This founder uses technology and hospitality to fight food insecurity

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During the pandemic, hunger in the United States has increased. 1 in 7 Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020, up from 1 in 9 in 2019 (Feed America). Covid-19 has exposed glaring gaps in our social safety nets, and they still exist more than two years into the pandemic. With inflation continuing to drive up food prices, the need for solutions is greater than ever. It’s there that Lemon enters the scene. The nonprofit tech connects food-insecure community members with nearby foods — from pantries to soup kitchens — tailored to their needs. This personalization is accompanied by a human-centered approach rooted in dignity. I spoke with Lemontree co-founder Kasumi Quinlan to learn more about her team’s unique solution.

Shannon Farley: Kasumi, you’ve gone from catering to running a non-profit technology association. How did you get there?

Kasumi Quinlan: In college, my favorite work experiences weren’t my internships – it was the odd jobs I took in restaurants. Although I loved the adrenaline of a busy shift, my favorite part was creating the perfect guest experience. You’d find me noticing the little things, like surprising a table with dessert after overhearing it was their anniversary.

It was this passion to bring joy through food that led me to build Lemontree. I have also always been committed to social impact. Lemontree fills the gap. My co-founder Alex Godin and I believe that everyone deserves to have access to food in a dignified way. We have therefore centered hospitality and human contact in the Lemontree solution. Today, we serve those most in need in New York, Philadelphia and northern New Jersey. And we’re not stopping there: our goal is to launch Lemontree in all major East Coast metros within the next few years.

Farley: Food insecurity is a complex problem. While a lot of food is wasted, food insecurity is a growing problem. What aspect of the problem does Lemontree focus on?

Quinlan: There are more food pantries in the United States than there are McDonald’s. Yet, surprisingly, the majority of people facing food insecurity do not have access to this assistance. This is largely due to lack of time and internet access – both of which are necessary for finding food pantries. Moreover, information that Is exist online are often incomplete or outdated. When you add the stigma that exists around food pantries, accessing these resources can seem impossible.

Farley: Lemontree’s solution addresses all of these obstacles. How it works?

Quinlan: Lemontree’s SMS Helpline connects users with accurate information about the best food pantry and soup kitchens in their neighborhood. We don’t just share nearby food resources. We also share verified information about a food pantry’s hours of operation, types of paperwork required, what kind of food they can expect, and more. Our support service is powered by an incredibly comprehensive dataset of food resources synthesized from over 50 data sources and over 1,600 customer reviews. And we combine this data with a human touch: as soon as a guest registers, they are connected with a hospitality specialist – a real human – who treats them with warmth and empathy to let them know that we support.

Farley: Anyone can search for local food pantries on a search engine. How is Lemontree different?

Quinlan: Three words: real user feedback. We ask our customers questions like “what food did you have?” and “how long did you wait?” We use their responses to constantly improve our support service. This feedback loop helps us accomplish two things: first, we can offer a deeper level of service, like connecting customers with halal food or food pantries that book appointments. Second, our users have the opportunity to be heard. Search engines won’t ask if you need help applying for benefits or respond with empathy when you say you haven’t eaten in days. We do.

Farley: Your approach works: tens of thousands of people in need have used Lemontree. Can you share a user story that brings your impact to life?

Quinlan: Absolutely. Let’s call this client Lisa. When Lisa joined Lemontree, she told us that she had recently been laid off and was struggling to pay her bills. She shared, “I’ve never needed help like this so I feel a little uncomfortable asking.” Our team initially responded with empathy, letting Lisa know there was nothing wrong with asking for help. We then connected Lisa to food in her neighborhood. This human connection makes it much more likely that Lisa will access these resources. And that she will come back to share with us valuable first-hand feedback that improves the system for everyone.

Farley: Lemontree has served countless people like Lisa. What kind of scale have you reached?

Quinlan: It’s a really exciting time for Lemontree. We recently launched in Philadelphia and my home region of northern New Jersey, which was very personally meaningful.

We have also launched a virtual volunteer engagement to help us continue to evolve. Employees of our partner companies now have the ability to connect customers to food themselves. We train volunteers on how to use our database to share everything customers need to know to access local pantries, and wrap it all in empathy. It’s flexible, easy and scalable, and we’re already seeing an impact. Last year, we served approximately 15,000 neighbors facing food insecurity. With the support of these volunteers, we are on track to increase that number tenfold to serve 150,000 people this year!

Farley: It’s really exciting. As a non-technical founder, what have you learned about scaling?

Quinlan: A lot! I’m the kind of founder who spends hours on the phone with a client and personally delivers a thank you gift to a partner. At Lemontree, I learned to balance these in-depth interactions with an emphasis on scale. Both are essential for us as a tech nonprofit: we want to help as many people as possible, but the real impact is in the human interactions we facilitate to connect people to food. I developed a ladder-oriented mindset, while still advocating moments of personal connection when my instincts told me to.

Farley: Thank you for sharing. In this sense, you are a few years into your journey as a founder. What advice do you have for your fellow social entrepreneurs?

Quinlan: Preparation is everything. It pays to do your homework before a meeting. Take the time to do your research, but also to refocus. Fill your glass with water, clear your workspace, and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, how do I want this conversation to go? It helps me write things down, so I often write a “script” before a meeting to organize my thoughts. Even though I know everything I write, taking notes helps me stay grounded and confident during a conversation.

Farley: This is great advice. To conclude, can you share your proudest moment of your Lemontree trip?

Quinlan: Honestly, my proudest moment is every day when I check our inbox and see the incredible work of our team. We scaled Lemontree by answering a few phone calls a day to a team of five hospitality specialists who assist 3,000 customers a month. I am filled with gratitude and pride when I witness the kindness and dedication our team puts into our work. It’s really magical.

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