Lemontree: This Founder Is Using Tech & Hospitality To Fight Food Insecurity
By Shannon Farley
During the pandemic, hunger in the U.S. spiked. 1 in 7 Americans experienced food insecurity in 2020, compared to 1 in 9 in 2019 (Feeding America). Covid-19 exposed glaring gaps in our social safety nets, and they still exist over two years into the pandemic. With inflation continuing to drive food prices up, the need for solutions is greater than ever. That’s where Lemontree comes into the picture. The tech nonprofit matches food insecure community members with nearby food— from food pantries to soup kitchens— tailored to their needs. This personalization is paired with a human-centered approach rooted in dignity. I chatted with Lemontree’s co-founder Kasumi Quinlan to learn about her team’s unique solution.
Shannon Farley: Kasumi, you went from working in food service to running a tech nonprofit. How did you get here?
Kasumi Quinlan: In college, my favorite work experiences weren’t my internships – they were the side jobs I picked up at restaurants. While I loved the adrenaline of a busy shift, my favorite part was crafting the perfect experience for guests. You’d find me picking up on the little things, like surprising a table with dessert after overhearing it was their anniversary.
It’s this passion for bringing joy through food that led me to build Lemontree. I’ve also always been committed to social impact. Lemontree bridges the gap. My co-founder Alex Godin and I believe everyone deserves access to food in a way that brings dignity. So we centered hospitality and human touch in Lemontree’s solution. Today, we serve those who need it most in New York City, Philadelphia, and North New Jersey. And we’re not stopping there: our goal is to launch Lemontree in every major metro on the East Coast within the next few years.
Farley: Food insecurity is a complicated issue. While plenty of food goes to waste, food insecurity is a growing problem. On which aspect of the problem is Lemontree focused?
Quinlan: There are more food pantries in the United States than there are McDonald’s. Yet shockingly, the majority of folks facing food insecurity don’t access this help. It’s overwhelmingly due to lack of time and access to the internet – both of which are required to find pantries. What’s more, information that does exist online is often incomplete or outdated. When you add in the stigma that exists around visiting pantries, accessing these resources can feel impossible.
Farley: Lemontree’s solution tackles all these barriers. How does it work?
Quinlan: Lemontree’s SMS helpline connects users with accurate information on the best food pantries and soup kitchens in their neighborhood. We don’t just share what food resources are nearby. We also share verified information on a pantry’s hours, the types of documents that are required, what kind of food they can expect, and more. Our helpline is powered by an incredibly comprehensive dataset of food resources synthesized from over 50 data sources and more than 1,600 client reviews. And we pair this data with a human touch: from the moment a client signs up, they’re connected with a hospitality specialist – a real human – who treats them with warmth and empathy to let them know we have their back.
Farley: Anyone can look up local food pantries on a search engine. How is Lemontree different?
Quinlan: Three words: real user feedback. We ask our clients questions like “what food did you get?” and “how long did you wait?” We use their responses to constantly improve our helpline. This feedback loop helps us accomplish two things: first, we can offer a deeper level of service, like connecting clients with halal food or pantries that take 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 is working: tens of thousands of people in need have used Lemontree. Can you share a user story that brings your impact to life?
Quinlan: Definitely. Let’s call this client Lisa. When Lisa signed up for Lemontree, she told us she was recently laid off and having a tough time covering her bills. She shared, “I’ve never needed help like this so I feel a bit awkward asking.” Our team responded first with empathy, letting Lisa know there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. We then connected Lisa to food in her neighborhood. This human connection makes it so much more likely that Lisa will access these resources. And that she’ll come back to share valuable first-hand feedback with us that improves the system for everyone.
Farley: Lemontree has served countless people like Lisa. What kind of scale have you achieved?
Quinlan: It’s a really exciting time for Lemontree. We recently launched in Philadelphia and my home region of North New Jersey, which has been really meaningful on a personal level.
We also launched a virtual volunteer engagement to help us continue scaling. Employees at our partner companies now have the opportunity to connect clients to food themselves. We train volunteers on how to use our database to share everything clients need to know to access local food pantries, and wrap it all in empathy. It’s flexible, easy, and scalable, and we’re already seeing an impact. Last year, we served around 15,000 neighbors facing food insecurity. With the support of these volunteers, we’re on track to increase this number by tenfold to serve 150,000 people this year!
Farley: That’s really exciting. As a non-technical founder, what have you learned when it comes to scale?
Quinlan: A lot! I’m the kind of founder who will spend hours on the phone with a client, and will hand-deliver a thank you gift to a partner. At Lemontree, I’ve learned to balance these in-depth interactions with a focus on scale. Both are critical to us as a tech nonprofit: we want to help as many people as possible, but the real impact lies in the human interactions we facilitate to connect folks to food. I’ve developed a scale-focused mindset, yet continue to advocate for moments of personal connection when my gut tells me to.
Farley: Thank you for sharing. Along those lines, you’re a few years into your founder journey. 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 center yourself. Fill your glass of water, clear your workspace, and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, how do I want this conversation to go? It helps me to write things down, so I often write a “script” before a meeting to organize my thoughts. Even though I know everything I put down, the act of note taking helps me stay grounded and confident during a conversation.
Farley: That’s great advice. To wrap us up, can you share your proudest moment in your Lemontree journey?
Quinlan: Honestly, my proudest moment is every day when I check our inbox and see our team’s incredible work. We scaled Lemontree from me answering a few phone calls a day to a team of five hospitality specialists that support 3,000 clients per month. I’m filled with gratitude and pride when I witness the kindness and dedication our team puts into our work. It’s truly magical.
Photo Source: Kasumi Quinlan