Meet Ben Simon, Do Something Awards Nominee!

There are 50 million Americans who struggle to put food on the table. Sadly, hunger in the U.S. isn’t caused by lack of food, but rather the continued prevalence of poverty. Do Something Awards nominee, Ben Simon is taking action around this issue. When he was in high school, the now 23-year-old’s family opened their home to James. Ben’s family gave him food and shelter, until he found a job and another place to live two years later. Once Ben got to college, he was shocked to learn that 22 million pounds of food are thrown out every year on college campuses. What the what? This inspired him to start the Food Recovery Network in 2011. FRN uses college chapters to recover prepared food from their dining halls and delivers it to soup kitchens or shelters in their communities. Check out our interview with Ben below: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you're addressing?

Ben Simon: I was appalled to find out how much food is wasted in America, both when I read the statistics and when I went on my first food recoveries where we recovered 100 to 200 pounds of food from our dining hall each night. I couldn’t believe how much delicious, edible food was just going to be thrown in a trash can. It definitely shook up some of my assumptions about society and I immediately saw it as a big opportunity to feed hungry people in my area.


DS: How do you feel about it now?

BS: I still feel suspended in this moment of disbelief and outrage. I’m also driven by a mission to wake people up on the issue and create system-wide change. People don’t talk a lot about food waste, but it’s one of the top contributors to climate change, amounts for $165 billion in economic loss each year, and is especially unfortunate given there are 50 million Americans who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.


DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?

BS: I stay inspired by thinking about the people I’ve met who receive the food we donate. Many of them bring their kids. A lot of them are senior citizens. All of them are Americans struggling to get by and pay the costs of rent, healthcare, heating and electric bills, transportation, and other necessities in addition to food. In this economy so many people have a need. It feels good to help ease their struggle by helping to provide them with some food.


DS: Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?

BS: I felt like I was actually making a difference the very first time I went on a recovery. The amount of food we were donating right off the bat at UMD was incredible.


DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?

BS: The hardest part of getting Food Recovery Network off the ground and continuing to grow it has been fear about food safety and liability on the part of major food donors. In food service, the standard response is that they can’t donate because they’ll get sued. Yet, there’s a federal law that is largely unknown called the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that clears good faith food donors from criminal and civil liability. As long as they practice very basic food safety, donors are protected. A lot of what we do is an educational campaign to get the word out – not just about liability protection, but also the fact that businesses can deduct donations and reduce waste hauling fees, making food recovery a smart business decision.


DS: What's been the biggest lesson through the process?

BS: The biggest lesson has probably been the importance of recruiting a strong team. I have high standards but I’m always on the lookout for passionate leaders to bring into the organization and am never bashful to ask someone to join the team if I think they have the talent and passion. I think a lot of our success can be attributed to having such an awesome group of co-founders.


DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

BS: I am continually surprised at how much of a community has formed around Food Recovery Network and the number of people that want to contribute. It warms my heart to get letters and hand-written notes in the mail from people who just heard about the project and wanted to offer their encouragement. Some of it is surreal – after getting featured on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show a couple times this year, we randomly got an email from Olympian-of-the-Century Carl Lewis that he wanted to get involved. He ended up coming to UMD to hang out for a day and do a recovery with us. Stuff like that continues to blow my mind.


DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?

BS: This may sound harsh, but I think if someone is working their very hardest to get their idea off the ground and they aren’t gaining any traction there is some chance it’s just not a good idea. I’m coming from a lean start-up philosophy of entrepreneurship where the saying is to fail fast, fail forward, but never fail fatal. So, throw yourself into a big, crazy idea. If it’s not working out and you completely fail, good thing you’re young. You can wake up the next day and pursue a different idea. It’s only a matter of time before you start something amazing.


DS: What's next for your project?

BS: Food Recovery Network is finally settling into an office; it’s a student start-up incubator space at the University of Maryland called the Start-up Shell. For the past year and a half our leadership team has been scattered at several different colleges across America and has been using video chat for our weekly meetings. (In fact, I haven’t even met one of my co-founders.) We recently got a major grant from Sodexo Foundation, which will be enough funding for a few of us to work full time on the project. So, we’re in the midst of professionalizing the organization. We are currently at 22 colleges and have donated over 165,000 pounds of food. We have a goal of getting to 75 colleges and donating 310,000 pounds of food by this time next year. Our long-term vision is to get to 1,000 chapters and donate 10 million pounds of food by the end of 2017, changing the way America thinks about food waste and igniting a generation of food justice leaders.

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