2020 ENG Grad Fighting Waste and Food Insecurity

Lizy Flagg created an app for a local nonprofit rescuing and delivering food to households in need

By Dana Ferrante, Photos by Cydney Scott

Photo of Lizy Flagg (ENG’20) in a Boston University sweatshirt during a volunteer shift for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. She holds three brown paper bags.
Lizy Flagg (ENG’20) developed the app on behalf of the local chapter of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.

Lizy Flagg has been busy during quarantine—the numbers prove it.

After COVID-19 sent her back to her parents’ Framingham, Mass., home last March to complete her biomedical engineering degree, Flagg (ENG’20) found herself with more free time. She worried about how the pandemic would worsen the existing economic disparities in Boston and searched for a safe, hands-on way to support the communities most affected by the crisis.

She was drawn to the work of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), a nonprofit that combats food waste and food insecurity in more than 15 US cities. With the help of volunteer “food rescuers,” RLC connects restaurants and other businesses that have surplus food with homeless shelters, food pantries, and other local human services agencies.

Flagg signed up for her first shift on a Friday at the end of March. Since then, she has delivered more than 235 meals, roughly 284 pounds of food, to Boston-area residents and organizations in need.

In Massachusetts, food makes up about a quarter of the waste stream. And yet, in 2018 9.3 percent of households in Massachusetts were food-insecure—unable to provide enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members, according to the USDA.

Last spring, the pandemic exacerbated both these issues; the number of food-insecure households tripled, with Black and Latinx households experiencing a disproportionately higher rate of food insecurity. As a result, RLC  increased the number of volunteer shifts and added home delivery to their roster of services. In partnership with a variety of organizations, the nonprofit has since delivered more than 13,000 meals to the homes of Boston Public Schools students, low-income senior citizens, veterans, and permanent residents in the Pine Street Inn’s Rapid Re-Housing program, to name a few.

Flagg primarily did home deliveries and quickly discovered that some of them were a two-person job. She enlisted the help of her boyfriend, Aaron Bourget: he drove while she navigated, kept track of the recipients, and called to make sure they were home. Because of food safety concerns, RLC volunteers must ensure the recipient receives the food before heading to the next house. If the recipient is unable to answer the door, volunteers refer to a list of alternative recipients, who often live far from the original delivery area.

Photo of Flagg (left) and her boyfriend, Aaron Bourget, picking up a donation from Bagelsaurus in Cambridge during a volunteer shift for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine in August. Both wear masks, Lizy carries a tub with brown bags.
Flagg (left) and her boyfriend, Aaron Bourget, picking up a donation from Bagelsaurus in Cambridge during an August volunteer shift for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.

“I think that’s when I started realizing that there could be some streamlining,” says Flagg. “If the two of us could barely handle this, how does one person do all of these things?” Rather than switching between emails, spreadsheets, Google maps, and PDFs, Flagg thought the volunteer experience could be improved with “everything centralized in one easy-to-access place.” An app would allow volunteers to call recipients and navigate to their address with just one click.

And Flagg offered to build it.

“It was right after I graduated, so I had a little more free time on my hands before I started working,” says Flagg. “I thought, this could be my quarantine project.”

“Lizy’s kindness could not have come at a better time,” says Dana Siles, RLC’s New England coordinator. The local branch had considered an app, but found developer costs prohibitive on a nonprofit budget. After a few meetings with Siles and her colleagues at RLC headquarters in New York, Flagg built the app using the platform AppSheet, which easily integrated with RLC’s existing data-tracking systems. “I was blown away,” Siles says. “I couldn’t believe [her] level of ingenuity, creativity, and just incredible generosity.”

Photo of Flagg's hand holding a phone that shows the mobile app she developed for RLC home deliveries. Volunteers can use the app to contact donors, recipients, and alternates, as well as navigate to pick-up and delivery sites. The screen shows the map with a pin on it.
Flagg developed a mobile app for RLC home deliveries. Volunteers can use the app to contact donors, recipients, and alternates, as well as navigate to pickup and delivery sites.

With coding experience from her BU College of Engineering classes and her research job at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “my foundations of code were pretty strong,”  Flagg says, “but I had never actually done app development before.”

Flagg then became her own first beta tester, using the app while making deliveries to homes in East Boston, the South End, and Dorchester. With recipient lists now organized geographically, she had a much easier time managing stops. Since the app launched to all of RLC on August 1, volunteers have made more than 420 deliveries—about 1,100 meals.

RLC currently services 167 Boston-area households—a number that is expected to grow. In July, the nonprofit was awarded a Boston Resiliency Fund grant to continue expanding its infrastructure. “Especially now as we prepare for the winter,” Siles says, “the app will make volunteering with Rescuing Leftover Cuisine a safer, easier, and more positive experience.”

These days, Flagg does most of her volunteer deliveries on the weekends. In late June, she began working full-time as a medical assistant and clinical research coordinator at Greater Boston Gastroenterology and hopes to enroll in medical school in fall 2021.

In the meantime, she’s appreciated hearing feedback from the more than 40 RLC rescuers who have used her app. “I was nervous about how people who had done [deliveries] very differently would adapt to te app,” she says. “We’ve gotten a couple of pieces of really good feedback from people—most people seem to really like it.”