Leah Lizarondo of Pittsburgh helped build Food Rescue Hero, a platform that mobilizes volunteers in more than 25 cities in the U.S. and Canada to prevent perfectly good food from restaurants or grocery stores from going to waste. (Video: Sue Williams)

Leah Lizarondo wants one thing on the table before we begin: Her team of 40-plus people should get all the credit. There is no way she could have built 412 Food Rescue or Food Rescue Hero – the two food-rescue operations we’re about to talk about – without them. “I am an administrator, a fundraiser,” she says. “It’s a collective effort.”

That disclaimer aside, it’s hard to imagine that either organization would have grown as successfully, or helped as many hungry people, without the influence of Lizarondo, who recently announced she is stepping down from her leadership role early next year. In 2015, she started 412 Food Rescue with Giselle Fetterman (wife of new Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman) to prevent perfectly good food in the Pittsburgh area from going to waste. A year later, Lizarondo used her background in technology to help build Food Rescue Hero, a platform that mobilizes volunteers – now in more than 25 cities in the U.S. and Canada – to pick up surplus food from restaurants or grocery stores and deliver it to those who need it most.

The efforts have led to the recovery of an estimated 124 million pounds of food. Some 34,000 volunteers are now registered on the Food Rescue Hero app (which has been called the “Uber of Food Rescue”).  And with luck, Lizarondo has accomplished yet another goal: Make the planet a bit more green, as food waste in landfills is one of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s been inspiring for me to see what can be made possible,” she says. 

That commitment to the environment is a big reason why Lizarondo is moving on. (She will continue to serve as CEO until a successor can be found; Fetterman is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.) Next year, she is turning 50, and the mom of three (ages 17, 16 and 10) says she wants to direct her energy into something – she says she is not sure what – that is even more directly related to climate change. 

“I look at my children and think – not all of us are food insecure, but climate change affects all of us,” she says. “We have a short amount of time left in this world. I have less years ahead of me than behind me. What do I want to do with that?”

Lizarondo came to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1990s, at age 24. She remembers being inspired at a young age by her dad’s National Geographic magazine, which featured photos and a map of Manhattan. She ripped it out, put it on her wall, and said: “That’s where I’m going to live.” 

She got her wish when she took a job, post-college in Manila, for a company with headquarters in New York. There, she was struck by the “big dichotomy” of the city. “America had two worlds. There was so much poverty. You could see lines – right next to this very expensive restaurant – [for] a soup kitchen,” she said. “That certainly wasn’t in the National Geographic.”

Thinking about how the industrialized world produces so much perishable food, and then wastes it later on when it goes unused in groceries or restaurants or even work places, made Lizarondo question: “Why are we talking about how to produce more food when there’s actually enough food to feed everyone in the world four times over?”

Lizarondo eventually pursued a masters in public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and took a job at a publicly-funded venture capital firm working on economic development. She ultimately combined skills and passion to launch 412 Food Rescue and Food Rescue Hero. She’s also worked on a number of off-shoots, including the Good Food Project, a food recovery kitchen where a chef turns excess food into meals for the food insecure.

What has surprised Lizarondo the most along the way – and this goes back to her idea about movements being collective efforts, not just the work of one person  – is how much food-rescue volunteers have responded to the call. “There was hope it would resonate with people but the biggest surprise was how many people were waiting for something to do.”

In whatever she does next, Lizarondo hopes to find that same energy. “What’s the next thing that needs to happen – what’s waiting for someone to take it and bring it to light?” she says. “Really decentralizing things, and changing the way we work, is part of how the world needs to change if we are going to solve the big existential challenges we have now.” ◼