In 2010, according to the USDA, 48.8 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, defined as "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources." Meanwhile, the EPA estimates that 95 billion pounds of food are wasted annually. Recovering less than half of that amount could feed the millions in need. But where to begin?
A team of six Arizona State University students believe one solution lies in the power of social media. In 2011, Loni Amundson, Ramya Baratam, Steven Hernandez, Jake Irwin, Katelyn Keberle, Mary Hannah Smith, and Eric Lehnhardt teamed up via the school’s Engineering Projects in Community Service program (EPICS) to create FlashFood, a food recovery network that uses text notifications to connect food-service vendors with those in need. If a restaurant, caterer, or deli has excess food at the end of the night, they can send a notification to the network’s volunteers, who deliver the food to a community center; another text notification goes out to the hungry that meals are available for pickup near them. Thanks to the concept’s novel simplicity, FlashFood was the winning software design entry in this spring’s U.S. Imagine Cup, a student technology competition hosted by Microsoft.
Deciding to tackle hunger came easily to the FlashFood team, which includes both graduate and undergrad students with majors ranging from computer science to sustainability. Several members have experienced food insecurity in their own lives, and two members are food-service industry vets familiar with the end-of-night waste. Arizona also has the third-highest rate of child food insecurity in the nation, and FlashFood director Lehnhardt says the contrast between neighborhoods in their home base of Phoenix can be stark. "When you’re driving through downtown, there’s the convention center, there’s major league ballparks. And if you drive a mile to the south of those world class arenas, you’re in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the entire state," he says. "That’s very difficult to ignore in your own community." More than that, says director of marketing Irwin, "Nobody likes seeing food just thrown away."
The hardest work in building FlashFood from theoretical to actual will likely be the networking itself, although the team has a strong head start on connecting with vendors. "We have been speaking a lot with organizations that already do work with restaurants to cover perishable food," says Irwin, citing Food Donation Connection as an early partner. "But the difference between us and the organizations that are out there right now is that we account for late at night. Restaurants don’t always know how much they’re going to have left over, so we’re trying to fill this donation market of food that’s unexpected and needs to be transported really rapidly." That means prepared dishes that can’t be frozen down for storage (unlike, say, leftover chicken breasts), or trays of food from weddings or conventions that were never served. FlashFood intends to find mouths for those leftovers within an hour.
The next step is connecting the needy with the network. FlashFoods members in charge of outreach have been going directly to community centers and food banks, and having them identify people who could also benefit from receiving extra meals—an estimated 70% of whom already have cell phones, thanks in part to programs like Safelink, a federal initiative that supplies phones and service plans to people receiving food stamp assistance. "There’s a community center that runs a food closet we’re working with in our pilot in South Central Phoenix," says Lehnhardt. "The food closet is for once-a-month emergency food needs, cans of food and packets of cereal or something that. But the director has told us that the food pantry is fairly empty, and there’s way more need than she’s able to fill. From her perspective, a FlashFood delivery would have a very broad impact, because there are a lot of people living nearby who would be willing to show up and receive those food donations when they become available."
The ASU team intends to run FlashFood on a hybrid nonprofit/for-profit model: Businesses can receive tax write-offs for their donations, up to twice the cost of the ingredients and labor; for a fee, they could also apply for a FlashFood seal of approval, similar to fair trade or LEED certification. "It’s something they would be able to use in their marketing materials as a signal for their consumers that they are environmentally and socially responsible in the way they handle their leftover food," says Lehnhardt.
FlashFood also doesn’t anticipate having a great deal of overhead. "Once our application is completely finished, all people need to do is get on whatever device they’re using and download it," Irwin says. "Volunteers will also have to go through a half-hour training module in food safety. People will probably use their own vehicles, and we’re going to be continually speaking with government agencies and other non-profits to see if we could get some in-kind donations, borrowing a vehicle for the night, things like that. We could work from home and meet a couple times a week to keep things going."
As they prepare for a full launch, Lehnhardt and Irwin say they’re thankful for opportunities like EPICS and the Imagine Cup, practical-experience programs which have prepared the team for the challenges involved in succeeding beyond the academic realm. "When you’re starting a new business, non-profit, or social venture, you really have to be passionate about the cause you’re facing," says Irwin. "I’ve seen so many similar types of initiatives come out of ASU or other schools, where they build up a ton of momentum, and then people graduate and nothing happens. You just have to be constantly iterating and making improvements and getting feedback. We get our friends and mentors to poke as many holes in our idea as they can, so that we can come up with not only ways to keep winning these competitions, but also find new solutions to problems we haven’t even thought about." FlashFood competed at the worldwide Imagine Cup finals in Australia this June, and while they didn’t bring home that win, a victory for America’s food-insecure families seems very much within their reach.
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.