STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

CNN Hero Maria Rose Belding

Maria Rose Belding co-founded MEANS, a nonprofit that uses an innovative online platform to connect businesses with extra food to charities that feed the hungry.

Posted: Jul 20, 2018 10:34 AM
Updated: Jul 20, 2018 10:49 AM

Maria Rose Belding grew up working in her church's food pantry in her small Iowa hometown.

"Jesus said, 'For I was hungry and you fed me.' ... Stacking cans was my answer to this call," Belding said.

As she got older, Belding realized that feeding the hungry wasn't as easy as it should be. The pantry's shelves overflowed with some items while other foods were desperately needed.

In 2009, when she was 14, the pantry received a huge donation of macaroni and cheese that was more than the community could use, and she saw how hard it was to contact other charities that could take it.

Months later, she had to throw away hundreds of expired boxes as people waited in line for food.

"I remember just crying and being so angry," said Belding, now 22. "There was nothing that really allowed us to communicate in an efficient way. ... The Internet was right in front of us!"

Belding had stumbled upon two problems that still plague the U.S. food system. According to the USDA, more than 40 million Americans don't regularly have enough to eat while up to 40% of the country's food supply is wasted.

In high school, she developed an idea for an online database that could solve both problems, but she didn't have the programming skills to make it work. After graduating, she met Grant Nelson, a law student who was writing code on his laptop.

About nine months later, during Belding's freshman year at American University, they launched MEANS, a free online platform that connects businesses with extra food to charities that feed the hungry.

Run largely by high school and college students, the nonprofit has helped redistribute more than 1.8 million pounds of food since 2015.

"Too often, grocery stores and restaurants find themselves throwing out food when there is great need in nearby communities," Belding said. "MEANS aims to make it easier to donate food than throw it in the dumpster. ... We're like a bridge that hasn't existed before."

CNN spoke to Belding about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: What does MEANS stand for, and how does it work?

Maria Rose Belding: MEANS is an acronym that stands for Matching Excess And Need for Stability; 14-year-old me had a fondness for acronyms.

It's pretty simple. If you want to get food from MEANS, you have to be registered as a legal charity in the United States. So, when a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or a food pantry needs something, they tell our system. And when a grocery store, caterer or food retailer has something they want to donate, all they have to do is go online and say, "This is where I am, this is what I've got, and this is when I need it gone by." Then the system automatically notifies all of those who have said, "I need things within these parameters." We're able to match up excess and need very, very quickly. At this point, MEANS has about 3,000 partners in 48 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The Emerson Act -- a 'Good Samaritan' law passed in 1996 -- protects donors from liability.

We're also part of a great partnership with the Rhode Island Health Department called Rhode to End Hunger, which encourages businesses to donate food to nonprofits. One of the shining stars of that is the Twin River Casino. They'll post hundreds of pounds of food, and somebody in Providence -- like McAuley House, which is feeding a lot of folks who are struggling -- will claim it really fast. The average in Rhode Island is about 10 minutes for things to move.

CNN: What are some of the most unusual donations you've had?

Belding: We've got all these awesome stories. People think, "Oh, no one's going to want that" -- we can prove you wrong. We have had 50 pounds of squab -- which is fancy baby pigeon -- from a five-star restaurant in Seattle. That ended up being used in pork and beans -- apparently it was a big hit. We've found home for 250 pounds of rutabagas, 11,000 pounds of green beans, 42,000 pounds of milk. We'll find a home for it 95% of the time. The average amount of time it takes for food to be claimed is half an hour. Our record is two minutes and 37 seconds.

You'd think the novelty would wear off -- nope! In our office, every time you see a donation go live on our admin panel, and then you see somebody has claimed it, you're like, "It worked!" When you see food move, you know that that's people getting to eat that maybe wouldn't have been able to -- or maybe they're getting to eat better than they would have. You're also keeping food from going to landfills. It's just great for everybody.

CNN: How do you balance running MEANS with being a full-time student?

