8 minute read

Bringing it to the table

Shifman, Fernandez and Reiber cook up a food rescue plan that utilizes an app and volunteers willing to go the ‘last-mile’

It’s an unfortunate paradox that although up to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted, millions of people throughout the country remain food insecure. But it isn’t always clear how to bridge the gap between the two problems.

Locally, there’s now an app – and a new nonprofit – for that. Last Mile Food Rescue uses technology to help keep good food out of landfills and get it to people in need.

“There’s a disconnect: There’s so much waste and there’s so much hunger,” said Tom Fernandez.

He and Julie Shifman cofounded Last Mile, which launched in November 2020. By mid-April of this year, the nonprofit and its network of more than 200 volunteers (a.k.a. “heroes”) had rescued some 297,000 pounds of food and distributed it to 50-plus area nonprofits, creating more than 248,000 meals. At the same time, they’ve reaped an environmental benefit: The food they’ve kept out of landfills accounts for more than 161,000 pounds of CO2 prevented.

Last Mile uses a simple process: Volunteers download the Last Mile Food Rescue app to see available rescues. (Optional notifications can alert users to open rescues).

When a volunteer “claims” a rescue, the app directs them to a retailer or distributor to pick up food that won’t be used before it expires. The app then directs the volunteer to a pantry, shelter, or another nonprofit that needs the items.

“We’re like the Uber of food rescue,” Fernandez said.

With that setup, they don’t need the infrastructure of buildings to store food or trucks to transport it.

That makes the model nimble and scalable. Their goal for their first year is to rescue one million pounds of food, “but we’re going to blow past it,” said Shifman, who serves as the nonprofit’s executive director. They hope to meet their stretch goal of 1.5 million pounds of rescued food by their Nov. 17 anniversary this year.

Before they met

Kurt Reiber, president and CEO of Freestore Foodbank and now a member of Last Mile’s board of directors, is the matchmaker who brought Fernandez and Shifman together.

A Pennsylvania native, Fernandez studied business at Carnegie Mellon. Although his days as a reservist on the school’s tennis team didn’t end in his childhood dream of becoming a professional tennis player, he and his wife both landed jobs at Procter & Gamble after graduation.

His 23-year career there, in purchasing within the company’s supply chain operations, was excellent preparation for Last Mile, he said. “The food rescue process is a supply-chain process,” he said.

While at P&G, he also got his first taste of nonprofit work. The “proud Asian-American” – he’s of Philipino ancestry – co-founded in 2007 the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, now a thriving association with 90 corporate sponsors, a $1.5 million budget and host of the largest Asian-American gathering (a career fair) in the U.S.

After P&G, the Hyde Park resident and father of two daughters put on his entrepreneurial hat, starting Massage Envy locations in Kenwood and Eastgate.

He sold those businesses and joined the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber as senior business advisor of the Minority Business Accelerator. He feels so strongly about that work that he’s staying on even while working on Last Mile, where he’s board chair.

“To me, that’s what makes my life interesting, that I get to do a lot of different things,” she said.

The Cincinnati native, who has four grown sons and one grandson, studied ballet at Indiana University and danced withthe Cincinnati Ballet before attending law school. She worked with many nonprofits during her 18 years practicing law and eventually formed a nonprofit consulting company.

In 2008, she noticed a lot of her empty-nester friends – educated Boomer women who’d been out of the workforce while raising children – were struggling with what to do next and finding a lack of resources to help.

She wrote a book, “Act Three,” as an entry to the speaking circuit, and she launched a coaching company by the same name.

For her own next act, she took a job as executive director of Adopt a Class, a local nonprofit that brings mentors into economically challenged schools.

“I learned how to run an organization that had enormous amounts of volunteers,” much like Last Mile, she said.

Beyond her paid work, she’s had a long history of volunteer involvement with nonprofits ranging from the Talbert House to the YWCA to United Way.

That includes more than 30 years on the board of the Cincinnati Ballet, where one of her biggest initiatives was “Cincy in NYC.” The ballet, Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival were all performing in New York City around the same time. Shifman and her committee worked to get other arts groups, plus chefs, involved, culminating in 1,500 Cincinnatians traveling to New York City in May 2014. The project gave her ample experience in fundraising, critical to her work at Last Mile.

