Young Butler County entrepreneur wins national award for eye-opening food aid

‘It’s a big deal when these large organizations acknowledge that you’re good enough.’

Levi Grimm, an Okeana native, joined the student nonprofit, JEE Foods, at 16. An aspiring entrepreneur, he initially saw it as an opportunity to gain some business experience. It quickly became much more than that.

“I grew into the social aspects of it,” he said. “How I could make a bigger role in the community and have a lasting impact. I grew up in a small community where people knew and cared for each other. In tough times, we needed that support. So, I thought, ‘why can’t we do that in a larger scenario?’”

Grimm’s efforts culminated in being named an honoree for the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, an award that recognizes 25 outstanding young leaders (15 winners and 10 honorees) who’ve made a profoundly positive impact on their communities. As JEE Foods is funded by a combination of community donations, grants and entrepreneurial competitions, Grimm said the award is a major boost in a world where his young age can be a liability.

“It’s a big deal when these large organizations acknowledge that you’re good enough and know enough,” he said. “And the scholarship money is nothing to skimp over.”

When Grimm first joined JEE Foods, he was part of a group of 3-4 students. It began as a class project trying to determine what contributed to hunger. Their findings consisted of three factors: lack of jobs, education, and economy.

“We decided you can use food to lift people out of poverty,” he said. “Once people are nourished, they can pull themselves up, get jobs, even in food service, which can be high-paying.”

Their initial goal was to collect food from restaurants, stores and farms that would have otherwise gone to waste. Their initial efforts consisted of old-fashioned pavement-pounding.

“We made a lot of cold calls and weren’t afraid to hear ‘no,’” Grimm said. “A lot of places were concerned with the legality of it, like if they get sued if they accidentally gave spoiled food. Or they’re worried about the amount of time it takes to set up a schedule and gather all the donations. I told them the Good Samaritan Act protects anyone who donates in good faith, and all they have to do is get the food ready and we take care of the rest. And we provide a monthly metric so they can see the impact they’re having.”

Grimm said restaurateurs started to see the benefits of food donation.

“There are studies that show people are more likely to shop at a place that donates food,” he said. “Another unexpected side effect was the boost in employee morale. They get a lot of satisfaction out of it.”

Once the collection issue is resolved, storage and transfer are the next logistical hurdles. Grimm said they solved this with a combination of volunteerism and technology.

“There’s an app called Food Rescue USA,” he said. “We list the opportunities available. Volunteers download it, then pick up food and drop it off on their own schedule. They might do 50-60 drop-offs a week and each one takes about 30 minutes. Another thing we do is if some food has a blemish, an apple with a brown spot, for instance, we take it back to the kitchen at Ross High School and extend its shelf life.”

When the pandemic hit, Grimm partnered with the USDA’s Farmers to Families food box program. Suddenly, JEE Foods went from transferring and unloading mere carloads of food to semi-trucks.

“There was definitely a level of stress,” Grimm laughed. “Questions of ‘where does it go? Where do we store it? How do you unload a semi, anyway?’”

Grimm and JEE Foods wound up distributing to pantries across Ohio. The Farmers to Families program ended several months ago, and now JEE Foods has 15 student “employees,” many restaurant “customers,” and more ambitious plans, such as bringing a mobile produce and dairy market to identified “food deserts,” defined as communities that are at least a mile from a grocery store that sells healthy, nutritious food (corner markets selling primarily sugary foods don’t count).

Throughout it all, Grimm juggled JEE Foods, schoolwork, and college plans, occasionally confusing his classmates by either showing up in a business suit or seeing a food-stuffed semi pull up into the school parking lot.

“I always like to stay busy, and this doesn’t really feel like work,” he said. “I actually find it relaxing. It’s inspiring and motivating meeting all these people who want to work with us. (Kids at school) were in a state of disbelief at first, but as we got more credibility, the mindset shifted. We need a lot more volunteers. A lot of restaurants want to donate. We haven’t reached our peak yet.”

Grimm is a freshman at Miami University now. Although he initially saw JEE Foods as a stepping stone, he plans on remaining involved for the foreseeable future. Even if/when he leaves JEE Foods someday, his next endeavor will be something much like it.

“I can’t live without the people-centered aspect at this point,” he said. “I’ve found too much value in it.”

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