Can Feeding the Hungry be as Simple as Finding the Right Connections?
When Jeff Schacher and Kevin Mullins started a game of ping pong one evening in 2009, they ended up not with a winner or loser—but with a new, data-driven way to feed the homeless.
At the time, Schacher was an actor in New York City, supplementing his income waiting tables. Each night, he saw excess food dumped in the trash that could have been salvaged for people who needed a meal—and the observation changed the course of his career. He learned to code and used his newfound computer programming skills to develop an app-based logistics platform to coordinate food donations (think of your favorite ride-sharing app, but for food deliveries). During that game of ping pong, he sold his friend, pastor Kevin Mullins, on the app’s value. Two years later, they co-founded their food-rescuing non-profit, Food Rescue US.
Today, Schacher handles the back-end technology and Mullins manages the nonprofit’s daily business as CEO. Since the app launched in 2011, the pair says their app has delivered 22 million meals and saved 32 million pounds of food from landfills nationwide.
Data Powers Food Deliveries
In 2013, over 84 percent of the billions of pounds of food unused by restaurants was thrown away. Accordingly a study in 2015, collectively, the U.S. tosses the equivalent of $165 billion of food annually—more than any other country in the world.
The app Schacher and Mullins created aims to address this issue by connecting food donors (restaurants and other organizations that have excess food) with agencies like food pantries that feed the hungry. Both parties create profiles in the app and enter data about themselves, prompted by a series of questions designed to chart a path for the food to get from restaurant to shelter while considering a variety of variables.
Where most ride-sharing apps connect car and rider, Food Rescue US’s app has many more factors to take into account.
For example, the app asks restaurants and agencies to enter the following data points to ensure that the right food, gets to the right agency at the right time:
- What hours are they open?
- What kind of food is available for donation (or is needed by shelters)?
- What storage and transportation is required to get the food from the donor to the agency?
The app also uses this information to find the right volunteer, called “food rescuers” in the nonprofit’s parlance, who will shuttle the food between the restaurants and agencies. These individuals also build profiles in the app, entering their own data about what days of the week they’re available, their transportation options—and whether they want a call, text or push notification to alert them about an upcoming delivery.
The app’s algorithm can quickly coordinate the entire process—and make changes as needed. If a volunteer needs to update their availability, they do it from the app. If a soup kitchen has run out of freezer space for the week, they make a note of it inside their profile. If a restaurant ordered too much fresh fish, they can let food pantries know via the app—and make sure there’s proper refrigeration at a receiving agency before a volunteer goes through picking up and dropping off a donation.
“The tech allows us to deal with many more people than an organization with more limited infrastructure would be able to do,” Mullins says. “The app allows us to coordinate with thousands of people with the same effort you would hundreds. It’s self-scheduled on-demand.”
Solving Food Scarcity at Scale
Because the app is free to use, Food Rescue US hopes scaling its operations will be as easy as a smartphone download. To date, the app is either available or on the verge of launching in 20 U.S. cities. The organization’s headquarters in Connecticut acts as a sort of hotline to offer tech support and other assistance to food donors and agencies trying to incorporate the app into their daily workflow.
The data-collecting and processing power of the app’s algorithm means restaurants and other would-be food donors have a seamless alternative to tossing the leftovers. And for agencies receiving the food, the app relieves some of the burden of finding and coordinating food sources. And most importantly, Food Rescue US makes it easier to get food to any one of the 50 million Americans they indicate who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“We’re providing the infrastructure to help make that happen. At the end of the day we’re a logistics platform,” Mullins says. “No matter where you go in the U.S., you can open up your app and see ways you can contribute that day.”
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.