Medical student Preetha Rajkumar is studying to become a surgeon. But the 24-year-old El Paso resident has already impacted hundreds of local families’ well-being through the work she began as a college student.
While studying cell and molecular biology at the University of Texas at El Paso five years ago, Rajkumar – a self-described foodie – came across the concept of food rescue. Working with a group of friends on campus, she founded the volunteer-run nonprofit organization No Lost Food.
“I have the luxury to go to a restaurant and eat what I want,” she said. “I can cook with all these expensive ingredients, but there are people who can’t even have a basic morsel of rice. That’s how my love for food turned into a community service passion.”
No Lost Food collects food from businesses and local households to prevent it from being thrown away. Its goal is to redistribute that food to shelters to help 200 to 500 families in Juárez and El Paso monthly.
“We get it from any food donors: they can be restaurants, businesses, bakeries, stores or individuals,” she said. “We’re almost like Robin Hood. We take the food from those that have excess and give it to those who don’t.”
When Diana Lopez, owner of Cereal Killers in west El Paso, learned about No Lost Food, she knew she wanted to help. At first, the Juárez-born resident did not know the nonprofit accepted food items and set up a donation box at the counter of her colorful cereal-based snack shop.
“Once I learned they took food too, I started giving them some of my cereals,” she said. “I can only keep my cereals for three months, but they usually last up to six months. I knew of many people who needed food and wanted to do my part. I used to think that everything was perfect here in the U.S., then I saw that people I knew were not getting enough food and wanted to help.”
Lopez said she does the same thing with cereal bars that she can only keep at her shop for seven days, although those don’t expire for up to two weeks. In the past, Lopez would give her extra cereals and sweets to the businesses around her shop.
“I’m pretty sure they were getting sick of all the cereal, so now I can give them to a worthy cause,” she said.
The USDA Economic Research Service estimates that in 2021, about 32% of households with income below the federal poverty line were food insecure. Food insecurity rates were “substantially higher than the national average for single-parent households and for Black and Hispanic households,” according to the report.
In El Paso, where census data shows that more than 80% of the population is Hispanic, about 18.3% lives in poverty, the food insecurity rate is about 15%. Child food insecurity is at about 24%, according to a study by Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, a rate that it projected to grow to 26.5% by 2021.
Faced with an influx of migrants passing through El Paso, some local shelters and food pantries had their food supply stretched to the limit.
Rajkumar’s work is driven by the knowledge that food insecurity is caused not by food shortages but food waste. A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services showed that 30%-40% of the food supply in the U.S. was wasted at an estimated cost of $161 billion.
“World hunger is a major issue across the globe,” said Rajkumar. “People were trying so many solutions, but nothing seemed to work. When I was doing my own research, I came across food rescue. I saw there was a lot of food going to waste.”
Around Texas and the globe, nonprofit organizations and grassroots groups are working to fight hunger by preventing food waste: Keep Austin Fed is redistributing surplus food to food-insecure locals.
During the pandemic, the Food Recovery Network, a student-led organization, partnered with the Farmlink Project to rescue more than 1 million pounds of food from 120 farms across the U.S. and redistributed it to people in need.
In Detroit, Make Food Not Waste upcycles food and food byproducts from restaurants, farms and grocers by taking them to their kitchens, where professionally trained chefs make 4,000 meals to feed people while keeping 15,000 pounds of food out of landfills weekly.
No Lost Food accepts most types of food – sealed items, cooked dishes and leftovers.
“What we do before we give it to people is to do a quality check,” said Rajkumar. “This is an exaggeration, but we always say even if they have a slice of bread, don’t throw it out. Give us a call. At the end of the day, we don’t want any food to go to waste.”
Even expired items find a use. Partnerships with ranchers and gardeners allow them to reuse donations as animal feed or in composting, ensuring no food is wasted.
“We are partnered with a couple of people in El Paso and Anthony, Texas as well,” said No Lost Food Branch Manager Priya Raj. “They use it for all the animals that they have.”
The nonprofit started small, and as it grew it allowed Rajkumar and others to work with larger quantities of food as more volunteers helped pick up and distribute the goods.
“We started with four plates of food,” said Rajkumar. “We can work with any amount given. We did start off with three students initially, and now it’s a floating crowd of between 20 to 30 at any given time.”
No Lost Food has continued growing since its inception and also offers financial help for students attending college. In 2022, the organization gave two $750 scholarships to students in El Paso.
The scholarship came about as Raj learned first-year students who made it through the first couple of years of their education continued on and graduated. The application process for the next round of scholarships opens in March.
“There’s a lot of stats out there that show that most dropouts are because they can’t pay the fees for the first or second semester,” said Rajkumar. “After they make it past the first and second semester, they usually get other scholarships, or they figure out another way to pay for college.”
This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.