The payoff for Nithin Parthasarathy came last fall, when he pulled up to the Orange County Rescue Mission in Santa Ana.
The junior at Irvine’s Northwood High School had weathered numerous bumps in the road in pursuit of his vision of turning shops’ leftover bagels into food for the hungry.
A shy 15-year-old when he started the effort, in early 2020, the first problem was convincing bagel shops that he could pull it off. Then, just as the ball got rolling, the pandemic lockdown hit and he had to reset.
But the population of hungry people only grew during COVID-19, and so did Nithin’s effort. Today, he runs the non-profit Zero Waste Initiative, with eight volunteers who gather and distribute the otherwise trash-bound bagels daily — more than $100,000 worth so far. He was one of 10 youths nationwide to be awarded a $500 Earth Day Scholarship this month from the National Society of High School Scholars Foundation.
But a bigger thrill came that fall afternoon at the Rescue Mission.
“I saw kids walking there, from their elementary school, to get something to eat. And they were just so excited to see me coming,” Parthasarathy said.
“Those smiles are what keep me going.”
Nithin’s mother volunteered to cook food for the needy when he was growing up. And theirs was a “clean-your-plate” household, with stories of hungry children elsewhere in the world. But Nithin said the first time the incongruity between food waste and food insecurity really hit home for him was on a trip to India, during a family dinner on a restaurant patio.
“Hungry kids were watching” people eating, the Irvine native recalled. “Some (diners) got up and left without finishing their food. That made an impact on me.”
Years later, in January 2020, he ordered a skinny bagel at Bruegger’s in Irvine and watched the worker slice off a portion and throw it in the trash. His mental gears started turning and he asked what they did with the leftover bagels at the end of the day. Those too, he was told, went into the trash
“I was done with being passive about it,” he said.
Nithin started calling bagel stores, coffee and doughnut shops, and food pantries for the hungry. The reception wasn’t always welcoming.
“I was 15,” he said. “And people didn’t take me seriously.”
But some did, like outreach coordinator Lindah Miles at Costa Mesa’s Lighthouse Outreach Center.
“He was a young kid, a little thin and kind of shy, but what could it hurt?” Miles recalled. “I said, ‘It would be amazing.’ And he carried through.”
Indeed, he kept calling and calling until he had participants on both sides — shops with leftover food to spare and pantries who fed the hungry. There was a hiccup when the lockdowns came in March 2020, but Nithin used the break to take an online food safety course and begin the process of establishing a 501 (c3) non profit. Within weeks, he was back at it.
He credits his parents not only with instilling the value of community service but also with driving him on the rounds, which he was making daily. These days, with help from both student and adult volunteers, bagels are collected daily from two Brueggers and two Einstein Bros. shops, although Nithin himself typically only hits the road twice a week — with his parents still driving.
“This kind of thin, shy guy has just blossomed,” Miles said. “Now he’s not so shy. He comes to the gate, he says ‘hi’ to all my guys living here. He’s confident.”
Nithin is attracting attention well beyond the central Orange County area he’s been serving.
“His Zero Waste Initiative addresses a global issue in a creative and resourceful way, and his determination is making a positive impact in his community,” said Karen Kane, executive director the national foundation that awarded him the scholarship this month.
The bagels are particularly helpful with outreach to the homeless, Miles said. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30% to 40% of the nation’s food ends up being thrown away, Nithin’s efforts reduce waste and more.
“It’s the love and hope-on-a-plate that’s communicated when you share a couple bagels and cream cheese,” Miles said. “It really helps me start conversations with these people, about who they are and what they need.”
Nithin, now a high school junior, doesn’t have clear college plans yet. In addition to community service, he cited a passion for coding and music — he plays piano, flute and Indian flute. In any event, he sees the Zero Waste Initiative continuing to grow.
“No matter where I go to college, I want to expand,” he said. “No matter where I go, there’s food waste and food insecurity.”
He hopes his efforts help raise awareness about that disparity. And he offered one more suggestion to his fellow human beings.
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind,” he said. “You never know what other people’s circumstances are.”
Source: Orange County Register