Will Pittner worked his way through college in the warehouse where they threw away the food.
A truck from a hog farm used to pull up to the loading dock to collect the dining hall leftovers. Pittner was a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas the first time he pushed a big green bin filled with nutritious food on its way to be fed to the pigs.
"I was a hungry student, working three different jobs, trying to pay bills," he said, remembering how he would peek into the bucket, at all those untouched prepared meals, thinking, "This is perfectly good food."
He remembers how tempted he was to reach down and snag a free dinner. It made him wonder.
"Who else in the community," he said, "is this hungry, too?"
One out of six of us. Almost half a million Minnesotans have experienced food insecurity, according to estimates by Second Harvest Heartland. In a nation where a third of the food supply goes to waste before anyone can eat it.
"Entrepreneurs solve problems," his professors at St. Thomas's Schulze School of Entrepreneurship told him. "What problems do you see?"
For the next few years, he worked with the school on the problem. He needed to figure out how to safely preserve the unused meals. He needed to figure out the logistics of getting the food where it needed to go.
He needed to figure out how to get investors to take a college kid seriously when he was pitching a startup called Food to People in the middle of the Feeding our Future scandal — dozens of people connected with that fraudulent charity stand accused of lining their pockets with millions of dollars in federal food aid.
University food services had heard waste-not, want-not pitches like his before. People or groups who wanted to collect all unused food so it wouldn't go to waste. But a few months would pass and life would get in the way and despite their kind intentions, people would stop showing up, leaving hungry people waiting for meals that would never come.
"A lot of them were very skeptical, of course," Pittner said. "They told me, 'We don't want this to fall through in six weeks.'"
He kept working. He learned about the flash freezers at the university that could safely preserve unused food. He lined up transportation. He found churches and shelters willing to contract with him for the surplus meals. His business plan won a $7,500 award for social entrepreneurship from the university's Fowler Business Concept Challenge his junior year.
There are many nonprofits working to end food waste. Pittner kept working on the problem in front of him, even after he graduated last year.
"I was Door Dashing, I was selling my plasma," as he worked on his plan for Food to People, he said. He kept picturing hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans — enough to fill U.S. Bank Stadium nine times over — who were missing a meal. Meals he could help deliver.
For the past year, Food to People has lived up to its name, ferrying flash-frozen meals from St. Thomas and other sites to half a dozen shelters and churches in the community.
This summer, he reached out to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, which has begun donating excess food once a week from its Lino Lakes facility, which also has a kitchen capable of flash-freezing meals for safe transport.
Food insecurity and food waste are problems so huge that they might seem impossible for anyone to solve. Until you meet someone who's trying.
This Thanksgiving, we'll gather to appreciate what we have. Across Minnesota, there will be generous Minnesotans sharing with those who have less. Another reason to give thanks.
"There's enough food in America," Pittner said. "Nobody should go hungry."