Sometimes food waste looks like a field of unharvested sweet corn. Or it might be a few leftover pizzas from a restaurant, extra loaves of bread at a bakery or even 200 pallets of marshmallows that were no longer needed when plans for a store display were canceled.
Thanks to the nonprofit food rescue organization, JEE Foods, all those foods were funneled away from the waste stream and back to hungry people. Levi Grimm, now a sophomore studying business at Miami University, helped start JEE Foods in 2018 as a high school student at Butler Tech Ross High School in Hamilton, Ohio.
“We want to use food as the vehicle to help people out of poverty,” he explained.
The name JEE stands for Jobs, Education and Economy.
Grimm was a member of a team of students who participated in the Samsung Global Classroom STEAM Challenge. The competition pairs student teams from around the world to develop solutions to problems they see in their communities. The students then gathered at the United Nations to present their ideas to a panel of judges.
The Butler Tech Ross students were paired with a team from Korea for the original competition. After completing the initial project, the team started looking at ways to put their ideas in practice in their community, Grimm said. They filed for tax exempt status as a 501(c)(3) organization with the IRS and started contacting community leaders, businesses and other charitable organizations in the area.
JEE Foods rescues food from the waste stream wherever they can find it, Grimm said.
The group has rallied volunteers to glean fruits and vegetables from local farms. They also work with restaurants, grocery stores and food manufacturers to collect and redistribute food that would otherwise be wasted.
During the COVID-19 crisis, JEE Foods stepped in to help with distribution of food from the USDA’s Farms to Families food box program. The food is distributed through other nonprofit organizations, including food pantries, senior citizens’ centers, schools and recovery and addiction centers.
JEE Foods serves 120 other organizations in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky within about a 100-mile radius. They keep in contact with the various charity outlets to coordinate distribution where the food is needed most.
The demand is especially high in Appalachian areas of Kentucky, Grimm said.
Communications go both ways, with charities asking them for specific foods and JEE Foods reaching out to find outlets for the food they gather.
“We try to work in tandem with them,” Grimm explained. “We’re not trying to duplicate a service in that respect.”
So far, JEE Foods has rescued about 6 million pounds of food. This summer the nonprofit expanded into a warehouse and office space in Hamilton. They’re now making about 80 food rescues a week throughout the year.
The JEE Foods effort has grown to involve about 200 adult volunteers and about 15 students at Butler Tech Ross High School who manage finances and marketing. Grimm and other members of the original Jee Foods team remain involved even though they’ve graduated and moved on to college.
The nonprofit has been getting most of its funding through grants and prize money from competitions such as the United Nations STEAM competition. The student organizers also won the Students for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurship World Cup. Those funding sources are not sustainable in the long run so they are developing longer-term funding strategies, said Grimm.
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