Interview with Beth Ostdiek Smith, Founder, CEO/President of Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue
Wasted food has environmental, economic and social implications. According to the National Resources Defense Council, up to 40% of all food in the United States goes uneaten and unused and 1 in 8 people struggle to put food on the table. The USDA estimates that this wasted food costs $161 million annually.
Organizations, like Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue in Omaha, Nebraska, are working to shrink these numbers by gathering food that would otherwise be wasted and providing it to hungry people. Founder, CEO/President of Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, Beth Ostdiek Smith, is an accomplished professional with over 25 years in leadership roles in for profit and nonprofit businesses.
Beth has traveled the world and loves learning about other cultures. She has volunteered as a mentor for inner city kids and visited homebound and the elderly and is a current Nebraska Representative with the US Global Leadership Coalition. Beth believes we all have a purpose to honor, live and adjust as presented through life.
Beth started Saving Grace in 2013, to address food waste and hunger. Since its founding, Beth and Saving Grace has received:
- 2013 SCORE “Sam Epstein” Entrepreneur Award
- The Greater Omaha Chamber 2016 “Excellence Award for Innovation”
- 2018 Food Day and 2019 Earth Day, Non-Profit of the Year Awards
- 2020 Saving Grace had rescued and delivered over 5 Million pounds of excess food
- In May 2019 Beth was flown to Washington DC to receive the FBI’s Director Community Leadership Award by Director Wray.
In the following interview, Beth discusses food waste and her inspirations and hopes for the future of the organization.
What is Wasted Food?
Food rescue can take on so many elements. When I first started it was just, “Well, we just rescue food that would be put into the trash,” but now we’re changing the narrative. Instead of “food waste” we talk about “wasted food.” Wasted food is the food that could feed people, but it is thrown away. When we look at the Food Recovery Hierarchy and we see all the food being wasted, it seems logical to try to recover that food and distribute it to hungry people. Many people who work in the food industry are sickened by the amount of food that is wasted but are unsure of safe, easy ways to donate.
What does Saving Grace do to help with Wasted Food?
We rescue food that would be wasted and move it to other organizations that are feeding our hungry people. We also partner with composters that can take food that is not edible so that we can keep that organic material out of the landfill.
What inspired you to start Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue?
I had been working in the for-profit sector for a while, then transitioned into a nonprofit organization that worked with inner city kids and schools. In that organization, there was a mentoring program that was feeding kids, and someone mentioned how much food was being thrown away. That got me thinking about why that was happening considering all the hungry people in the area.
I remembered an organization in Arizona that had been rescuing food for a while. I started researching and realized that nothing like that was happening in our area. So, I started putting things together with the people that I know from businesses and the community and working to get them behind the mission. I spoke with community leaders and the local food bank, and worked to identify the gaps that we could potentially fill.
What did Saving Grace look like at first?
It was just me at first. Then I brought up the person who runs the organization in Arizona. I was listening to what people were saying and someone mentioned that the health department wouldn’t allow it. So, I reached out to the health department and they said, “Oh yeah, sounds good.” Soon after, we had our first truck. She was driving the truck and I was making connections and finding the money.
How do you engage with food service businesses to participate in food donation?
It was difficult at first. I’m good at “getting in the door,” so I used that skill and my connections through the various advisory boards on which I have served to get our message out. We must focus on the benefits of food donation and also understand that businesses need safe, simple ways to donate food. Making them aware of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act and helping them understand the liability protection that it provides is one of those steps.
When you say “food rescue” to people, they don’t really understand that. They think that we’re another food pantry. We explain that we are a distribution system that picks up and takes food to pantries, shelters, after-school programs and senior centers. We match the food that we rescue with the needs of the various organizations that provide the food to those who need it.
Then and now, I focus on the 5 points of why it is good business to donate food.
5 Reasons Why It's Good Business to Donate Food
1. Tax Deduction
2. Save on dumpster fees
3. Green initiative/sustainability plan
4. Great employee engagement
5. Helping the Community
How often do you have to adjust the logistics of food rescue?
We adjust routes and pick-ups every day. We’ll get calls for emergency pick-ups from catered events or large quantities of products and we have to find the driver to pick it up and find a place to take it. That’s why we consider our drivers and staff “food ambassadors.” We build relationships and get to know the donors and recipients so that when an emergency pick-up comes in, we know who to call first to get that food delivered and into the hands of people quickly. It takes a lot of communication between us and donors and recipients and drivers.
We have close to 50 food donors and 40 nonprofits that receive food. Some of them donate a couple of days per week, some are once per week, and some are five days per week. Our routes depend on which donor is donating on which day and to which organizations those deliveries go. Sometimes a delivery of food from one donor will go to three or four organizations. Sometimes those organizations get several deliveries from different donors. We want to ensure that the organizations are getting the food that they need for the people for which they serve.
How to do fund Saving Grace?
We apply for and receive many grants. We started with an individual investment of $5,000 for licensing and start-up costs. A colleague who was aware of my ethics wrote a letter on my behalf to several philanthropic friends promoting the program and encouraging them to be involved. I built a lot of relationships before writing grants.
I avoid restricted funding because our funding goes for the entire organization. The people who work for Saving Grace are paid. We do not have volunteers. The funding goes to pay staff, maintenance and repairs for the vehicles, and everything that goes into running a nonprofit business. My books are open for anyone to see how we use our funding. It helps us tell our story about why they need to pay for the entire organization.
I stay away from government funding because there are too many reports to write and that takes a lot of time. There is so much funding available in our philanthropic community, as there probably is in many communities. I show them the business plan and tell our story. It’s compelling and engages people in philanthropy.
Our funding relies on a mixture of sources because we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. We have a policy that says that no more than 40% of our funding will come from one source and right now, we’re not close to that. We receive funding from grants, family and corporate foundations, and fundraising campaigns.
What’s next for Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue?
For funding, we hope to start receiving more multi-year grants. We also hope to grow our staff and infrastructure. We were able to hire an executive assistant and a deputy director to help with the various parts of operations, data tracking, logistics, etc. And I am researching the potential for a national food rescue consortium.
One element that we hope to focus on this year is to reduce the amount of wasted food that is happening at food pantries. Sometimes they get too much, and it ends up wasted, so we are talking with them about what causes that and how we can better distribute food. It’s about figuring out how to communicate better with the organization and how the organization can communicate with their volunteers to ensure that the food is getting somewhere rather than put in the trash.
What is your advice to someone who wants to start a food rescue organization?
Research, connect with people who share your passion, pilot something. Baby steps, baby steps, then take a leap!
If you are experiencing hunger, dial 211 for your local United Way or contact your local food bank.