Bringing Positive Change to our World Food Recovery Network Ben Simon
M illennials, as a generation, are probably both more idealistic and more practical than previous gen- erations. We care a lot about changing the world. We want to shop at busi- nesses that take care of their employ- ees and care about the environment and social responsibility. We want to make a good living, but the theory is no longer just “make a bunch of money and then give that money back;” it’s also “go off and do your own thing.” We have seen the growth of entrepreneurship, since entry bar- riers to entrepreneurship have been lowered with the internet, smart phones, and social media. That doesn’t just mean new business- es. It means that injustices that have persist- ed for hundreds of years are finally seeing a huge amount of hope. Growing up with that mindset, and around other people who share that mindset, has been a major influence for me, and for my generation. Millennials want a world where positive change is happening, and we care about a diverse array of issues. Although I wasn’t around, I believe that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people cared about civil rights and Vietnam, and a few other issues really marked those decades. Today, young people are fired up about a much wider range of issues. It’s exciting to see people moving the needle on various causes. A number of experiences made me care about hunger, poverty, and the environment before starting Food Recovery Network (FRN). When I was in high school, my dad met a man playing tennis at a neighborhood court. After playing together only a few times, this guy made a bold ask of my dad. He said he couldn’t afford to rent his own place. He had been sleeping at friends’ houses and was out of places to stay. He asked if he could crash
We called our friends at other schools and told them about the impact we were making with this simple model of redistributing surplus food we called Food Recovery Network. Our friends started chapters at their schools and told their friends. The idea spread through word of mouth and coverage on media outlets like MSNBC, VH1 and Upworthy. A major turning point for us was receiving a $300,000, two-year investment from Sodexo Foundation in spring 2013 that allowed us to hire full-time staff to scale up our operation. Just 3 ½ years after our first chapter at UMD, we’re now at 115 colleges nationally and have donated over 625,000 pounds of food that otherwise would have been wasted. I often reflect on the past few years, and how we were able to achieve this breakthrough impact. First, team is crucial. It would seem obvious, but I found out later that others had tried to create national campus food recovery programs similar to Food Recovery Network five or so years before we got started. However, they never took off because they weren’t able to assemble high-performing teams. In this regard, we were really lucky going into it: it wasn’t just me. I’m technically the “Founder” but I have seven Co-Founders who each made significant contributions of 10-20 hours a week for two years. Nearly all of these Co-Founders had previous experience fighting hunger, or were involved in nonprofits or student organizations on campus. Assembling an awesome team that’s well equipped to execute is really important. Having a strategy that everyone buys into is also key. At FRN, we lucked out again be- cause Rob Sheehan, a professor at UMD, is a nonprofit strategy guru and facilitated a pro-
with us for a short time; otherwise, he would be homeless. My dad, barely knowing him, took him in, and this stranger became family, living with us for two years. We ate together and watched football together on Sundays. He had full-time employment at a grocery store, stocking shelves at night, making minimum wage even though he was in his 50s, and different circumstances kept him poor. For example, he didn’t have health care, so when a very serious medical issue came up, he avoided going to the hospital for as long as he could. The doctor said if he had waited another day he might have died. He left the hospital with tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt. Experiences like these changed my perspective. I started to think a lot deeper about societal systems, the privilege that I had, and the opportunity and responsibility to help open pathways for others to succeed. A few years later at University of Maryland, College Park, my friends and I led canned food drives and raised awareness about hunger. It set the stage for starting FRNwhen we learned how much food was being wasted in campus dining halls. We had relationships with local organizations, and knew there was a big need in the community for this food, and could not believe that UMD was wasting thousands of pounds of food every week. So we snapped into action and created the program.