Irvine High School Students Fight Food Insecurity By Tackling Food Waste

Courtesy of Zero Waste

Nithin Parthasarathy, founder of the Zero Waste Initiative, and a volunteer (behind) picks up uneaten bagels from a Bruegger's Bagels in Aliso Creek on July 9.

What happens to the uneaten bagels at coffee shops? 

One high school student in Orange County asked this very question before embarking on a mission to rescue bagels that weren’t purchased and gets them to people in need.

The Zero Waste Initiative started a little before the Coronavirus pandemic began by Nithin Parthasarathy, a 15-year-old student from Northwood High School in Irvine. The initiative takes extra uneaten bagels from Bruegger’s Bagels franchises to various organizations across the County that feed those in need.

In the last few months, Parthasarathy and his initiative have donated over $20,000 worth of food that would have otherwise been destined for the trashcan. They also pick up excess food from Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Einstein Bro. Bagels.

“It actually all started when I was eating bagels at Bruegger’s bagel and I asked for a skinny bagel and so when they chopped off the top of the bagel and the bottom, they threw the rhines away. I thought that instead of doing that they’d repurpose it,” Parthasarathy said.

“When I saw that they just threw it in the trash I was completely shocked,” he added. “I was really ashamed that I had caused some perfectly good food to be wasted.”

Parthasarathy said after seeing that he asked if the store would be willing to donate the excess bagels to people in need and that’s how the initiative got its start.

Mike Learakos is the executive director of Waste Not OC, a public-private coalition formed in 2012 whose goal is to eliminate hunger and reduce food waste. Learakos said efforts like Parthasarathy’s are wonderful in a phone interview with the Voice of OC.

“The one thing that we have a glut of throughout the county, and actually in our region is bread. There’s just so much of it in large part because it’s cheap to produce and for a bakery, bagel shop, a coffee shop it’s more advantageous to over produce than it is to run short,” Learakos said.

Once the pandemic and Stay at Home Order started Zero Waste went on hiatus but after seeing unemployment rates shoot up and hearing about farmers having to destroy crops and dump milk, Parthasarathy started it up again.

But the initiative has not been without challenges.

“Some stores are just perfectly willing to throw their food away,” Parthasarathy said.

The pandemic brought about its own challenges as well, as people began to fear the virus and had health concerns.

“It was getting a little bit difficult to get approval to pick up and distribute foods to different nonprofits and it took a lot of phone calls. emails and advocacy to find these stores that could donate the food waste in these times and also to find the right organizations who welcome just help,” Parthasarathy said.

Nithin Parthasarathy, founder of the Zero Waste Initiative, and a volunteer put uneaten bagels into the trunk of a car on July 9.

The bagels are put in large plastic bags which are wrapped in additional bags and those who pick up and drop off the bagels wear masks and gloves. Raji Kannan, Parthasarthy’s mother, drives him to go pick up and drop off the bagels.

Kannan said in a phone interview she is happy to be an active part of her son’s initiative and that she feels they are really supporting the community by giving back to the extent that they can.

“Apart from being conscious about food waste, Nithin has been from the start particular about waste and the environment in general. He wouldn’t like the water to run, (he) turns off the lights or air conditioner and advocates us to compost food waste,” Kannan said in a follow up text.

Kannan is among a small group of volunteers who are helping Parthasarathy get the bagels where they need to go. This group includes Amita Ramanujan, a student at Portola High School and the initiative’s director of volunteer operations.

Ramanujan reached out to Parthasarathy after reading about his efforts and joined wanting to help the cause.

“My overall goal is to bring in more volunteers so we can expand the number of organizations we work with,” Ramanujan said. “COVID-19 is causing financial instability for many more people, putting them in harsher circumstances and is only going to lead to an increase of people that need help.”

Those who want to volunteer can visit the Zero Waste Initiative website and reach out to the group to see how to help. 

The organization is in the process of becoming a non profit and Parthasarathy said he hopes to get more hands on deck in the future which will mean more food rescued and more people fed.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @[email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.