Two paths converge

Despite their distinct backgrounds, Shifman and Fernandez came to the idea of starting a technology-based food rescue in the same way: Hearing about efforts in other cities.

Shifman’s sister, who lives in Atlanta, mentioned using an app to rescue food.

“I said, ‘that’s amazing; we don’t have anything like that in Cincinnati.’”

Shifman contacted Reiber at the Freestore. As it happened, he’d been advising someone who was interested in the very same thing: Fernandez.

Fernandez had read about a fellow Carnegie Mellon alum who started 412 Food Rescue in Pittsburgh. That organization uses an app and volunteer “Food Rescue Heroes” to rescue food. (Last Mile eventually licensed and now uses that organization’s Food Rescue Hero app.)

Reiber connected the duo, who met in June 2019.

“We compared notes and we just hit it off,” Fernandez said.

“When I think back, I can’t believe how lucky we are,” Shifman said. “We literally had never met, hadn’t even heard of each other, and yet very quickly figured out we were going to be able to do this.”

They spent the next six months visiting and benchmarking other cities to determine the best practices and technology for their project. It also gave them time to get to know each other.

“Julie’s tough as nails,” Fernandez said. “Her husband, as an endearment, (said) she’s a ‘get (stuff) done girl.’ That’s what you need. You need somebody who’s just so committed they make things happen.”

“Tom has an incredible personality and way with people that is very helpful in our relationships,” Shifman said.

They don’t see Last Mile as competing with other area nonprofits. “The needs in the community are so tremendous for food that there is room for everyone,” Fernandez said.

Reiber welcomed Fernadez and Shifman’s effort to create an incremental increase in the amount of food available to local residents.

The Freestore already serves a large network of 600-plus pantries, he said, and it picks up large food donations from places like grocery stores and manufacturers.

“We’re not as nimble as we can be to pick up these smaller donations, the 10 pounds of food here or the 15 pounds of food there,” but that food makes a difference, he said.

“It’s a great way for folks that have these smaller donations to have an alternative to throwing that food away,” Reiber said. “That’s – in my opinion – a win-win-win for everyone.”

Fernandez has seen that win-winwin via excitement from donors, who get a tax benefit and the reward of seeing perfectly good food redirected to those in need. Volunteers, meanwhile, feel “joy” in getting food through that “last mile” to beneficiaries, who in turn appreciate the items.

“That joy, you really want to keep it going,” he said. “It’s a good vibe, and it’s self-perpetuating.”

FIRST YEAR GOAL: 1 million pounds of rescued food • STRETCH GOAL: 1.5 million pounds • ACHIEVED SO FAR: 300,000 pounds • VOLUNTEERS ENGAGED SO FAR: 200

Success in sight?

Those who know Fernandez and Shifman think they have what it takes to make Last Mile a success. Community leaders at the Cincinnati chamber, Flywheel and Cintrifuse provided early support on the idea as part of Tom’s Leadership Action class. (Of note: They’re the co-founders, but both credit leadership by their chief operating officer, Eileen Budo, as a huge part of their success so far).

Fernandez “has the right combination of skills and motivations and desires to see it through,” said Darrin Redus, senior vice president of economic inclusion at the Cincinnati chamber and executive director of the Minority Business Accelerator. (Fernandez is on his team).

Beyond Ferndanez’ project management skills, Redus appreciates his “‘can-do’ spirit and “positive attitude.”

Both at the Chamber and at Last Mile, “Tom is very driven by the need and the opportunity to make an impact for underserved communities,” he added.

Victoria Morgan, Cincinnati Ballet’s artistic director, met Shifman

when she moved here 24 years ago. She noted that Shifman’s impact on the ballet has been “immeasurable.”

“You need the passion and the energy, but you also need the formality of structure and organized thought, and (Shifman) brought both of those things,” she said.

She lists reasons Shifman will be successful with Last Mile: “She’s got the work ethic, she’s got the follow through. She knows the community, she knows people who will help her. She’s very compelling; she’ll tell the story in a way that will be convincing … She will succeed.”

Last Mile’s success would be a step toward fighting hunger in our area. It’s not a problem that can be cured overnight, but raising awareness is key, Reiber said.

“Last Mile Food Rescue has allowed the community to see that even the smallest donation can make an impact on lives,” he said. “Together, we can create a hunger-free, healthy and thriving community.” �

513-449-1698, info@lastmilefood.org or www.lastmilefood.org