Interview with Levi Grimm of Jee Foods: A Student-Led, Food Rescue Nonprofit
All photos are courtesy of Jee Foods
What inspired you to play a central role in this organization?
I first came to JEE Foods to gain business experience. From the start, it was clear that JEE Foods was different than other school clubs. JEE Foods had, and continues to have, a bias towards action. This means that we encourage students to fail forward and look at every problem as solvable. For me, this type of environment was energizing. I have wanted to be an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. I knew that I wanted to run a business, but the question I wrestled with was what that business would be. When I came to JEE Foods, it became clear to me. I realized that social entrepreneurship allowed me to merge my interest in business with a desire to serve others. So, early on, I knew that JEE Foods could provide the platform I sought.
In retrospect, I didn't do things with the goal of becoming the director. Instead, I tried to always focus on who we were serving and have a 'yes' mindset toward projects that would move us closer to our ultimate goal. As my roles shifted, I recognized that JEE Foods is much more than a hunger-relief organization. While hunger relief is at the heart of what we do, JEE Foods has the power to inspire and empower others, specifically students. One of the most rewarding aspects of JEE Foods is working alongside fellow students for the good of others. I am continually inspired by what we can accomplish collectively, and at the end of the day, the difference that we can make in the lives of others fuels my fire.
JEE Foods changes your mindset in many ways: to think bigger and act on those possibilities. My motivation stemmed from an opportunity to learn-hands how a social enterprise works. Now, I am inspired by what may seem unreachable and imagining a hunger-free world.
Can you describe what it is like to work in a nonprofit organization as a full-time college student? Challenges, opportunities?
To me, this question all boils down to perspective. On one hand, it is difficult to juggle classes with the requirements of running an organization. I often will be on calls as I walk to class or sacrifice my lunch to meet with potential partners. It is by no means easy. The hardest part for me is how agile you have to be. In a matter of minutes, your brain has to switch from thinking about calculus to thinking about how to move food across the state and then back to accounting. This is only compounded when a fire appears that must be put out in the middle of class.
However, I believe that the opportunities outweigh the struggles. I have found that the best way to manage everything is to create synergies and empower your team. Being a student and entrepreneur simultaneously allows you to quickly contextualize your learning. I have brought the content to life in many leadership classes by connecting it to my experience in JEE Foods. This has not only allowed me to have a deeper understanding of the content but also to learn lessons I can apply to the organization. Miami University has amazing faculty that I can lean on when faced with business challenges. The college environment has provided me with a strong support system and network to go to if I need guidance for the organization.
Can you speak more about the seven ongoing initiatives at Jee Foods? Are there plans to expand in the near future?
At JEE Foods, we often say that we will grow to meet the needs of our community. We see food rescue as the backbone of what we do. However, we were founded with an entrepreneurial spirit, and we try to live out that value in the best way possible. Growing to meet the need means never being content with where we are. We believe that we have a duty to expand our operations until no one goes to sleep hungry. Right now, our organization is expanding in large-scale food rescues. In 2022, we opened a new food distribution warehouse in Hamilton, OH, which has allowed us to rescue and move semi-trailers worth of food across the country. We see this as a large area of growth for the organization.
Food Rescue: This is our core program. We have over 80 food rescues weekly between our food donors (grocery stores, restaurants, farms, etc.) and nonprofit partners. Through the Food Rescue US website, community members become food rescuers. They can use their vehicles when it is convenient to transport excess food in the community.
Gleaning: JEE Foods is based in Hamilton, Ohio, which is surrounded by large farming communities. Our gleaning program, in partnership with the Society of St. Andrew, allows our team to take to the fields and harvest excess food that would otherwise be left behind on the farm.
Food Distributions: This program resulted from the pandemic and our organization's involvement in the USDA Farmers' to Families program. In this program, our organization coordinated food distributions totaling over 100,000lbs of fresh fruit, meat, and dairy products to individuals in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Food distributions are an effective, short-term way for our organization to quickly deploy resources to the community.
Food Pantry Services: Going back to our founding, we try to center everything we do around those we serve. The food pantry that we operate in our community allows us to do just that. Our pantry is based on the choice model, which allows customers to select the items that their family needs instead of receiving a box of pre-selected, pre-packaged food. The food pantry is also entirely staffed by student volunteers, which allows them to directly see the impact that they are making.
