“Pittsburgh lives up to the hype around it and we’re at the cusp of figuring out how to take advantage of the growth and make sure that it really is a city for everyone.”
Leah Lizarondo will be the first to tell you that for much of her life her thoughts have been consumed by food. As a young girl she had dreams of culinary school, later spent time as a food writer, served on the boards of Grow Pittsburgh and Just Harvest, and now, as the Co-Founder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue, helps other people contribute to ending food waste and works to make sure that food is not something consuming others’ minds because they don’t have access. Leah’s food journey wasn’t a straight path and the influence of technology and entrepreneurship played an important role in getting her to a place where her passion for food and technology collided.
After graduating from college and moving to the U.S. in 1997, Leah found herself in New York City at the height of the tech boom. She decided to move to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and pursued a Masters in Public Policy and Management with a focus on Technology. While completing her degree, she worked as an Investment Associate tor local tech incubator, Innovation Works: “It was a fantastic experience, being inspired and learning from entrepreneurs, but I think the most important thing that Innovation Works taught me about the start-up world was that investors can be mission-based and still drive economic development.”
Leah went back to The Big Apple after graduation and worked in Consulting – for Fortune 500 companies and for tech start-ups – before deciding to move back to Pittsburgh. “At that point, I had kids and it was an easy decision to move back to Pittsburgh for the cost of living, quality of life and great family-friendly amenities the city has to offer.” In 2007, Leah’s mother-in-law and her partner founded Grow Pittsburgh, a leader in urban farming in the city, that she became active in and transitioned her back into food. Leah started writing about food as a hobby and as online media was really starting to explode: “Pittsburgh Magazine adopted my blog and turned it into a branded food column. It jump-started my food network and as I started talking to people in the industry, I realized that everyone was aware of food waste, but people didn’t know what to do about it.”
In 2012, a seminal report by the NRDC called WASTED was published that revealed we waste nearly half of our food supply. That report, paired with stories from her food industry friends about the considerable amount of perfectly good food that went to waste were the impetus for 412 Food Rescue and the perfect combination of Leah’s passions for technology/entrepreneurship and food. In order to establish proof of concept for funding, Leah and the original “food rescue heroes,” mobilized people and found volunteers through social media to raise awareness – the response was huge. In November 2016, the app launched and with over 4,000 people registered, it is now the largest volunteer transport network in a single region than any other city in the U.S. “When we started, we projected having 400 volunteers in 3 years and we have 10x more than that – that tells you something about the people of Pittsburgh. These aren’t people seeking recognition or credit, these are our neighbors, our friends, perfect strangers, who are out in our streets doing good and donating their time to benefit someone else, every single day.” This year, 412 Food Rescue is set to launch its app in other cities.
To the thousands of food rescuers the logistics appear seamless, but Leah describes a day at the office as air traffic control, “It’s an operation that’s vibrant and constantly moving.” They focus largely on partnership, collaboration, and growth, to ensure that they’re doing as much as possible and engaging as many people, companies, and organizations, as possible, to help end food waste. Corporate partners like Giant Eagle and foundation partners have also been an integral piece of the success that 412 has had thus far “Our non-profit community and funders who took a risk on such a new idea and intervention are equally deserving of credit for our innovation because they had the vision to think big and make a big impact.” Leah also enjoys finding new ways to collaborate and because of her unique network of chefs and foodies, she has an outlet for creativity. Recently, she’s partnered with Wigle Whiskey, Threadbare Cider, and East End Brewing who have used raw ingredients, like fruit, for various spirits and beers.
When she’s not working, Leah is spending time with her family. Her kids love the Carnegie museums, the Pittsburgh Zoo and spend a lot of time exploringthe city. “The wealth of museums and parks is something I really appreciate here. Every time I’m back in NYC, I’m thankful we landed in Pittsburgh.” Being in the food world, Leah was hesitant to name names when it came to restaurants, but said that B52 is a favorite family spot. She also loves Legume for a modern Pittsburgh classic, Morcilla in Lawrenceville, Lorelei in East Liberty, and the Ace Hotel for it’s great food and ambiance. When asked about Pittsburgh and the future of 412 Food Rescue she had this to say:
“As an immigrant, the welcoming and openness I’ve experienced in Pittsburgh is what allowed me to grow 412 Food Rescue. I’m very proud that we’re taking a Pittsburgh invention and sharing it with other cities, and hopefully the world.”