Americans toss out, on average, 72 billion pounds of safe, edible food each year. Around 52 billion of those pounds flow from manufacturers, restaurants, and grocery stores into landfill. Feeding America, a nationwide network of over 200 food banks, has developed a new tech platform called MealConnect to intercept some of that trash-destined food and divert it toward the one in eight food-insecure people in the United States.
The way that Feeding America reaches the approximately 42 million people in the U.S. who struggle to afford food is through managing a wide-ranging web of 60,000 partner organizations and efforts—including soup kitchens, pantries, and meal programs like the Summer Child Nutrition Program—that source produce and meals from Feeding America’s food banks. And while Feeding America (the largest hunger-relief organization in the country) is certainly effective at reaching people in need, the process of the food banks collecting donations and distributing those resources out to its partner organizations could use some streamlining, Feeding America’s organizers felt—and by doing so, could bring more donors into the fold, Justin Block, a senior manager for Feeding America, tells Fast Company.
That, at least, is the driving idea behind MealConnect, which officially launched in early June, after a three-year pilot period. The platform acts as a dashboard to manage the flow of excess food in the communities around Feeding America’s 200 food banks. Accessible in both website and app form, MealConnect allows business donors—whether it’s a retail chain like Chipotle, a local mom-and-pop shop, or a farmers market—to create a free account, where they can upload information about excess food they have to donate, and select a date and time they’d like it to be picked up. On the Feeding America side of the platform, an algorithm sorts through the available donations and matches them with a partner organization, like a soup kitchen, based on need and timing. Once a donation is matched with a partner, someone from the partner agency will drive to collect the excess food from the source.
MealConnect, essentially, works to streamline a fairly disjointed donation process. Block paints the picture like this: Before MealConnect, if a restaurant offered, say, a lasagna lunch special, and ended up not serving five trays of the dish and would like to donate it, they’d have to call up the food bank, and wait for the receptionist to route them through to the staff member in charge of donations. That person would then have to put the restaurant worker on hold while searching for a partner agency who could field the donation, or figuring out if the food bank itself could take the trays. “Who knows how long that could take?” Block says. “It was essentially a lot of hours and phone calls and setbacks.”
Both from the Feeding America perspective and the perspective of the donors, MealConnect is (as its name suggests) designed to get food to people who need it as quickly as possible. “We tried to make the platform simple and streamlined, while also collecting all the information food banks and agencies would need to decide whether or not a particular donation is viable, and what partner organization would be the best to go pick it up,” Sam Harris, account manager for MealConnect, tells Fast Company.
On the app, donors snap a picture of the food, and fill out the reason for donation, ingredients, and sell-by data, if possible (for retailers who tend to consistently have the same type of food to donate, a lot of this can be saved and filled in automatically, Harris says); they can also include instructions for pickup logistics. For each donor account, their donations live on a dashboard they can access to view past transactions, which, Harris says, will save many headaches during tax season.
On the Feeding America side, food bank employees oversee all incoming donations, and monitor how the food is being distributed out to their partner agencies. The platform can automate the whole process, but food bank employees can also jump in and override the suggestions from the algorithm. For instance, if a retailer had several thousand pounds of produce to donate, which would be too much for a smaller partner agency to accommodate, the food bank may decide to use one of its trucks to field the donation itself.
But the whole point of MealConnect is that those smaller, easier-to-manage donations can bypass the food bank process entirely and just get straight to where they’ll do the most good. The platform was developed with a $1.5 million grant from Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org; another $1 million grant from General Mills will help it scale out to more communities and organizations—around 2,500 are currently using it, and that number is growing quickly, Harris says. So far, the platform has facilitated 737,000 pickups and moved over 333 million pounds of food–enough for 278 million meals.
MealConnect is designed as a business-to-business platform, not necessarily for individual do-gooders. “If you had a party last night and have a couple trays of food left over, this would not be the right avenue,” Block says. (But a platform like LeftoverSwap, which operates on a more person-to-person level, might be.)
But given what a chunk of food waste in the U.S. comes from the retail sector, Feeding America is hoping to make significant progress toward solving hunger. The nonprofit currently saves around 2.8 billion pounds of food each year and has stated that its goal is to end food insecurity by 2025.