THE BLOG

What If

02/24/2015 01:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

What If. Two simple words that have confounded generation after generation of politicians. What If. Two simple words that have energized generation after generation of social entrepreneurs.

Problems such as poverty, chronic unemployment, homelessness, and hunger have seemed insurmountable and have indeed worsened and become part of our national psyche. These are and have been societal problems that have plagued political leaders for generations.

Social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are defined as individuals with innovative solutions to society's most pressing social problems. So, What If we could engage social entrepreneurial thought and practice and use technology to help end senior hunger. And What If we could reverse a cycle of hunger that has plagued us for far too long by having seniors themselves end senior hunger by producing food from wasted food in order to feed other hungry seniors?

That's exactly what we at the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH) are engaged in right now. The thought process was: What If two organizations that seemingly have nothing in common can come together to address a societal problem and look at it in a new way. And, What If we could find one solution to two different problems. The two problems seem totally contradictory: hunger and food waste. The National Resources Defense Council's research points out the fact that 40 percent of the food that is produced in this country never makes it to a human belly. Our own research conducted for NFESH shows us that more than 9 million seniors face the threat of hunger on a daily basis. So, we've got food waste and wasted food on the one hand and a growing problem of senior hunger on the other hand.

We thought What If we could delve closely into the issue of food waste and see just how much food was being wasted in senior nutrition programs. Our next What If included the possibility of turning that food waste into compost and returning it to those same nutrition programs to engage seniors themselves in planting and growing fruits and vegetables that in turn could be used to feed others. What If we could turn food waste into nutrient-rich soil and convert senior hunger into a societal problem with a solution.

We turned to a man who personifies the definition of social entrepreneur. His name is Andrew Shakman and he is a young man with a vision and a goal that matches ours: he tracks food waste using technology designed by his company and then educates the user about how NOT to waste food. His technology is being applied in the for-profit world. Specifically, his company, Lean Path, was using their proprietary technology in the restaurant and hospitality industry. We went to him and said: What If we reconfigured the software so that a nonprofit senior nutrition program would be able to measure food waste in their kitchen or dining facility. He said yes and his company did just that for us. They custom-built a software application for us that is loaded into a hand-held tablet for use by staff at senior centers. We are now using this technology to measure food waste quite successfully.

But measuring food waste wasn't enough. Understanding food waste and its negative implications were also important. So we embarked upon a multi-faceted program to do just that: educate, engage, enlist, and encourage all those involved in the fight against senior hunger to understand that ending food waste was an integral part of the solution. Sending food scraps to landfill is wasteful, costly, and environmentally bad. Cutting down on food waste (there is unavoidable waste but way too much avoidable waste) is the first step. But second is to send that food waste to compost to let it become nutrient-rich soil. Our other partners at the U.S. Composting Council are working with us to educate our senior nutrition partners about the value and usefulness of composting.

We are working in several pilot sites and finding that beyond the very fact that food waste makes no economic sense. Nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and calories are also being lost when a senior doesn't consume them. This has deleterious health effects on older adults. That is another reason that we are working directly with seniors throughout this project.

Our project is called What A Waste™. Perhaps it should be called What If.