinda Gates and Malala Yousafzai. The award “honors and celebrates women leaders around the world working to strengthen democracy, increase economic opportunity and protect human rights.” Leah will receive the Economic Empowerment Award for using technology “to engage Americans in the fight to end hunger, eliminate food waste and combat climate change.”  

“We always envisioned 412 Food Rescue as a movementThe network is coordinated by technology, but it’s powered by communities, by the goodwill of ordinary people who want to make the world a little more livable for all of us,” she saysIn the face of this pandemic, there’s a sense of helplessness, but there’s still so much we can do for each other. Our platform gives people a safe way to help their neighbors.”