Maria Rose Belding is a rising junior at American University and in between studying, doing homework and taking tests, she runs a non-profit that helps cut down food waste in 48 states.
MEANS Database, Belding’s organization, is a non-profit communications platform for emergency food providers and their donors. Emergency food providers can mean soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries.
MEANS, which stands for Meeting Excess And Needs for Sustainability, works with these emergency food providers by sending them free emails and texts when a grocery store, restaurant, caterer or other food donor has what they need nearby.
“Basically, we use big data and tech to fight hunger,” Belding told USA TODAY College.
This idea all started when Belding started working in her church’s food bank at age six, she told Food Tank, the think tank for food. She says she noticed frustrating patterns, seeing the same clients she saw when she was 14, 18 and in college. What bothered her more was the amounts of donations she threw away each day from her church’s food pantry.
“After having to fill an entire dumpster one afternoon with mac and cheese past its date, I had the stereotypical entrepreneur’s thought, ‘There has to be a better way to do this.’ There is, and MEANS was born,” Belding says.
She credits her co-founder and chief technology officer Grant Nelson with bringing that initial idea she had in 2010 to life. “My co-founder is the one that made all the difference. I had the idea, but I can’t code, and he showed up and he can code — and here we are,” Belding, the co-founder and executive director, says. The organization’s website started in February 2015 and took a year to build.
Today, MEANS Database has expanded across the U.S. with partners in 48 states. According to Belding, the organization has moved more than 200,000 pounds of food across the U.S., which is about 98% of the food posted in the database. And they do it all for free.
It works by facilitating communication between local food entities that have and need resources. For example, a pantry that has an excess of food can list it as a donation on the MEANS site, and other area food pantries get notifications of this donation via email and text from MEANS. Those pantries can accept the donation or go pick it up. Because MEANS can’t check every donation, the system has a ratings system.
Belding’s aim is to combat food waste for the benefit of millions of Americans. In July 2016, the Guardian reported that the U.S. leads the world in food waste, with around 50% of all produce in the United States being thrown away annually, costing around $160 billion. And a 2014 report by USA TODAY showed that 46 million Americans rely on food pantries.
She says that as a public health major, she’s being taught in her academic courses about the very issues she is tackling as a nonprofit director.
“It’s so cool to be sitting in public health classes and hearing what they’re talking about, hearing about grant writing — and I already have a spreadsheet pulled up and I have four of those due tomorrow,” Belding says. “It’s really cool to see in the day-to-day what gets talked about in theory in class.”
And MEANS Database’s work is already being recognized.
For Belding, one of her favorite memories is being surprised by Starbucks on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah after being named a Starbucks Upstander in 2016.
Belding says she thought she was just seeing a taping of the show for her 21st birthday, and was in awe when she saw her face on the monitor. “They turn the camera around to me, and there’s me with my jaw on the floor freaking out,” Belding says. “I honestly thought I was hallucinating.”
And in February 2016, Belding gave a TEDx talk on how her organization is changing the scope on the current food emergency system.
Belding says that members of her organization won presidential volunteer service awards from President Obama. She herself has received multiple awards, including being named to the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth list in 2015.
And with this success, Belding only wants to do more going forward.
“I want us to be moving a million pounds of food a year. I want to be moving food in every state every day,” Belding says.