St. Louis Food Rescue: Teens on a mission to feed the hungry

Nate Noss, Sam Pepose and Will Hopkins of St. Louis Food Rescue are pictured at Whole Foods Market, one of the locations where the teens pick up leftover fresh produce and bread, which they deliver to homeless shelters. Photo: Yana Hotter

By Ellie Grossman, Special to the Jewish Light

Helping the hungry is more than a mitzvah project for teenagers Nate Noss, Will Hopkins, and Sam Pepose. It’s a mission. 

With one in eight people in the greater St Louis area dependent on food pantries and homeless shelters for their daily meals, the hunger crisis is real, and these local high school seniors play a big role in solving the problem in our community. 

Noss, Hopkins, and Pepose, who originally became friends when they attended Whitfield School and were in band class together, are the brains and the brawn behind St. Louis Food Rescue (STLFR). Since its inception in 2011, this 100-percent teenage-run organization has already distributed food to about a half million people, or 300,000 local families. In the process, these “Unsung Heroes” have saved about 5,000 pounds of fresh produce and bread from being discarded each week.

Sure, these teens are young, but their souls are old. In fact, they combine their leadership and communication skills, networking abilities, and Jewish values to make a difference in the world.

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“I will never forget the time when I saw a 2-year-old boy sleeping with his mother on a cardboard box or the time when I handed a man some grapes and he answered, ‘I haven’t had a grape for 20 years.’  I realized he was not joking when he explained how he was discharged from the hospital after an injury because he did not have enough money, and his injury was not life threatening,” said Noss, who, at age 11, began volunteering at the Jewish Food Pantry in 2006 as a school requirement. 

By the time he was 15, Noss was seeking donations himself at area grocery stores and bakeries. 

“Many people in the stores did not take me seriously, and one manager even laughed at me,” Noss continued.  “As I grew older, I learned that age does not matter; that evolved into one of the reasons we are 100 percent teenage-volunteer run. Many places thought that a 15-year-old could never make a large commitment, but there were multiple stores, such as Whole Foods and Costco, that eagerly donated their leftovers. 

“I decided to bring this food downtown at the New Life Evangelistic Center where I knew there were hungry people. They greeted me with warm hearts.”

At age 16, Noss attended Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) Leadership, a three-day seminar that “allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone while being surrounded by 150 of Missouri’s best high school leaders,” said Noss, who will graduate from Lafayette High School and travel to Israel this summer. He plans to attend the Technion Israel Institute of Technology International School of Engineering to study civil and environmental engineering.

“I went on to represent Missouri at the week-long HOBY World Leadership Congress.  A few days after returning home from the conference, I founded St. Louis Food Rescue.”

In 2011, Noss was on the lookout for people he trusted to help him with his mission to end hunger in St. Louis. He wanted to join forces with peers who were smart, dedicated and had the same Jewish values as him. That’s when he partnered with Pepose and Hopkins. From there, the nonprofit group gained momentum.  

“For years now we have seen him spend countless hours organizing and motivating volunteers, delivering food and still achieving so much in school, sports, music, etc.,” said Art Noss, who nominated his son’s group for the award. “Of course, no organization is successful without a team effort and we are so happy that he has been able to work with great friends like Will, Sam and so many other dedicated teens in building this organization.”

STLFR is not only helping the hungry, it’s also devoted to inspiring young people by allocating all leadership opportunities to teenagers and making community service a part of their lives. STLFR operates mostly on the weekends and evenings when mainstream collection agencies are closed, so there’s definitely a niche to be filled. 

“The most satisfying part of STLFR is knowing that food will not go to the trash, and instead, will go to feeding the hungry,” said Hopkins, a Whitfield senior who plans to study mechanical engineering or computer science at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla in the fall.  

STLFR operates so efficiently because each of the trio has an important job to do. “Running STLFR is like running a small business. Each of us have tasks,” said Hopkins. 

Noss, founder and president, makes executive decisions for the organization, speaks to youth groups, and coordinates the Pumpkin Project, which collects thousands of donated pumpkins to feed those in need.

Pepose, vice president and director of social media and technology, broadens the Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn influence, while managing the website and creating videos to promote the organization.  

 “I am a software developer, so that is my strength for the organization,” said Pepose, who will attend Vanderbilt University-School of Engineering in the fall. “I also keep the organization on track with realistic goals. Nate is the dreamer, I help to figure out the reasonable logistics,” adding that the most satisfying part of STLFR “is helping those in our community who can’t help themselves.”

Hopkins, secretary and volunteer coordinator, is responsible for having enough volunteers signed up for every delivery, which is not always easy.  “The largest challenge we’ve had to overcome is the spontaneous cancellations by volunteers 15 minutes before a delivery. This usually meant we had to cancel our studies, homework, etc. and do what needed to be done,” said Hopkins. 

STLFR currently has 46 teen volunteers who deliver food. The organization also has partnerships with a local Boy Scout troop and The Principia School in Town and Country, and they plan on recruiting other schools and youth groups for more volunteers.  For the most part, STLFR is a well-oiled machine, but balancing volunteer work with the demands of high school and a social life is always a challenge. 

“Time management is the key. This isn’t something teens usually learn until later in college, but it’s very important,” said Pepose.

Despite their tight schedules, they somehow manage to make things work.

 “It is very difficult to balance my school work with extracurricular activities and STLFR,” Hopkins said. “To save time I have had to cut some of my extra curricular activities like BBYO and my hobby, which is flying remote control planes and helicopters. Nate usually covers my work when I participate in theatrical productions, which usually take two weeks of intense practice. More than once though, I’ve had to leave practice early to make a delivery.” 

As for the future, well it looks very bright for these young men, and hopefully STLFR will continue to grow as the torch is handed over to the next leaders.

“I built St. Louis Food Rescue with my own hands.  The organization is driven by my passion and the volunteers’ passions to never let a person go hungry when food is wasted,” said Noss.  “While STLFR is not a religious organization, I am a Conservative Jew, and my Jewish values and morals have and will always ensure the well being of every single person.  I went from a volunteer at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry to a motivated entrepreneur, and hundreds of thousands of people benefited from that.”