Meet the 20-year-old fighting to end food waste while taking finals

How We Can Market Food 'Waste' To Make A Real Impact

When she's not in between classes at American University, college sophomore Maria Rose Belding is busy in America.

At 20 years old, she's the founder and CEO of MEANS Database, an interactive site that's helping reduce food waste and feed the hungry by connecting thousands of food pantries, soup kitchens, and other nonprofit groups with donors giving away excess food. Belding was one of ten finalists in the 2015 L'Oreal Women of Worth contest, which honors extraordinary women making a difference in their respective communities. She's also the 2015 Clinton Hunger Leadership Award winner and the author of over a dozen nationally published articles on hunger policy, her first major piece published when she was 15.

Registered users post to Belding's site what food they want to get rid of and MEANS immediately notifies registered food banks and pantries, which can claim the donation. MEANS Database has already helped save an estimated 4,000 pounds of food across 26 states, and connected more than 200 large-scale food banks.

"We doubled our user count in October, and since then seen this steady incline in our site members," Belding told TakePart.

Belding and her team, which consists mostly of undergraduate students, along with two professional programmers and co-founder Grant Nelson, have seen anything from canned beans to bacon and eggs posted to the site. The most unusual donation they received, Belding said, was 3,600 hot dog buns and 3,600 lunch bags—each filled with a cookie, a bag of chips, condiments, and a plastic fork.

The donation came from a charity event in Maryland; planners had overestimated turnout. Though they managed to get all the hot dogs eaten, the lunch bags and hot dog buns went unused, causing charity organizers to turn to MEANS (Matching Excess And Needs for Stability) Database for help. A homeless shelter ended up claiming the donation.

"They posted it Sunday and it was claimed that same day, and then by Monday it was going to places on the street," Belding said. "That was really validating for me. I just sat in my room crying and thought, 'We did it, we did it.' I thought this was initially just for food banks, but Grant convinced me there was so much more we can do."

Nelson, a third-year law student at George Washington University, agreed to help Belding build the program for MEANS Database when they first met about a year and a half ago. At the time, Belding was just starting out as a college freshman. She had conceived of MEANS Database three years prior, but without any knowledge of coding, she wasn't able to create it herself.

"It's taken five years to get this off the ground," Belding said.

Growing up, Belding and her mom often volunteered at local soup kitchens near their home in Iowa, but it wasn't until she was 15 that Belding felt compelled to find a solution to food waste. Another church had donated 10,000 boxes of mac and cheese to her church's soup kitchen, though it already had more than staff could distribute on their own.

The director of the soup kitchen even brought many of the boxes with her on vacation to give to a food kitchen out of town. "I started to think, 'there's got to be a better way,'" Bedling said.

It's estimated that 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes uneaten every year. That's about $165 billion worth of food that Americans are throwing out, a lot of which ends up rotting in landfills instead of feeding the families who struggle daily to put dinner on the table.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are said to be among the worst holidays for food waste. Food banks get a surplus of donations over the holidays.

"It's great in one aspect because people want to give during the Christmas season, but most food pantries are in need during Fourth of July and St. Patrick's Day," Bedling said.

In terms of a solution to seasonal food waste, Bedling says people should really think about how much food they're making and how many people they're going to be serving during the holidays.

Find out what the government's goal is in terms of reducing food waste:
Government Announces First Goal to Cutting Food Waste
Related stories on TakePart:
One Kitchen Aims to Upcycle Food Waste and Employ the Poor
Proposed Law Would Cut Back on Food Waste From Farm to Fridge
Need $13,000 Worth of Chocolate Health Bars? Dumpster Dive

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