(CNN) — Maria Rose Belding grew up working in her church’s food pantry in her small Iowa hometown.
“Jesus said, ‘For I was hungry and you fed me.’ … Stacking cans was my answer to this call,” Belding said.
As she got older, Belding realized that feeding the hungry wasn’t as easy as it should be. The pantry’s shelves overflowed with some items while other foods were desperately needed.
In 2009, when she was 14, the pantry received a huge donation of macaroni and cheese that was more than the community could use, and she saw how hard it was to contact other charities that could take it.
Months later, she had to throw away hundreds of expired boxes as people waited in line for food.
“I remember just crying and being so angry,” said Belding, now 22. “There was nothing that really allowed us to communicate in an efficient way. … The Internet was right in front of us!”
Belding had stumbled upon two problems that still plague the U.S. food system. According to the USDA, more than 40 million Americans don’t regularly have enough to eat while up to 40% of the country’s food supply is wasted.
In high school, she developed an idea for an online database that could solve both problems, but she didn’t have the programming skills to make it work. After graduating, she met Grant Nelson, a law student who was writing code on his laptop.
About nine months later, during Belding’s freshman year at American University, they launched MEANS, a free online platform that connects businesses with extra food to charities that feed the hungry.
Run largely by high school and college students, the nonprofit has helped redistribute more than 1.8 million pounds of food since 2015.
“Too often, grocery stores and restaurants find themselves throwing out food when there is great need in nearby communities,” Belding said. “MEANS aims to make it easier to donate food than throw it in the dumpster. … We’re like a bridge that hasn’t existed before.”
CNN spoke to Belding about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What does MEANS stand for, and how does it work?
Maria Rose Belding: MEANS is an acronym that stands for Matching Excess And Need for Stability; 14-year-old me had a fondness for acronyms.
It’s pretty simple. If you want to get food from MEANS, you have to be registered as a legal charity in the United States. So, when a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or a food pantry needs something, they tell our system. And when a grocery store, caterer or food retailer has something they want to donate, all they have to do is go online and say, “This is where I am, this is what I’ve got, and this is when I need it gone by.” Then the system automatically notifies all of those who have said, “I need things within these parameters.” We’re able to match up excess and need very, very quickly. At this point, MEANS has about 3,000 partners in 48 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The Emerson Act — a ‘Good Samaritan’ law passed in 1996 — protects donors from liability.
We’re also part of a great partnership with the Rhode Island Health Department called Rhode to End Hunger, which encourages businesses to donate food to nonprofits. One of the shining stars of that is the Twin River Casino. They’ll post hundreds of pounds of food, and somebody in Providence — like McAuley House, which is feeding a lot of folks who are struggling — will claim it really fast. The average in Rhode Island is about 10 minutes for things to move.
CNN: What are some of the most unusual donations you’ve had?
Belding: We’ve got all these awesome stories. People think, “Oh, no one’s going to want that” — we can prove you wrong. We have had 50 pounds of squab — which is fancy baby pigeon — from a five-star restaurant in Seattle. That ended up being used in pork and beans — apparently it was a big hit. We’ve found home for 250 pounds of rutabagas, 11,000 pounds of green beans, 42,000 pounds of milk. We’ll find a home for it 95% of the time. The average amount of time it takes for food to be claimed is half an hour. Our record is two minutes and 37 seconds.
You’d think the novelty would wear off — nope! In our office, every time you see a donation go live on our admin panel, and then you see somebody has claimed it, you’re like, “It worked!” When you see food move, you know that that’s people getting to eat that maybe wouldn’t have been able to — or maybe they’re getting to eat better than they would have. You’re also keeping food from going to landfills. It’s just great for everybody.
CNN: How do you balance running MEANS with being a full-time student?
Belding: Pretty much everybody on our staff is running between classes, labs and work. Our original office was split between my co-founder Grant’s apartment and the basement of my freshman year dorm. Now we’re in the American University Center for Innovation, and this semester my physics class was down the hall, so I literally ran there a minute before class started.
I actually took a year off to devote myself to MEANS full time. Now I am a rising senior and will graduate next May with my pre-medical requirements met. I’m definitely not having a normal college experience. I’ve never been to a Greek life event, I’m not in any clubs, and I know I would have a much better G.P.A. if I wasn’t doing this. But this is more important than me.
What makes it worth it is knowing that we’re building something that matters a lot more than we do.
Want to get involved? Check out the MEANS website and see how to help.
To donate to MEANS, click the CrowdRise widget below.