Earth & Conservation

Food Waste? There’s an App for That…

A new app connects companies that don't want to waste food with food banks that need it.

The numbers describe a very "dumb" problem: Almost 50 million Americans go without food every day – and over 365 million pounds of food is thrown out daily in the United States - untouched, perfectly edible food.

To Komal Ahmad, that data just cried out for a solution.

"It's the world's dumbest problem," Ahmad told Seeker.com. "If we could think of a way to incentivize donors and find recipients in real time, we could fix the problem."

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So that's what Ahmad did. Upon graduation from University of California at Berkeley in 2012, Ahmad formed Copia.

Think of it like the Uber of food redistribution. When a restaurant or other organization has food left over, they open the mobile platform, set the pickup location, and fill in how many trays of food are available. Then they click save and request pickup. A Copia-hired employee shows up at their door, receives the food and delivers it to the nearest recipient agency, including non-profits, shelters, food pantries and low income housing centers. Their algorithm determines which recipient is nearest and most in need.

So far the Copia program has transferred food from more than 250 companies to feed over 700,000 people. That amounted to more than 800,000 pounds of food that otherwise would have been thrown in the trash. For one of the new company's biggest jobs this past year, Copia transferred 14 tons of untouched, high-end food left uneaten from Superbowl 50 events and transferred it to 23,000 people.

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Copia is a for-profit business and companies pay to use the program to redistribute their excess food. That may seem counterintuitive, but some cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, impose fines on restaurants when food waste is thrown in the trash. Also, restaurants and chains that donate food can receive tax deductions. The Copia app sends business owners all the paperwork they need to claim deductions after a donation.

It seems so simple that some may wonder why this sort of redistribution didn't happen earlier. In fact, Ahmad learned early on how simply getting excess food to people in need can become a tricky logistical problem.

After meeting a hungry veteran on the Berkeley campus in 2012, Ahmad took the man out to lunch – just near the university's cafeteria that was throwing out tens of pounds of food daily. Later she approached the cafeteria manager to offer to distribute their extra food to food banks and, days later, she got a call.

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"The dining hall manager called me and said no one came to this event and they had 500 sandwiches left over," Ahmad recalled. "He said I was welcome to distribute it."

So Ahmad hit the phone, looking for a center that could use the food. But finding a nearby food receipient that was prepared to receive the food turned out to be trickier than she had anticipated.

"I was sitting in my car with a trunk full of food feeling so frustrated," she said. "I kept thinking it shouldn't be this hard for me to do the right thing."

It was then that, Ahmad, an ROTC student at the time, decided to figure out a fix – and Copia was born.

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The algorithm at the base of the Copia app can be scaled to any geographical size – from a small town to a major city. The program could be poised for a debut overseas as officials from Germany and Austria have inquired about using the app to try and help feed a growing refugee population.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Margarette Purvis, President and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, anticipates demand for food assistance will increase in coming months. That's because more than 500,000 Americans are expected to lose their food stamp benefits since new requirements went into effect on April 1. The new requirements link the assistance to a person's ability to find a job and work.

"Basically if you have no job within three months, then no more food stamps," Purvis explained during last week's seventh annual Women in the World conference in New York City. "But work alone is not a balm against poverty. A higher wage is."

Ahmad, who won a Toyota Mother of Invention grant of $50,000 and appeared with Purvis at the Women in the World conference, hopes Copia can help fill that void, since, as she said, "I find hunger offensive. We want to go city by city and eradicate hunger as we go."