When news of the new coronavirus started to spread late last year, Jake Wood and his partners at Team Rubicon went on high alert. Team Rubicon is a disaster relief organization made up of more than 130,000 United States military veterans, first responders, and civilians who volunteer their time and skills around the world to help those in need.

During the first six months of the pandemic, they focused their efforts on food security in the United States, partnering with both Feeding America and Meals on Wheels. Thanks to a $3 million donation from PepsiCo and funding from the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Team Rubicon supported more than 100 food banks across the country, made nearly 3,000 food deliveries, and distributed roughly $10 million in grant assistance to almost 23,000 people.

I had the opportunity to talk with Jake Wood, Team Rubicon Cofounder and CEO, about the organization and how it mobilized to help feed the hungry during the current crisis.

Let’s start with the basics. What’s the story of Team Rubicon?

Jake Wood: I grew up in the Midwest. After high school, I went to the University of Wisconsin, where I played football for the Badgers. During that time period, the U.S. was attacked and we went to war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Upon graduating in 2005, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and spent the next four years in an infantry unit. I deployed to Iraq in 2007 as part of what was called “the surge,” and in 2008, I was on a sniper team that was sent to Afghanistan.

I got out of the Marine Corps in late 2009, and about 60 days later, the Haiti earthquake happened. I was watching it unfold on TV and felt compelled to help. I reflected back on the previous four years and felt like I had gained skills and experience that would be helpful in a situation like what was transpiring in Port-au-Prince. So, I organized a team of doctors and veterans and we went down there for a few weeks and helped treat critically wounded patients. 

When we came back, we decided this was an idea that had legs, so we incorporated the group as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Our goal was to build the best disaster response organization in the world. Right now, we have about 130K volunteers throughout the country, as well as an affiliate in Canada. We do tremendous work all year around, responding to everything from fires, hurricanes, and floods to global pandemics and civil wars.

Jake Wood has a memoir coming out in November about his experience called Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home. Tom Brokaw describes it as “the book that America needs right now. Jake Wood’s life-changing experience is a reminder of the greatness of the American spirit and how, now more than ever, we need to activate that spirit for the common good.” 

How did Team Rubicon decide to focus on combating food insecurity during the pandemic?

JW: We were tracking the pandemic early, even before it came to the United States. It became really obvious pretty early that this would be a global pandemic. When the shelter-in-place orders started to hit and the economy started to crumble, we made some assumptions. One of those assumptions was that food would become a major issue.

Team Rubicon Greyshirts sort through food to set up for a food bank in Denver, CO. Photo credit: Team Rubicon/LE

Food support services was not something Team Rubicon has ever done. We primarily work in postdisaster environments, where there are often feeding needs, but great organizations, like World Central Kitchen and Operation BBQ, provide those services.

But we did our research early, and it became obvious that most food banks and pantries are supported by volunteers, and most of those volunteers are over 65, which places them at high risk of mortality from COVID-19. We knew that these food pantries and food banks would immediately see an enormous reduction in volunteer capacity that was going to coincide with an enormous increase in demand. It was a worst case scenario for them. So, we started to develop protocols to get our volunteers into these food pantries and banks to support their operations.

What kind of support did you provide?

JW: We supported close to 150 food banks across the country, served almost 3 million meals, and packed nearly 50 million pounds of food.

Team Rubicon Greyshirts distribute food to a community member impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic at a food bank in Bloomington, CA. Photo credit: Team Rubicon/DAVIS

But it wasn’t just that. Oftentimes, because of our expertise in things like logistics and operational planning, we were able to help food banks establish operations and protocols that they’ve never done before, like drive-through food distribution and last-mile logistics food delivery. A lot of people weren’t leaving their homes, but they still needed food. So, for the first time ever, many of these food banks effectively became GrubHub and had to deliver boxes of food to people’s doors.

Another thing we did was in partnership with the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation. Many of the drugs BMS produces are for patients with autoimmune disorders, which make them highly vulnerable to COVID-19. As a result, these people were simply not leaving their homes. A lot of them were at lower socioeconomic levels, and many were elderly and lived alone.

We built a technology platform that allows patients to indicate they have a need, whether that need is the delivery of their prescription medication, a delivery of food or other critical supplies, or direct cash assistance. The platform takes these requests in, and then, similar to Uber, automatically identifies where the person is and automatically notifies Team Rubicon volunteers within a 25-mile radius that they have a neighbor in need. Essentially, we created a marketplace to connect volunteers with people in need. The reason this is important is because our volunteers have passed criminal background checks. You want to be careful about sending strangers to people’s homes, particularly when those people are vulnerable, so it created a great opportunity to connect that need with these people who could be trusted.

A Team Rubicon Greyshirt delivers food to a community member’s home to assist those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in Brevard, FL. Photo credit: Team Rubicon/GALLGHER

We made thousands of food deliveries directly to people’s doorsteps. We were also able to distribute $10 million directly to almost 23,000 immunocompromised people who indicated they had significant financial strain during the pandemic. We hacked this platform together in about 7 days and launched it into the world and were able to help all of these people. It was amazing.

What does the landscape look like now?

JW: Everybody’s a little surprised with the persistence of the pandemic. There is clearly no end in sight, despite what some people want to believe. We are doing everything we can to sustain operations through the holidays. The unfortunate reality is that there is a lot of donor fatigue. A lot of the money that we raised early in the pandemic has run dry, so we’re scrambling to raise resources to continue them. We find ourselves facing difficult choices with what activities we can sustain. But the feeding need will remain.

Earlier this month, Team Rubicon officially suspended its feeding operations, though volunteers continue to make food deliveries. The organization is currently focusing on helping survivors impacted by this year’s unusually active hurricane season. Learn how you and your company can support Team Rubicon.