When DoorDash drivers get a request to deliver food, it isn’t always from a customer looking for a meal at home: For the last year and a half, the company has also been using its delivery algorithm to connect donations of surplus food with nonprofits fighting food insecurity. Since the launch of the program, called Project DASH, it has rescued more than 1 million pounds of food that otherwise would have been wasted. “We’re helping our food recovery partners scale,” says Sueli Shaw, head of social impact at DoorDash. “We’re helping them accomplish more and accomplish their missions more effectively because they have access to our logistics network.”
As much as 160 billion pounds of food goes uneaten in the U.S. every year. More than a quarter of that food comes from restaurants and foodservice, with another 13% from grocery stores and distribution centers. At the same time, around 50 million Americans live in households that are food insecure or very food insecure, according to the most recent government data. This last statistic points to obvious systemic problems—if many people have jobs and still can’t afford to pay for essentials like rent and groceries, they’re not being paid enough. (DoorDash itself could be argued to be part of the problem; the company claims that its average hourly pay is $17.50 an hour across the U.S., though labor organizers have estimated it’s actually closer to $6 an hour. The company was also criticized for incorporating customer tips into the base pay guaranteed to drivers, something that it recently changed. On the other hand, making deliveries may be a much-needed second job for many drivers; the problem is obviously bigger than one company.)
Until the underlying issue of income inequity is solved, connecting people with surplus food can help, and traditional systems have missed some of that opportunity. “Despite it being a very complex and systemic issue in many ways, food insecurity is a logistics problem, not a scarcity problem,” says Shaw. Only a small fraction of the food that could realistically be recovered is currently being recovered, despite the best efforts of many nonprofits working on the issue.
“The biggest problem with traditional food rescue is that it can’t catch 60% of edible food that goes into landfill because most rescue organizations cannot operate on demand,” says Hannah Dehradunwala, cofounder of Transfernation, a New York City-based food rescue organization that built an app that offers on-demand pickup of donations, connected to the DoorDash platform. “Most prepared food is thrown out because there aren’t rescue services that can reach it within a reasonable timeframe. No one wants to wait several hours for a rescue org to show up. You want it to be easy, efficient, and quick. If it’s not, thousands of pounds a day end up in landfill, especially in cities.” As with ordinary deliveries, DoorDash can use its algorithm to dispatch drivers based on location and other factors to optimize deliveries for nonprofits; drivers are paid as they would be for ordinary deliveries.
Transfernation also tried working with Uber and Lyft drivers to make deliveries, but found that DoorDash drivers were a better fit since they already worked with food. “Our process is very similar to DoorDash’s, so the training period was minimal, i.e., Dashers are sent to ‘stores’ (food donors) and transport the load from there to the customer (feeding programs at churches, shelters, etcetera),” she says. “The process is not unlike [what] that they’re already used to doing, so the transition was incredibly quick and easy.” The organization typically works with events and corporate cafeterias, and the tax donation that donors receive offsets the delivery fee.
Replate, another food rescue organization, has its own fleet of paid drivers in major cities, but uses DoorDash drivers on days that it has an unusually high volume of requests, and also uses the service as it expands to new cities. The organization says that this type of on-demand system is particularly useful for events, where people may not start thinking about surplus food until the event is already happening. “This has really changed the game in being able to immediately make sure that food is recovered by using technology versus having to reach out to multiple different food rescue organizations in hopes that one of them is able to come pick up food or that you’re able to drop it off,” says Katie Marchini, who leads operations for the organization.
It’s not a full solution for food insecurity, Marchini says. “The solution to food insecurity is ending poverty. But I definitely think that this is a first step in the day-to-day need.” She shares the example of Glide, an organization in San Francisco that works on breaking the cycles of poverty, but also offers food to the people it serves as part of its day-to-day work. “I think by having the services we’re allowing the nonprofits that are doing the real work towards ending food insecurity have more resources to do that, because we’re saving them some time and labor in bringing them prepared foods,” she says.
DoorDash is currently working with partners in more than 25 cities, with the most active work happening in New York, California, and the cities of Washington, D.C., Austin, Toronto, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Portland, Oregon. But it could expand to all 4,000 cities in the U.S. and Canada where it does regular food delivery. “If we can continue to work on finding the right partnerships and the right models, I think this can be very quickly scalable to help elevate this work,” says Shaw.