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/Madison
Cloudy
40° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 36°
Muscle Shoals
Cloudy
44° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 42°
Huntsville/Madison
Cloudy
40° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 31°
Feels Like: 36°
Decatur
Cloudy
41° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 38°
Fort Payne
Cloudy
39° wxIcon
Hi: 51° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 35°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 426543

Reported Deaths: 6126
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson62752920
Mobile30551554
Madison27303186
Tuscaloosa20835267
Montgomery19192305
Shelby18693114
Baldwin16513183
Lee12603101
Morgan12321113
Etowah11805168
Calhoun11206200
Marshall10236107
Houston8681148
Cullman8094105
Limestone807474
Elmore7923101
DeKalb771597
Lauderdale763183
St. Clair7599120
Talladega6224108
Walker5930174
Jackson583741
Colbert535473
Blount532083
Autauga522755
Coffee446256
Dale399781
Franklin368148
Chilton337865
Russell335910
Covington330168
Escambia321342
Dallas305196
Chambers288669
Clarke283133
Tallapoosa2630107
Pike251329
Marion247350
Lawrence245247
Winston229035
Bibb217047
Geneva203335
Marengo200829
Pickens196931
Hale177442
Barbour173836
Fayette171226
Butler170758
Cherokee160930
Henry155021
Monroe147317
Randolph141535
Washington138326
Clay127045
Crenshaw120244
Cleburne118423
Lamar118419
Macon116835
Lowndes111535
Wilcox103621
Bullock99728
Perry98219
Conecuh95120
Sumter89526
Greene76223
Coosa60515
Choctaw51524
Out of AL00
Unassigned00

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 690065

Reported Deaths: 8471
CountyCasesDeaths
Shelby767471128
Davidson71148672
Knox38985408
Hamilton34813329
Rutherford33298287
Unassigned22950127
Williamson21507140
Sumner18322232
Out of TN1618380
Wilson14511158
Montgomery14507149
Sullivan12634211
Blount12029126
Washington11949192
Maury11003123
Bradley1083891
Sevier10534108
Putnam9968140
Madison9163179
Robertson766685
Hamblen7018109
Anderson6818104
Greene6615108
Tipton622665
Gibson5656111
Coffee564882
Cumberland542173
Dickson540479
Bedford532889
Roane522979
Carter5115114
Lawrence511469
McMinn510073
Warren500053
Loudon497450
Jefferson480875
Dyer477282
Monroe459462
Hawkins448170
Franklin413062
Obion400580
Fayette399351
Rhea382856
Lincoln379844
Marshall346336
Cocke345656
Weakley341248
Cheatham338130
Henderson333857
Campbell325840
Giles323072
Carroll312759
White311743
Hardeman310452
Hardin298947
Lauderdale294331
Macon289350
Wayne262219
Henry261958
Overton254643
DeKalb242741
McNairy241042
Haywood240645
Smith231727
Marion229231
Trousdale228914
Scott226231
Hickman224934
Claiborne215929
Fentress213231
Grainger209636
Johnson202232
Morgan189815
Crockett180938
Bledsoe174910
Chester174837
Unicoi167944
Cannon158119
Lake156019
Decatur147726
Polk143817
Union139923
Grundy139321
Sequatchie137618
Humphreys133517
Benton132435
Lewis127720
Meigs114916
Stewart105820
Jackson104322
Perry94825
Clay94026
Houston93922
Moore8089
Pickett68020
Van Buren6637
Hancock4056

Community Events