A non-profit – with help from many volunteers – is making sure that food is getting to those who need it.
During a recent Community Conversations, we met with Northern Virginia Food Rescue (NOVA-FR) CEO Aaron Tolson.
Tolson talked about the organization and the new app it launched last month.
Check out the full interview below.
Here is the video interview transcription:
ST Billingsley: Thank you for joining us on community conversations for What’s Up Prince William. Today, we have Aaron Tolson from the Northern Virginia Food Rescue. Thank you very much for being on our program today.
Aaron Tolson: Yeah, thanks for having me really appreciate it.
ST Billingsley: So we’ve talked about you guys before. But you’ve had some changes and some growth going on. So I’m just going to let you take it from there and tell us what’s been happening.
Aaron Tolson: All right. Thanks a lot. So two and a half years ago, we launched Prince William Food Rescue as a program of ACTS, with the goal of rescuing perishable food, mostly, that would be thrown away. That’s still good. How do we get that to the one in six that are hungry in our community? And so we were able to mobilize hundreds of volunteers in our community using an app called Prince William Food Rescue. And during the past two and a half years, we’ve rescued over two and a half million pounds of food, which is the equivalent of about 1.8 million meals for families in our community. And then with the pandemic, we worked with the county emergency management office. We got a warehouse space, and we’ve been in able to redistribute almost another 16 million pounds of food in the community during the pandemic.
ST Billingsley: Oh, that’s great.
Aaron Tolson: So it’s amazing. Unbelievable. It took the community, obviously lots of people, with our app to actually pick up the food and move it for us, because we couldn’t do it on our own. But we also knew when we launched this that other counties would probably benefit from the technology and the model that we were doing. And we thought if this catches on, we might want to expand. Well obviously it has. And so we’ve been working with 412 Food Rescue in Pittsburgh, the developers of the app. They actually created a whole brand new app just for us to be able to launch a multi-county version of what we’re doing. So for months now they’ve been working on putting that together.
Aaron Tolson: And a couple weeks ago we actually launched a brand new app. So we’re not using the Prince William Food Rescue app anymore. We’re now using the Northern Virginia Food Rescue app, which you can get on Google Play and the App Store. But what this will allow the user to do is, when they create their account and log in, they’ll be able to select which counties they want to be notified of rescues in. So right now we’re at Prince William obviously. That’s where we’ve been. But we’ve now launched into Fairfax. So we now have a Prince William Food Rescue Program and now a Fairfax Food Rescue Program. And so the user can actually select which county or both.
ST Billingsley: So if they live or work in either one, they can actually help either one of them.
Aaron Tolson: Yeah, exactly. When we were trying to think through how we wanted to do this, it’s a very fluid area. People live in one county, work in another county, or on a border, because it’s a fictional line. It doesn’t really exist. So we wanted folks that if you live on the border between the counties, to be able to select both, if you wanted to. And then as we add more counties and expand, that’ll show up in the app, and you’ll be able to just select new counties as we add them. So we’re real excited about this. This is something that was just a thought about three and a half years ago. And to see this now all of a sudden be happening is just absolutely incredible.
ST Billingsley: So the new app is out. We will put the link up for that so people can click on it and then join it if they haven’t already. And you’re also still, your organization, even though you’ve started through, or started with ACTS, you’ve really your own organization now. But you’re still working with organizations. Which ones are you still working with, and how do you help each other?
Aaron Tolson: So we, last March, this past March, launched as a subsidiary nonprofit of ACTS. So Northern Virginia Food Rescue is its own nonprofit now. But we still support about 70 food distribution sites throughout the county every month. So we’re moving a lot of food. Mostly, we’re moving food from grocery stores and restaurants directly to these food distribution sites. But then with the warehouse operation, we have bulk food going out to these sites.
Aaron Tolson: The biggest thing, I would say, that we’re seeing right now though, is an uptick in the number of food insecure students in our schools. Food insecurity obviously is still an issue. But we are getting contacted from multiple schools with, “Hey, we’ve been doing this for years, backpack programs for kids so they’ve got some food on the weekends. And we’ve usually had 10. We have 70 right now.” And they can’t keep up with that. So we’ve been working hard to build bags that are kid friendly. Sometimes these kids are home alone on weekends or parents are working, trying to make money and support them. So it’s got to be something they can fix on their own. So we’ve actually got an Amazon wishlist that folks can go and purchase these kid-friendly items that get sent right to our warehouse. And we’ll probably have some more volunteer opportunities at the warehouse coming up soon too, because of the amount of food coming in, and the turnover that we have.
ST Billingsley: Very good. So just with the amount of kids, as you’re saying, that the increase that they’re having. Is it really just because of the parents having to work now, and the kids are home from school or what are you guys seeing? Or is that something that you could see, you’re just helping them fill the food part?
Aaron Tolson: We’re not exactly sure. I mean obviously the pandemic food insecurity just went through the roof. And it’s come down a bit, but not completely. So I think we’re still seeing some of the after effects of the pandemic and people that lost jobs. Workforce is still coming back. And so the need is still there. But I mean, we’re pretty much a reactive organization. We just try to respond to needs as they come to us.
ST Billingsley: Yeah. So with the organizations that you say, like 70 different food distribution places. How’s that helped them with you guys being a little more centralized? How does that actually work for them?
Aaron Tolson: I think that it’s probably beneficial for smaller communities because we’ve got smaller organizations that are known, that are trusted, that are feeding people in that community. So us being able to support so many sites has really been beneficial for folks without transportation who maybe can’t get to a food pantry, or they’re just unsure, or they don’t really know where to go. But if they’ve got a place that’s literally right there in the community, then that helps with the distribution.
ST Billingsley: So your warehouse is actually a pretty good size. So you can actually take in the food, you can actually get it sorted. Is that where it helps them also?
Aaron Tolson: I think so. I think it allows us to make better use of the resources that we have, make good decisions, trying to minimize waste or some organizations getting stuff that they don’t need or their communities don’t need. So it allows us to kind of sift through and sort, and then make wise choices on getting the pantries exactly what they need. Not too much, not too little, hopefully.
ST Billingsley: Gotcha.
Aaron Tolson: And then another thing is to kind of redistribute between food pantries. Because sometimes a larger food pantry might get a lot of donations of a particular item and they can’t use it all. They won’t go through it fast enough. So they work with us to say, “Hey, here’s the excess that we have.” And then we can be like, “Oh, well, we know a food pantry up the street that needs it.” And we can schedule a rescue from this food pantry to that food pantry and get food out.
ST Billingsley: Oh that’s great. So that really does help make everything work a little bit better.
Aaron Tolson: Yeah.
ST Billingsley: Well, we really appreciate everything that you’ve done with that, not only in Prince Williams County with some different organizations, but working so hard to get this launched and running. It really looks and sounds like it’s very beneficial to everybody.
Aaron Tolson: It is, and user friendly. And I’ve got a great team of people that are just doing fantastic stuff. But again, it takes a community. So we’re thankful for all of our food rescue heroes, all of our volunteers that use our app. We always could use more. We always have lots of rescues happening, and quite a few direct deliveries from food pantries to homes for seniors that are home bound, for folks without transportation. So we’ve got a lot of those going as well. So always good to involve our community, helping other neighbors.
ST Billingsley: Very good. Well, thank you for joining us today. We do appreciate you taking the time to talk with us, and that we can talk to the community about all the good things going on.
Aaron Tolson: Yeah. Thanks, ST. Appreciate it.
ST Billingsley: And thank you for joining us for our community conversations.
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