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Meet The American University Entrepreneur Fighting The Food Waste Epidemic

40% of food produced in the US is thrown away. Since launching MEANS Database, Maria Rose Belding and her team have helped rehouse 1.9 million tons of food to those in need


Thu Aug 2 2018

Maria Rose Belding grew up in a rural community in Iowa, from a part of the world that’s populated more by cows than it is humans, she says. She worked in food pantries from a young age, and she presumed problems she encountered around communicating the delivery of food to those in need was down to the rural nature of her surroundings. 

Surely someone, somewhere, had designed a free online system to alleviate these issues—rural Iowa was just waiting for the technology to arrive. But, it turned out that despite technology’s omnipresence in our lives, no-one had used its potential to connect America’s non-profit food pantries with the outside world.

At just 14, Maria decided she would take it upon herself to do something about it. She set about researching in middle and high school, work that would eventually lead to her to launch Matching Excess and Need for Stability Database (MEANS).

MEANS is an online platform for any soup kitchen, homeless shelter, food bank, or folk in need, that connects them with restaurants and food retailers who have food to donate. It’s a free database that helps distribute the 133 billion pounds of food thrown away annually in the US to those in need.

The venture now operates out of American University’s (AU) Center for Innovation—ranked among the top 20 entrepreneurship centers in the world by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)—where Maria is pursuing a bachelor of science in public health.

“About one-in-eight American families rely on an emergency food provider,” Maria says. “In some cities it’s more like one-in-four, or three, or even two depending on where you are! Meanwhile, the US throws away up to 40% of its food supply.

“The thing is, it’s a solvable problem,” she adds. “It’s a priority!” 

MEANS works in 49 states and Puerto Rico. “The beauty of a tech company,” Maria explains, “is that you don’t have to put boots on the ground to be effective!”

So far, MEANS has found a home for 1.9 million tons of food. They also find homes for over 90% of the food donated on the website. The average amount of time for an item to find a home, Maria adds, is half an hour—even less in some places, and under 10 minutes in Rhode Island. 

Since the website was formally launched in early 2015, MEANS has brought on board over 3,000 partners, and it continues to grow.

The American University Center for Innovation—open to any student at AU, including budding entrepreneurs from the Kogod School of Business—has been a blessing, Maria says.

“Having office space is so, so nice. We weren’t in the AUCI for the first year and then we got in. We were meeting in random coffee shops and my dorm room, so it’s helpful to have the space, as well as the executives in residence.”

There are currently two executives in residence—William Bellows and Thomas White—who teach courses on entrepreneurship and business to MBA students, as well as offer mentorship to the entrepreneurs working in the Center for Innovation.

Thomas himself is a former MBA student from the Kogod School of Business, graduating in 1995. Maria says he gave her a key piece of advice for MEANS: trust people but don’t entrust them with the future of your business.

The AUCI also provides students’ ventures with an initial $1,500 and gives them the opportunity to develop their entrepreneurial mindset, carry out market research, and acquire further financial resources to grow their ideas.

Siri Terjesen, AUCI director and dean’s research fellow in entrepreneurship at Kogod, says that entrepreneurship is vital because it teaches an innovative mindset to students that they can leverage for the rest of their lives.

“We are developing these long-term mindsets for people to be self-starters,” she adds. “In many cases, the university is the first and unfortunately the last stop to develop those skills.”

Entrepreneurship at the Kogod School of Business offers students an avenue away from corporate capitalist labels. Entrepreneurship leans heavily towards social impact, but also teaches students about the importance of being self-sustaining.

That is made possible through the close mentoring students receive in the AUCI—a rarity, Siri says, in many of today’s universities.

“In this age, where there are so many constraints on professors’ time, in many cases they are barely there. [AUCI] gives increasingly rare one-on-one interactions between faculty and students.”

The American University’s Center for Innovation has seen ventures launched across a wealth of industries—indicative of the benefits reaped from opening the AUCI to anyone on campus. But, there is a direction, Siri explains, that AUCI likes to see students go.

“What we like to see are more tech-based ventures,” Siri concludes. “Students working in tech-based fields like computer science, physics, and biology, working either alone or with faculty on innovations they can find a commercial use for.”

Student Reviews

Kogod School of Business - American University




On Campus

Clean and well maintained campus

I am completely enamored with this school. The entire student body is driven, inclusive, and highly intelligent. The decision to attend American University is not made haphazardly. Its close proximity to Washington DC, making it one of the most strategically located schools after Georgetown, means it's just a short train ride away. The campus is well-maintained, with mostly attractive buildings, although there are a few that are less appealing. Additionally, there are numerous excellent food options available. The wide range of clubs and organizations to join is remarkable. It is undeniably a school filled with immense passion.




On Campus

City life

I’m having a wonderful time at American University. I love that I can get to a big city and still feel like a traditional campus. Sincerely, it is a school that may require some adjusting to, but in the end, it is a very good school with numerous opportunities for its students. The atmosphere in AU is so great that it pushes you in a positive way and offers every opportunity you could want.




On Campus

Amazing helpful professors

American College is an incredible school with astounding teachers. Best professors I could have asked for at an amazing school. My opinion is that American University's professors are its greatest asset. They are extremely intelligent and always eager to assist their students. They go above and beyond in their classes to make sure that their students do their best.




On Campus

AU Review

The workload is quite high and AU is definitely not an "easy" school. Students take their studies very seriously and can almost always find a group in the library, DAV, Starbucks or MGC. Courses can be quite ambitious if the right courses are offered and the admissions process can be confusing at times, but with the help of an advisor it is quite easy to navigate. The library can be crowded, and while it's not huge, there are plenty of other places to study on campus. The professors really want to help during office hours and interact with students. I've had good experiences with the professors and workload at AU, but it's an expensive city.




On Campus

Majoring in Political and International Relations

The instructors are unique and the classes can be boring at times. Check-in is stressful (but it is everywhere). The workload is what I expected. The most popular majors are international relations and political science




On Campus

I Love Being A Musical Theater Major

I love being a musical theater student, if you want to help behind the scenes, if you want to be an assistant director, if you want to be a director, if you want to write, you can do anything at this academy, very supportive, it's amazing, they are always there to help you. This is their working time. Even after the audition tells you what you did wrong, you can do better, or if you get picked, you know why they picked you, which is great




On Campus

AU's Business Model

Overall, there were a lot of good opportunities at UA, both in terms of course range and faculty. However, I had a few complete misfires. People who shouldn't have taught at all. Like all universities, AU's business model is to hire hands-on assistants so they don't have to pay them extra or perform well. They are signed and if that does not work, they are not hired any more. The problem with this is that you end up with people who are unqualified and bring their own agendas, biases that may or may not be based on research. Most of the professors were absolutely fantastic.




On Campus

AU - The Real Problem With Academics

Some teachers are amazing, some awful - typical of any school. But the real problem with AU is that many students don't care about academics as much as other things (eg, partying). The academics are really interrupted by the Greek life and the social life of the students. This makes it difficult for students interested in academics to get the most out of their school experience. Some students do not take classes seriously and do not respect teachers and other students. Courses and opportunities at UA are perfect for people who want to take advantage




On Campus

American University - The Best Place to Study

They know their stuff - I chose American University because the campus is beautiful and the biology program is relatively small. But after the first semester, I realized that all the professors, especially the people in the science department, are experts in their field. They are enthusiastic and helpful in lecturing; even the TAs who teach the labs are amazing and engaging.