The Maroon Mocha: The Maroon Mocha is a coffee bar we opened in our high school. In 2019, our team noticed that students were coming to school without eating breakfast. As a result, we opened a student-run coffee bar in our school that allows us to serve drinks and breakfast to students. Not only are students learning how to operate a quick-service cafe, but we have also seen an increase in the number of students eating breakfast each day.
The Mobile Market: The Mobile Market is our newest project. Like many of our other projects, it came from understanding the needs of our community. In our case, we noticed that there was a lack of access to fresh food, called a food desert. The mobile market aims to change this by bringing the solution to the problem. The Mobile Market is a renovated church bus that is stocked with fresh food and pantry staples that would otherwise be hard to find in these areas. The Mobile Market allows community members to step inside and select food items for their families.
Job Training: This project is not yet launched, but it is one of our long-term goals. The basis of JEE Foods is how we can provide a pathway out of poverty (United Nations SDG 1). To break the cycle of poverty, we realize that we can use our operational space as a training tool to provide in-need community members with on-the-job training and certifications that boost their opportunities for future employment. Right now, this program is taking the form of job training for our student team members.
What is your volunteer program like? Many students wish to get involved but do not know where to start; how do you meet students where they are at with their prior experiences or previous skill sets?
Our volunteer program revolves around the perpetual dilemma that we only have a student working with us for an average of 3-4 years due to the student-powered aspect. Instead of working to pull as much as we can out of the student for the organization's benefit, we see our volunteer program as a way to provide a student with the tools and resources to look at and, ultimately, solve a problem. Touching on a previous point, JEE Foods has the ability to change mindsets and how people look at problems. We see our job as not only to help push the organization forward but help students realize the incredible potential that each person has.
From the start, we put our students in front of partners and place them in projects filled with ambiguity. To some extent, we let students swim in the deep end. We want students to discover what they are capable of themselves, so we structure our programs in a way that fosters this. JEE Foods forces students to think differently and hold themselves to a high professional standard. Being a member of JEE Foods is by no means easy, but it can have incredible payoffs. Every day, we tell our team that we are not students but instead, we are business professionals and global citizens.
At the same time, our volunteer program reinforces the idea that volunteerism is more than a one-time act. Beginning in a student's first month, they are asked to volunteer at the food pantry and with our nonprofit partners. We believe that volunteerism is more than a one-time act, and we create opportunities that reflect a connection to the community.
In the end, JEE Foods is structured in a way that helps students find their passion. We have the same business departments that a company would have, but we constantly challenge our team to think bigger and devote themselves to projects they find fulfilling.
We met at the Food Donation Improvement Act (FDIA) Conference in July, and I wanted to learn more about how policies such as this would impact Jee Food Vision and accompanying initiatives.
From an operational lens, our goal is to rescue every pound of edible food no matter where it is in the supply chain. To accomplish this, we need to look at waste from every sector including restaurants, grocery stores, the hospitality industry, and the entertainment industry. Over the last five years, we have seen a common trend, businesses and employees want to donate their excess food, but they have a looming fear - liability. Many potential donors that we interact with cite food liability concerns as a barrier to donating food. Specifically, donors are worried that they would be held liable if someone was to get sick from donated food. Even though the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act has existed since 1996, there is widespread fear. We see the FDIA as the next step to removing the largest barrier to food donation.
When I think about the potential impact of the FDIA, I am most excited about new large-scale partnerships that can be created. We have found that donation programs are the most successful when there is corporate buy-in and support. So, by strengthening the Good Samaritan Act, I am hopeful that corporations will launch new initiatives with renewed commitments to donation protections in the FDIA.
What has been your involvement with the United Nations? Is your work rooted in the spirit of any of the UN SDGs, specifically Goal 2: Zero Hunger?
Our involvement with the United Nations stems back to our founding in 2017. In November of 2017 as part of the Samsung and IVECA STEAM challenge, our high school, Butler Tech/Ross High School, was selected as one of eight schools internationally to be tasked by the United Nations to develop solutions to the UN SGDs. Specifically, our founding group of students worked with a team of students in Busan, South Korea on issues one and two: No Poverty and Zero Hunger. The challenge focused on having students identify issues in their community and then compare them globally. At the time, food waste was not discussed to the degree that it is now, and our team saw an opportunity. As a result of this challenge, JEE Foods was born and we were given the opportunity to present to a delegation at the United Nations. Since then, we have continued to align our work with the SDGs and have had the honor of presenting to the United Nations an additional two times. Every new project and initiative we do uses the SDGs as a framework for impact. Since our founding, we have expanded beyond SDGs 1 and 2 to also include SDGs 8, 11, 12, 13, and 17.