A few years ago, Julie Shifman found herself enamored with a hobby that her sister, who lives in Atlanta, picked up: Food rescue.
“She said, ‘I’m picking up food at the Atlanta Braves stadium,’” Shifman remembered. Her sister described the process: “I have this app on my phone. And then my app is going to tell me after I pick up the food…that I’m taking it to this homeless shelter down the street.”
Shifman’s sister was working with Second Helpings Atlanta, one of a growing network of nonprofits in the U.S. addressing food insecurity and waste. Volunteers are recruited to pick up leftover food from businesses and transport it, for free, to organizations feeding people in need.
Shifman thought it was a brilliant idea – one she decided to bring to Cincinnati, co-founding Last Mile Food Rescue in 2018 and serving as its vice president of external relations. In April, the nonprofit celebrated having rescued 5 million pounds of food thanks to an 800-people-strong volunteer base.
“All that food, it’s good food,” Shifman said. “It’s fresh, it’s meat, it’s dairy, it’s produce. It all goes to soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries.”
Around 80 million tons of food are wasted each year in the U.S., while more than 34 million Americans are food insecure – including 9 million children. In the Cincinnati area, that means 270,000 people are going hungry, while over 40% of edible food is thrown out from grocery stores, business cafeterias, and other food-serving institutions.
For Shifman, working on food rescue is about fulfilling Jewish values while continuing the Cincinnati Jewish community’s legacy of giving back to the region. Reducing food waste and hunger also helps the environment, with less food in landfills producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
“I have a deep held belief in all people, but particularly Jewish people, having an obligation to do what we can to help” the world, Shifman said. “Having enough to eat is a human right. But beyond that, having fresh, healthy, nutritious food should also be a human right.”
Shifman has a long history of working and volunteering in the nonprofit world – including in Jewish Cincinnati. But while she grew up here, attending Walnut Hills High School, a busy dance career limited her participation in Jewish life.
It was only later, moving back to Cincinnati from New York City with her husband Steven, and nine months pregnant with their first child, that Shifman started getting involved. David Schwartz, a local OBGYN and the then-president of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Jewish Committee, invited the couple to join the AJC board.
“That was our first introduction to the Jewish community,” Shifman said. “We joined a synagogue, that was a given, but in terms of actual involvement, it was…with AJC.”
The experience led to even more involvement in Jewish Cincinnati, with Shifman and her husband divvying up different interest areas to volunteer in. But volunteering was also an important part of the young family’s social life.
“The reality was that we [had] little kids, and making friends because we were new to town, even though I’d grown up here,” Shifman said. “They were all also connected to the Jewish community and so we all [volunteered] together.”
That Jewish connection has also tied into Shifman’s work with food rescue. Several food rescue nonprofits are run, or were started by, Jewish organizations, so it’s little surprise to have the concept reach Cincinnati in part through Shifman and her sister.
Second Helpings Atlanta was a project of Temple Sinai Atlanta before becoming its own organization, and in western Massachusetts, the local Jewish Federation started Rachel’s Table – which became a standalone nonprofit in early July.
Starting Last Mile Food Rescue ties into a larger mission for Shifman: Increasing Jewish representation and visibility in broader Cincinnati, rather than only serving in the Jewish community. That visibility isn’t just about what organization she helps lead, though.
“There hasn’t been Jewish representation on these other communal organization boards, to the degree…that we wanted to see,” Shifman said. In recent years, she has served on the executive boards of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and The Cincinnati Ballet.
She noted that volunteering outside the Jewish community was also about building relationships with organizations and leaders who might not be very knowledgeable about the Jewish community’s needs – and who might schedule important events on major Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur without knowing better.
But to get people involved – in the Jewish community or otherwise – Shifman said that those who already volunteer need to be active about inviting new participants.
“It’s incumbent upon them to reach out to somebody who maybe hasn’t been asked,” she said, much like it was with her and the AJC. Somebody not volunteering “doesn’t mean they don’t want to, they just don’t know where to plug in.”
Meanwhile, for folks new to this kind of community work and looking to do more, “if you start volunteering, and showing up, you will be asked to get more involved.”
As for where her overwhelming drive to contribute to Cincinnati and the Jewish community comes from, Shifman attributes it to the need to create a legacy for her family.
“That is a critical component to leave to my children and grandchildren,” she said, and giving to them “the legacy that was left to me: of a strong, vibrant Jewish community in Cincinnati.”
To get involved with Last Mile Food Rescue, visit their informational page here