BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — In Mohawk Commons in Niskayuna, restaurants thrive. There is often food to spare at the end of the day, still edible but not quite fresh enough to sell. Sometimes, it lands, wasted, in a dumpster.
Across town, the Schenectady City Mission’s cafeteria fills with hungry residents three times every day.
This scenario is not unique to the Schenectady area; it plays out all over the country at breakfast, lunch and dinner. But one program, established first in New York City and recently expanded to 12 other cities in the United States, aims to help here at home.
“We started [in the Capital Region] in February or March,” said Rescuing Leftover Cuisine founder Robert Lee during a recent telephone interview. Lee is a Gates Millennium Scholar whose personal experiences with hunger, as well as his participation during college in a small club with a similar mission, led him to found the nonprofit.
“It feels awesome. It’s amazing to see how applicable the problems are in every single neighborhood, even though every location has different characteristics,” Lee said.
Rescuing Leftover Cuisine is one of many nonprofit organizations in the U.S. that aims to connect hungry people with nutritious food that’s just slightly past its prime. It’s a simple concept: The organization connects volunteers with cars and an hour to spare with restaurants that have leftover food.
The volunteers are told to pick up the leftovers at a specific time and transport it to a local nonprofit that feeds the hungry. They then collect a receipt and upload it to the RLC website to prove the job was completed. The whole job rarely takes more than an hour.
However, Lee said no matter how simple the concept sounds, it can be surprisingly difficult to put into practice.
“There are actually many roadblocks,” he said. “The major roadblock every nonprofit faces is the limited resources we all have. It’s age-old.”
Lee said the toughest part of growing RLC simply is recruiting volunteers. He has established coordinators in each location who have the tools and training to recruit business partners, but before they can do that, they need local people to commit to making the weekly deliveries.
“The problem of hunger feels daunting in a way, almost paralyzing,” he said.
RLC hasn’t been in the Capital Region for long, but food donors have already warmed to the concept. Panera Bread in Mohawk Commons was the first Niskayuna business to sign on.
“Simply put, for a significant number of Americans, putting food on the table is a struggle. As a restaurant company, we’re in a unique position to help feed people,” Kelly Hoyt, Panera Bread Donations coordinator, said in an email.
“We believe that we have a responsibility to make a positive impact on our local communities,” she added.
Dedicated volunteers, national companies like Panera, and local restaurant operations all are needed to help RLC grow in the Capital Region. Lee said the message he most hoped to spread was that every contribution matters, whether it’s a short Sunday drive or a small tray of sandwiches.
Lee said many similar nonprofits only partner with businesses that tend to have a consistent, high volume of donations to offer. But RLC is unique in that no food is ever turned away.
“I always leave people with kind of our founding philosophy that every little small bit counts,” he said.