A Woodside wunderkind who made it to Wall Street, Robert Lee quit a lucrative post to make less than $30,000 a year feeding New York's hungry while reducing rampant food waste.
Lee, 24, who grew up in Flushing, is the co-founder of rescuingleftovercuisine.org, an organization that has attracted 1,500 volunteers and fed countless hungry New Yorkers with 50,000 pounds of perfectly good food it has diverted from the dump so far.
Volunteers retrieve leftover food from more than 30 businesses here such as Panera, Starbucks, Katz's Deli and the Long Island Bagel Café, carting, pushing and lugging the overstock to shelters, food banks and soup kitchens.
"Robert directly feeds 10-15%" of the hundreds of people served daily at the New York City Rescue Mission, program officer Harry Silman said.
"It saves us a great deal of money -- and you'd be surprised at what a bowl of soup and a bagel will do to keep someone warm in the winter," said Rescue Mission receptionist and security director Tim Weal. Formerly homeless himself, Weal said such donations were essential to the monumental task of feeding NYC's expanding population of hungry people.
According to the Food Bank for New York City, 17.4% of all New Yorkers are "food insecure," missing meals as a result of inadequate resources.
Rescuing Leftovers, which recently won a $10,000 grant from KIND Snacks, operates on donations to buy handcarts, maintain the resuingleftovers.org website and expand its mission. (A sister group just opened in Washington, D.C.) Teach for America donates office space in lower Manhattan.
"I've wanted to be a social entrepreneur since I was in high school," said Lee, a Stuyvesant alum. After going to the NYU Stern School of Business on a Gates Millennium Scholar scholarship and interning at Amnesty International, he landed at JP Morgan, working as an investment management risk analyst.
The child of Korean immigrants, Lee grew up being told pointed morality tales that stressed the eternal punishments awaiting those who did not appreciate the rice in their bowls: In one, future children of the food wastrel were doomed to "starve to death." In another, "you have to eat all the food you wasted in the afterlife ... From a very early age, I grew up hating food waste," Lee explained.
He first began rechanneling leftover food via a group he helped start at NYU, winning awards for his food surplus redistribution model.
Elders had advised Lee that the best way to make a difference in the world was to make a lot of money, and then donate dough in his dotage to deserving causes. But that seemed wasteful. Lee wanted to put his time to its highest and best use while full of youthful vigor, so he quit his JP Morgan job last summer to devote himself full-time to his nonprofit. The bank surprised him with a "goodbye" grant to help.
"I could afford to take a risk on a professional level," because he had no student debt, thanks to a full scholarship, and a nest egg saved while laboring on Wall Street, he explained.
Rescuing Leftovers was designed to fill a needed void as well as bellies. Other nonprofits were devoted to repurposing unused food, but had minimum donation requirements of as much as 50 lbs., leaving smaller amounts of leftovers off the table. Rescuing Leftovers will pick up any reasonable amount of usable food. Lee and his friends also made volunteering easy and efficient; people sign up online for stints as short as 30 minutes. They also used technology in an enterprising way to organize daily pick ups and deliveries, and learned about all the complicated laws related to food, so as not to run afoul of authorities. (Leftovers on restaurant plates cannot, alas, be repurposed, so take those home!)
Participating businesses get print outs verifying their donations each month. These reports helped managers at one restaurant realize they were over buying pastries to the tune of $65 a day, so they began making their own to curtail waste. That decreased donations, but Lee was elated. Stopping food waste "is exactly what we want!" he crowed. "We waste 40% of all food we produce in the U.S. and one-seventh of all people are food insecure. If we could rescue just 30%, we could end hunger."
It feels good to live your dream, acknowledged Lee, who lives, frugally, with his girlfriend. "When I was at Morgan, I was sitting in front of a computer all day long, never meeting anyone. Now I meet with volunteers all day and the stories we hear make this such a gratifying experience," Lee said. "Anyone can make a difference -- even if it's a small amount. That's what I wanted to show the Wall Street people."