It's easy to imagine trying to solve the world's problems through technology, but much harder to figure out where to even start -- and to conceptualize, practically speaking, what that would look like.
I recently had the chance to learn about an organization that won an award for doing just this -- using simple technology to make a huge difference in the world. Feeding Forward won the prize at Innovation Alley -- a pop up tech event at the Jewish Community Federation's Israel in the Gardens in San Francisco -- last month for their outstanding social entrepreneurship venture. I had the chance to catch up with this Berkeley, California-based non-profit's founders, Komal Ahmed and Andrew Finch:
Alexis: What inspired you to start Feeding Forward?
Komal: When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I was first exposed to rampant poverty, homelessness and hunger. I was training to become a Naval Officer and Medical Doctor, and found it shocking and disturbing that so many of the impoverished individuals I encountered in my neighborhood were military veterans -- men and women who had sacrificed themselves for their country -- and were now on the streets begging for food. Food is a fundamental human right, and it's staggering that in such a wealthy and powerful nation, so many people end up begging for it, while in our homes, restaurants, supermarkets, dining halls and offices, we waste so much of it.
Alexis: But rather than sitting back, you did something about it...
Komal: Yes! Since the issue is not a lack of food, but rather an inequitable distribution, I decided to launch a food recovery organization on the UC Berkeley campus called BareAbundance. We would recover excess consumable food from campus dining halls and redistribute it to nearby homeless shelters and human service organizations. The organization quickly turned into a movement that expanded to a number of college campuses nationwide.
Alexis: And how did Feeding Forward grow from BareAbundance?
Komal: The traditional method of coordinating food donations over the phone is fraught with inefficiencies. People end up with large amounts of excess food unexpectedly, and it's hard to locate and contact the people who need it most during these times. Feeding Forward remedies this by utilizing the speed and accessibility of smartphone applications and a cloud-based platform to streamline food donations. With our iPhone app, people with excess food can post donations to Feeding Forward's online network. An algorithm is then used to match this donation with a nearby human service organization, such as a homeless shelter, based on needs. It also selects and notifies a nearby volunteer who is available to pick up the donation.
I created Feeding Forward to make food more equitably accessible to people in our community. Food is the stepping-stone to everything. Without it, one can't be healthy or productive. By reducing food waste, we can save money and resources, minimize environmental impacts and most importantly, move towards a world where everyone has enough to eat.
Alexis: And Andrew you're on the tech side of the equation. What got you involved?
Andrew: When I met Komal and learned about Feeding Forward, I was compelled to join her and spearhead the extensive technical development required to make it a reality. So many brilliant software developers spend their time and energy on projects that do not solve a real issue -- another app for sharing videos, for instance or games. Programming is a true passion of mine, but I'm only able to find fanatic enthusiasm for it when working on a project that solves a real issue and improves people's lives in a very tangible way.
Alexis: And why the connection to food, and food justice?
Andrew: I come from a food-conscious family. I am privileged enough to have grown up in a household with delicious, home-cooked meals almost every night, and I have carried that tradition into my adult life, cooking for myself and my friends frequently. Food has always been important to me, and I love how I am able to merge my passion for food and technology in a way that impacts people's lives. In the future, I would like for Feeding Forward to expand into food education, teaching children in low-income areas how to cook nutritious and delicious meals. I can envision cooking classes where only donated food is used.
Alexis: One of the best parts of your involvement in Feeding Forward is that you're putting your skills to use in a socially conscious way.
Andrew: Right. Of course I could always spend time volunteering at a homeless shelter, but by building Feeding Forward, I can put my skills to use in a way that will help so many more people, by closing the communication gaps that exist across all existing food recovery systems. I can use technology to feed more people, faster, while mitigating food waste at the same time.
Alexis: Most people don't think of hunger as a problem in America. How big of a problem is it?
Andrew: Every day, 263 million pounds of consumable food is wasted in America. That's enough to fill the largest football stadium in the world to the brim. This totals to 96 billion pounds of food wasted each year. 50 million Americans (1 in 6 adults and 1 in 4 children) are considered food-insecure, and face hunger every day. Approximately 30 percent of all food grown, processed and transported is never consumed.
Alexis: And the cost of food waste is great, right?
Andrew: Yes. There are fiscal, environmental and societal costs.
In terms of fiscal costs, over 165 billion dollars of food is thrown away each year; approximately one billion dollars a year is spent on food disposal costs.
And environmental costs are huge. The accumulation of food in landfills contributes to climate change. Landfills account for 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions -- a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
And then there are societal costs: 25 percent of children in the U.S. are "food insecure." They experience extended periods of time where they do not have access to adequate food. However, decreasing America's food waste by just 5 percent would be enough to feed 4 million people.
Alexis: And why does food waste occur in the first place? Why aren't more people and companies compelled to donate?
Andrew: Many companies are scared of their liability. They falsely believe that they will be liable for illnesses resulting from donated food. Most of them are unaware of The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that protects individuals and organizations from all liability, as long as they donate food in good faith, and don't practice gross negligence (knowingly donating unsafe food).
Alexis: And for donors, it sounds like it's just hard to know where or how to get food to those who need it.
Andrew: Right, often, donors do not know in advance when and where they will have excess food, and when they do, they do not have the means to donate it quickly enough.
Some may think that it is easier to throw leftover food away than it is to donate it. Also, finding and establishing relationships with charities that pick up and utilize food can consume time and energy.
Alexis: Right now, Feeding Forward is only at work in the San Francisco Bay Area. How can people get involved, or bring Feeding Forward to their city?
Komal: Visit us at www.feedingforward.org, and download the Feeding Forward iPhone app on the Apple App Store. Our organization is entirely volunteer-led and driven, thus having volunteer drivers and food rescue ambassadors is essential. Food transporters are the backbone of Feeding Forward, so visiting feedingforward.org and generously signing up to transport food between donors and recipients in the Bay Area is a great way to get involved, even if it's only for an hour a week. If you are an individual, or part of an organization or corporation that has excess food to donate, even if it's only occasionally, you can can sign up as a donor on our website or through our iPhone app. If your organization is in need of food, you can sign up as a recipient on our website, and answer a few simple questions about yourself and your organization, so we can link you to the most appropriate donations when they are posted.
Regardless of where you live, you can support us financially by visiting our website, clicking on "Donate Money," and entering the amount of money you would like to donate. Your generous donation directly enhances Feeding Forward's ability to feed more of the Bay Area's in-need recipients. Thank you in advance! A contribution of any amount will make you a member of Friends of Feeding Forward. Members will receive newsletters and exclusive invitations to special events, and other member benefits and gifts. Please make a generous donation today to help Feeding Forward reduce food waste and hunger, and build a more just and sustainable food system.
You can also join our mailing list in order to stay up-to-date with the latest Feeding Forward news, and be notified when we come to your city.
Margarget Mead said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." ...and that's what Komal and Andrew have done.