Two Computer Scientists Are Programming An End To Food Waste In Chicago

Every day, Zero Percent matches restaurants, cafeterias, and supermarkets to nonprofits, getting everyone the food they need just in time.

Two Computer Scientists Are Programming An End To Food Waste In Chicago
Photos: Flickr user Ken Lund/ Elena Schweitzer via Shutterstock

Every day Rajesh Karmani has to solve a complex logistics puzzle. On one side are more than 100 food donors (restaurants, corporate cafeterias, groceries and catering companies). On the other are 250 nonprofits that need food, including homeless shelters and after-school programs.


In the middle is software that does the matching. For every bagel, frozen vegetable, or lasagna there is an answer, generated by a computer and approved by a human.

Karmani’s Chicago nonprofit Zero Percent is currently servicing an impressive 80 nonprofits a week. Two and half years after it was started, the waste logistics platforms has matched-and-moved 316,400 pounds of food.

The challenge of food waste, says Karmani, is the inconsistency of it. On any given day, he doesn’t know what’s going to be available. He might have too many bananas, but not enough bagels, and so on. That will always create a headache. But the software is learning over time, seeing patterns in what and when certain places donate and when and what certain recipients might want. The system should get more efficient.

Karmani started Zero Percent with his friend, CTO Caleb Phillips. Karmani and Phillips met online when they were working on separate food waste projects in different states. Both were computer science PhDs at the time. In late 2013, they both moved to Chicago and lived hand-to-mouth to start their work.

Zero Percent charges nothing to the recipient nonprofits. It charges the donors $60 to $100 a month, depending on how much waste they have. In addition, it offers to do the donors’ tax paperwork and to give them in-depth waste analytics. This should help donors cut down on their waste over time–but Karmani isn’t too worried about running out of food. There’s plenty of it.

Now that it’s established in Chicago, Zero Percent is pursuing projects in two other cities: Nashville, Tennessee, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The first is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which will use the Zero Percent app to increase donations and matching. The second is with Compass food service, which Zero Percent already works with in Chicago.


Meanwhile, Zero Percent also recently launched, a crowdfunding platform for its nonprofit network. Each $5 someone donates to one of the 250 organizations translates to 15 to 25 meals, Zero Percent says. If everyone on Chicago gave $5 a month, the city could make fresh food available everywhere, Karmani says.

Zero Percent’s high energy, software-focused approach seems to be doing to the job in Chicago. It will be fascinating to see if it can duplicate its success elsewhere.

Cover Photo: Flickr user Ken Lund

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.