The payout for Nithin Parthasarathy came last fall while driving to the Orange County rescue mission in Santa Ana.
The junior at Northwood High School in Irvine had weathered numerous bumps in the road to pursue his vision of turning leftover bagels from stores into food for the hungry.
As a shy 15-year-old when he started the effort in early 2020, the first problem was trying to convince the bagel shops that he could make it. Then, just as the ball got rolling, the pandemic hit and he had to reset.
But the population of hungry people didn’t grow until during COVID-19, as did Nithin’s efforts. Today he heads the non-profit Zero Waste Initiative with eight volunteers who collect and distribute the otherwise garbage-bound bagels every day – so far worth more than 100,000 US dollars. He was one of 10 teenagers across the country to receive a $ 500 Earth Day Scholarship from the National Society of High School Scholars Foundation this month.
But there was a greater thrill on the rescue mission that fall afternoon.
“I’ve seen children go there from their elementary school to get something to eat. And they were just so excited to see me coming, ”Parthasarathy said.
“That smile keeps me going.”
Nithin’s mother volunteered to cook food for those in need when he was growing up. And they owned a clean-your-plate household with stories of hungry children in other parts of the world. But Nithin said the first time the mismatch between food waste and food insecurity really hit him was a trip to India over a family dinner on a restaurant terrace.
“Hungry children watched” people eat, the Irvine native recalled. “Some (guests) got up and left without finishing their meal. That impressed me. “
Years later, in January 2020, he ordered a skinny bagel from Bruegger in Irvine and watched as the worker cut off a portion and threw it in the trash. His mental gears started to spin and he asked what they were doing with the leftover bagels at the end of the day. These too, he was told, went in the trash
“I was done with being passive,” he said.
Nithin called bagel shops, coffee and donut shops, and pantries for the hungry. The reception was not always inviting.
“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 little kid, a little thin and a little shy, but what could it hurt?” Miles remembered. “I said, ‘It would be amazing.’ And he did it. “
In fact, he kept calling and calling until he had participants on both sides – scrap food shops and pantries to feed the hungry. There were hiccups when the lockdowns hit in March 2020, but Nithin took the break to take an online food safety course and begin starting a post-501 (c3) nonprofit. He was back within a few weeks.
He not only credits his parents for teaching the value of community service, but also driving him on the laps he made every day. Nowadays, with the help of volunteer students and adults, bagels are picked up daily from two Brueggers and two Einstein Bros. stores, although Nithin himself usually only travels twice a week – while his parents are still driving.
His Zero Waste Initiative has a website and accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“That kind of skinny, shy guy just blossomed,” Miles said. “Now he’s not that shy. He comes to the gate and says ‘hello’ to all of my boys who live here. He is confident. “
Nithin has drawn attention well beyond the central Orange County area in which it operates.
“His Zero Waste Initiative is creative and resourceful in addressing a global problem, and his determination has a positive impact on his community,” said Karen Kane, executive director of the national foundation that awarded him the scholarship this month.
The bagels are especially helpful for contacting the homeless, Miles said. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 30% to 40% of the country’s food is thrown away, Nithin’s efforts reduce waste and more.
“It’s the love and hope on a plate that is communicated when you share a few bagels and cream cheese,” said Miles. “It really helps me to start conversations with these people about who they are and what they need.”
Nithin, now a high school junior, has no clear college plans yet. In addition to community service, he cited a passion for coding and music – he plays the piano, flute, and Indian flute. In any case, he sees that the Zero Waste Initiative continues to grow.
“No matter where I go to college, I want to expand,” he said. “No matter where I go, there is food waste and food insecurity.”
He hopes his efforts will help raise awareness of this inequality. And he made another 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 like.”