"We want to get this food to people who need it. We've started to make progress, but we have a long way to go," Maria Rose Belding tells PEOPLE

March 17, 2016 10:55 AM

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Maria Rose Belding spent her middle and high school years being shoved into lockers, physically threatened and told she should kill herself to make the world a better place.

But Belding had other plans about how she could improve the world.

Almost as soon as she arrived in Washington, D.C., to begin pre-med studies at American University, she met and partnered with a tech-savvy George Washington University Law School student named Grant Nelson. Nelson took Belding’s fledgling plans for a network linking food banks – something she tirelessly developed throughout high school – and made them a reality.

“When I started volunteering at food banks, I was usually the youngest person by about 50 years,” Belding, 20, tells PEOPLE of her work in her native Pella, Iowa. “It was an icy, cold walk to the dumpster and I didn’t want an older volunteer to slip and break a hip or leg or kill themselves, so I threw out the expired food.”

The turning point for her was the donation of 10,000 boxes of macaroni and cheese with a fast-approaching expiration date. Despite the Herculean efforts of the pantry’s director, Melissa Zula, no other food bank could be found to take the food.

“I watched her work so hard, more than anyone would have ever expected of her, and she just couldn’t find anyone to take the food,” Belding says. “It was awful because I had to throw out 400 boxes of macaroni and cheese that expired…I just thought it shouldn’t be this difficult to get food to hungry people.”

But it is, say Zula, who for seven years has managed the Pella food bank.

Maria Rose Belding
Courtesy of Nilaya Sabnis/L'Oreal Women of Worth

“That is why her idea is so great,” Zula adds. “When I took over seven years ago, we were still working on pen and paper. Maria is young and creative and looked for ways to streamline the process. It was so fun to see her eyes light up when we talked about it. What she’s done is not only help us serve clients and guests but be more productive so we reach more people in need.”

As she researched the idea, Belding estimated that at least a third of food banks, most run by volunteers, have no working telephone numbers, email addresses or websites, making it impossible to efficiently report food surpluses.

“I found it difficult to believe that such a network didn’t already exist,” Nelson says of his original hesitation to work on the project. “Even if it didn’t, there are phones. Email. Facebook.”

The more he talked to Belding and explored the issue, the more convinced he was that such a network was needed. After a year of research, planning and coding, all between his rigorous law school studies, Nelson was hooked. And their non-profit MEANS (Matching Excess and Need for Stability), run by a lean student staff of just over a dozen, launched in February 2013. It is credited with saving in excess of two tons of food. The result is a network connecting food banks in 36 states and growing.

Before January’s paralyzing snowstorm in Washington, D.C., Belding, Nelson and their volunteer staff stocked the MEANS offices located at American University with pillows, blankets and hot drinks, to ensure they could work through the storm, thus keeping the network up and running.

“I got involved by accident. I didn’t know what I was getting into!” laughs Zoey Salsbury, an 18-year old sophomore at American University whose professional problem-solving savvy puts her on par with public relations officers at major agencies. “I was a Girl Scout all my life and volunteered at food banks, so I saw the need. And once I started talking to Maria, I knew I had to get involved. This is really intense, but we’re making a difference.”

Maria Rose Belding
Courtesy of Nilaya Sabnis/L'Oreal Women of Worth

The Rev. Tierney Screen, vice president of River Jordan Project, Inc. in Accokeek, Maryland, saw that work in action last fall when she met Belding at Convoy of Hope Community Day in Washington.

“We had over 3,600 pre-packed lunch bags containing cookies, candy, chips, napkins, mustard and ketchup packets, left over after the event. Maria Rose came to the event and assisted me to post the lunch bags on the MEANS Database at around 5 p.m.”

Just a few hours later, the food was claimed for those in need.

“This was truly eliminating food waste because the lunch bags and hot dog rolls would have had to be thrown in the trash as we did not have storage space for them,” Rev. Screen tells PEOPLE. “When you do the math, 3,600 meals were made available to 3,600 Homeless individuals. MEANS Database is real and filling the gap to eliminate food waste and to keep waste out of the landfills.”

And the world has taken notice with honors and accolades sent to Belding and her colleagues.

Just two years after her high school graduation, Belding, dressed in an elegant black evening gown, flashed a mega watt smile as she shared a red carpet in New York with celebrities, including Karlie Kloss, Eva Longoria, Andie MacDowell and Julianne Moore as one of 10 “Women of Worth” celebrated by L’Oreal Paris.

Belding hopes such honors will help spread the word about MEANS and the need to stop food waste.

“This is all building to a point where the U.S. isn’t wasting needed food,” she says. “We want to get this food to people who need it. We’ve started to make progress, but we have a long way to go.”

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