As a senior studying international health and global development at the University of California, Berkeley, Komal Ahmad noticed that just feet from her school’s dining hall—where leftover food was discarded daily—homeless people were scrounging for their next meal. "I call hunger the [developed] world’s dumbest problem, because with so much talent and innovation, so much abundance, it shouldn’t exist," she says. Ahmad thought that if the technology industry applied its ingenuity to the issue, food waste could be eradicated. In 2012, she launched Copia, a Bay Area nonprofit turned benefit corporation, to test her theory.
According to the Department of Agriculture, roughly 30% to 40% of food available in the United States—some 133 billion pounds—ends up in landfills each year. A significant portion of it comes from grocery stores, but restaurants and food-service companies are also major contributors. And donating leftovers isn’t easy: Many charities have specific requirements about the kind of food they can accept.
After helping Berkeley become the first university to avoid food waste by donating to local organizations, Ahmad realized there had to be a more efficient way to match charities with donors that meet their specifications. If startups in the Bay Area can use algorithms to set up car pickups or meal deliveries, she wondered, why not apply that approach to food redistribution?
After graduation, Ahmad hired software engineers to build a sleek app that seamlessly pairs aid organizations with local businesses that have surplus food, from restaurant groups and sports organizations to office cafeterias and caterers. Once a connection is made, the app dispatches one of Copia’s drivers (some of whom are vets or formerly homeless) to pick up the donation and deliver it to its next stop. To keep the enterprise sustainable, Copia recently became for-profit, charging donors a volume-based fee and taking 20% to 30% of the resulting tax deduction. In return, donors receive detailed reports on their leftovers to help avoid over-ordering food in the future.
Over the past four years, Ahmad and her team of eight full-time employees (plus 200 part-time drivers) have recovered more than 830,000 pounds of food from 150 clients across some three dozen California cities. They’ve helped to feed nearly 700,000 people and facilitated $4.9 million in tax deductions and other savings. The company is now looking to expand to a half dozen U.S. cities, including Boston, New York, and Chicago, in the next year. Officials as far away as Germany and Austria are also interested in the technology as a way to feed migrants and refugees. That has inspired Ahmad to think about applying the Copia method to other essentials, such as medical supplies, books, and clothing. "One thing that’s beautiful about our business model is that when we win, no one loses," she says.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Fast Company magazine.