Northwood High School Junior Nithin Parthasarathy is a charismatic 16-year-old who enjoys playing flute in the Northwood High School Marching Band. However, aside from a passion for music, Parthasarathy has also found time to become the founder and CEO of the Zero Waste Initiative nonprofit.
Now, the teen’s Irvine-based food rescue has helped collect and donate upwards of $100,000 of would-be discarded baked goods.
In an interview with Irvine Weekly, Parthasarathy explained the “light bulb” moment for the Zero Waste Initiative occurred in January 2020, after ordering a “skinny bagel” from Bruegger’s Bagels in Irvine.
“I noticed the employee that was taking my order cut off the part of the bagel that they weren’t going to use and they just simply threw it away,” Parthasarathy explained. “And that just got me thinking about what they did to the bagels that they just couldn’t sell. They responded that they just threw those away as well.”
Currently, Zero Waste Initiative rescues would-be discarded bagels, donuts and Starbucks variety items.
While the idea of an adolescent entrepreneur running a local nonprofit which collects hundreds of dollars worth of discarded-food from corporations like Starbucks each week might raise some eyebrows, Parthasarathy says Zero Waste Initiative was created to raise awareness around food insecurity.
“Since there’s so many people in the world that need food, I thought it’d be both good for the environment and good for those people if those bagels and other food went to those people.”
Now, for a little more than a year, Parthasarathy and about eight volunteers – which include other members of the Northwood High School Marching band – have literally collected and donated tons of bagels to local food banks.
With the help of local bagel shops including Bruegger’s Bagels, Einstein’s Bagels and Starbucks Coffee, the efforts of Zero Waste Initiative have equated to big bucks, in terms of donations.
“We collect every day of the week. We go to visit all these stores at closing time and put all these bagels in bags, put them in our cars and drive to the next store,” Parthasarathy said. “At the end of all that, we take them to organizations such as the Salvation Army, so that they can give those bagels to the people they serve.”
Parthasarathy estimates Zero Waste Initiative collects around 2,500 to 4,000 bagels on a weekly basis. In terms of cost, Parthasarathy estimates each bagel to be between $1 to $2.
“Usually on average 3,000 [bagels each week],” Parthasarathy explained. “That’s a lot of money, first of all – and also a lot of food. Assuming that each bagel costs $1.50 for production, or selling it – for 2,000 bagels that would be $3,000. Over time, that really just adds up in terms of the amount of money that’s being wasted when these bagels are wasted.”
Parthasarathy also added that another part of the Zero Waste Initiative focus is keeping food away from landfills. Specifically, Parthasarathy said processed food is detrimental to the environment, due to the resources used that are eventually wasted when the food ends up in the trash.
“The production of the food and the food being thrown away in general, just wastes a bunch of resources and that has a huge detriment on the environment,” Parthasarathy explained.
Still, regardless of the Irvine teen’s unwavering commitment to community, the COVID-19 pandemic created an unstable environment for food handling everywhere. But, Parthasarathy was determined for the Zero Waste Initiative to press onward, and not let the challenges presented by the pandemic ruin the opportunity to provide for those in need.
“For one, there were temporary store closures, so I had to work some things out,” Parthasarathy explained. “What happened was that I made sure to address all the concerns. I took food safety handling courses to make sure the initiative kept running, because there were so many people affected by COVID that needed food.”
Parthasarathy’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
The Northwood High School Student was one of 10 students across the nation to receive the $500 Earth Day Scholarship from the National Society of High School Scholars Foundation. The Earth Day Scholarship is presented by the TKTKTK, for the recognition of environmental stewardship efforts.
“That scholarship was for volunteering efforts, because the Zero Waste Initiative helps the environment by rescuing those unsold bagels,” Parthasarathy said.
For now, Parthasarathy is looking to expand the Zero Waste Initiative, but said it will require more volunteers. He’s confident the impression the initiative has had on the community is positive, but is eager to find more ways to encourage more people to join.
“When my classmates hear about the initiative, I think it kind of inspires them to do something like participate in the Zero Waste Initiative itself – especially when they learn about how much food wastage there is,” the Irvine teen explained. “The more volunteers I have, the more stores and the more bagels we can save.”
In terms of future plans, Parthasarathy says he still has some time before deciding where he will continue his education, but says there are plans to continue to a four-year university after he graduates Northwood next June.
What is certain, however, is that wherever Parthasarathy goes, the Zero Waste Initiative will follow.
“I am hoping to pursue a higher education, but also take the opportunity to spread the Zero Waste Initiative where I go, because no matter where you go there will always be food waste and food insecurity, unfortunately.”
If you would like to volunteer for the Zero Waste Initiative, Parthasarathy recommends visiting the website and sending an email. Volunteer requests can also be submitted via Google form via the Zero Waste Initiative website.