Belding: Pretty much everybody on our staff is running between classes, labs and work. Our original office was split between my co-founder Grant's apartment and the basement of my freshman year dorm. Now we're in the American University Center for Innovation, and this semester my physics class was down the hall, so I literally ran there a minute before class started.

I actually took a year off to devote myself to MEANS full time. Now I am a rising senior and will graduate next May with my pre-medical requirements met. I'm definitely not having a normal college experience. I've never been to a Greek life event, I'm not in any clubs, and I know I would have a much better G.P.A. if I wasn't doing this. But this is more important than me.

What makes it worth it is knowing that we're building something that matters a lot more than we do.

Want to get involved? Check out the MEANS website and see how to help.

To donate to MEANS, click the CrowdRise widget below.

Huntsville
Scattered Clouds
91° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 92°
Florence
Clear
90° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 91°
Fayetteville
Broken Clouds
88° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 91°
Decatur
Broken Clouds
90° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 92°
Scottsboro
Clear
88° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 94°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 91776

Reported Deaths: 1639
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson12039228
Mobile9170197
Montgomery6305147
Madison508227
Tuscaloosa398466
Baldwin326323
Shelby307532
Marshall298433
Unassigned281255
Lee251940
Morgan224315
Etowah195728
DeKalb171813
Elmore162637
Calhoun159012
Walker147464
Houston132712
Dallas129423
Russell12471
St. Clair123612
Limestone120813
Franklin120620
Cullman115711
Colbert110712
Lauderdale109512
Autauga103020
Escambia97915
Talladega92713
Jackson8704
Chambers82838
Tallapoosa82278
Dale78722
Butler75135
Blount7413
Chilton7226
Coffee7165
Covington71520
Pike6607
Barbour5635
Lowndes55824
Marion54724
Marengo52614
Clarke4879
Hale45726
Bullock44111
Winston43211
Perry4314
Wilcox4089
Monroe3954
Randolph39110
Bibb3813
Conecuh37210
Pickens3719
Sumter35918
Lawrence3240
Washington31412
Macon31113
Crenshaw2973
Choctaw27612
Cherokee2477
Henry2463
Greene24511
Geneva2420
Clay2235
Lamar2032
Fayette1765
Cleburne1211
Coosa922
Out of AL00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 112441

Reported Deaths: 1117
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Shelby21728293
Davidson19563205
Rutherford615553
Hamilton572047
Knox410837
Williamson330822
Sumner321970
Unassigned29575
Out of TN278914
Wilson210222
Sevier17565
Montgomery175212
Bradley173910
Putnam160113
Trousdale15766
Robertson145919
Hamblen129713
Blount11817
Tipton11239
Maury10897
Washington10892
Madison92913
Bedford87711
Macon84113
Sullivan8339
Hardeman83011
Lake7560
Loudon6823
Bledsoe6741
Fayette6428
Anderson6307
Dickson6091
Gibson5902
Dyer5687
Cheatham5486
Rhea5111
Jefferson5083
McMinn49320
Lawrence4916
Henderson4690
Obion4534
Lauderdale4386
Carter4335
Warren4294
Coffee4212
Cocke4121
Hardin4097
Haywood4025
Roane3922
Cumberland3856
Smith3843
Monroe3779
Greene3765
Hawkins3694
Giles35410
McNairy3245
DeKalb3221
Weakley3103
Franklin2864
Marshall2662
Lincoln2551
Carroll2443
Crockett2364
Claiborne2350
Hickman2330
Henry2250
Campbell2211
Wayne2191
Marion2094
White2053
Chester1962
Grainger1790
Polk1793
Johnson1770
Decatur1692
Overton1391
Unicoi1390
Union1290
Cannon1260
Humphreys1093
Benton1081
Jackson1081
Scott1050
Grundy1022
Meigs990
Sequatchie960
Morgan911
Fentress760
Hancock761
Perry740
Stewart700
Clay640
Lewis581
Houston540
Moore440
Van Buren330
Pickett251

Community Events