Three times a week, Sunshine Ferguson pulls out a cart full of leftover food from the LECOM Senior Residence.
Monday’s cart contained covered foil trays filled with stuffing, turkey and pulled pork, along with loaves of cinnamon raisin bread and containers of extra milk, juice and beverages. This was just food not consumed over the weekend by residents of the center and approaching its expiry times or dates.
“Before, this would all have gone straight to the trash and it would break my heart to waste good food,” said Ferguson, the center’s dietary manager. “It’s not huge, but I knew someone could use it.”
Instead of going to a dumpster, extra food from the center is now transported to Community accommodation services or another non-profit agency that feeds those in need. Lake Erie Food Rescue volunteers pick up the food and deliver it within an hour to where it will be consumed.
Help the hungry
Lake Erie Food Rescue was started just over a year ago by Kevin McCaslin and Jeff Kuzdzal, but was originally spurred on by what McCaslin saw while working for a local supermarket years ago.
“I’ve seen how much food is wasted every day,” McCaslin said. “It really stuck with me. I thought there had to be a way to get this food to people who could use it.”
One day McCaslin was browsing social media when he noticed a pop-up ad from 412 Food Rescue, which transports surplus food to the Pittsburgh area. Intrigued, he contacted the organization to see if he could bring the service to Erie.
He visited 412 Food Rescue in late 2020 to learn how it operates and raises funds to cover costs. He and Kuzdzal then created Lake Erie Food Rescue and joined the Food Rescue Heroes Networkwhich includes 13 other organizations in the United States and Canada.
“I learned that there are three fundamental parties: the food donors, the volunteers, and the agencies that receive food,” McCaslin said.
McCaslin personally visited nursing homes, colleges, restaurants and grocery stores to see if they would be willing to donate their unused food. In addition to the LECOM Senior Living Center, Mercyhurst University / Parkhurst Food Services is also an early donor.
He then contacted agencies that provide free meals and found out if they needed more food. The final piece was about volunteers – McCaslin has been a primary food hauler for most of the past year.
“We now have five volunteers running errands,” McCaslin said. “We will need more as we grow. Our goal is to do around 20 races a week.”
McCaslin and Kuzdzal recently launched an app, the Food Rescue Hero app, to help streamline the process of transporting food. Volunteers are notified when food is available for pickup and can swipe to claim transport.
How to participate
Organizations wishing to donate or receive food, or individuals wishing to donate money, may contact McCaslin at lakeeriefoodrescue.org.
Community Shelter Services, 655 W. 16th St., receives a shipment from Lake Erie Food Rescue at least once a week, said Katie Confer, the agency’s director of development. It allows their staff to offer customers a fourth meal or snack in the afternoon.
“Lake Erie Food Rescue is very consistent and very generous in what they are able to provide to us,” Confer said. “It helps us provide a meal or a snack for people after school or work.”
Lake Erie Food Rescue isn’t the first Erie-based organization to accept excess food and transport it to those in need. Second Harvest Food Bank has been providing a similar service for 40 years. Although both organizations sought food from the same donors, McCaslin said he was not in competition with Second Harvest.
“I would say we’re complementary, not competitive,” McCaslin said. “I can tell you that there is a greater need for this service than five years ago.”
In an email, Second Harvest spokesperson Natalie Massing declined to discuss Lake Erie Food Rescue because “we are not affiliated with them. We can only tell you what Second Harvest is doing. In this When it comes to feeding the hungry, we hope everyone in our community gets involved in making our community a better place.”
McCaslin said there is a lot of need and extra food for her nonprofit and Second Harvest. He cited data published by the United States Department of Agriculture that between 30% and 40% of the country’s food supply is wasted.
“What we’re doing is trying to fill in the cracks,” McCaslin said. “We take this food that would otherwise be thrown away and give it to people who could use it.”