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This DoorDash for surplus food aims to cut waste and help solve hunger

Food Rescue Hero—a winner of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—is connecting Pittsburgh’s hungry to healthy produce. The goal is to move into 100 cities by 2030. And now it’s offering rides to people as well as food.

This DoorDash for surplus food aims to cut waste and help solve hunger
[Image: Food Rescue Hero]

Since 2015, 412 Food Rescue has been redirecting excess food to hungry people. Its work has been powered by volunteers, who deliver food from restaurants and grocery stores to various charities and NGOs that serve people facing food insecurity, operating on the principle that everyone has a right to healthy food.

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But coordinating between restaurants with surplus food and organizations that need it can be logistically complicated, so the organization turned to technology, building Food Rescue Hero, the winner of the apps category in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards. It’s the app that facilitates the process of connecting food to the people who need it. It’s become like an Uber or DoorDash for surplus food, but with the driving and deliveries purely powered by volunteers.

Ten thousand volunteers have now downloaded the app, including 8,000 who’ve completed registration, and about a third have done a delivery (or do them on a regular basis). They may take excess food from grocery stores, restaurants, or universities that have finished their lunch services. They may pick up surplus food from a Pittsburgh Pirates game, or from the cafeterias at the Google, Facebook, and Duolingo offices. About 80% of the trips are from regular pick-ups, so a volunteer may run the same route on a daily or weekly basis.

[Photo: Food Rescue Hero]
For spontaneous pick-ups and drop-offs, a push notification alerts a volunteer who may be nearby, and who may have the time, to run food from one of these spots to a charity or NGO, ranging from large pantries to smaller shelters for the homeless or for abused women. “A truck could never go there,” says Leah Lizarondo, cofounder and CEO of 412 Food Rescue, explaining why this model is nimbler, cheaper, more efficient, and more able to serve all the pockets of the community, than trucks. The app can send a single car to a shelter that houses just five or so people; or it can send multiple cars to a big pantry. The app can even ensure volunteers are pinged to cover a missed delivery by a regular driver, due to an appointment or vacation.

And now the organization is using its own excess capacity to provide even more services. Because the volunteers are driving between sites with an empty car, the food organization is now offering free rides to people in transit deserts to get to medical appointments, job interviews, or even to vote.

[Photo: Food Rescue Hero]
Staff at Metro21 Smart Cities Institute, part of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, helps the organization optimize the app for equity, making sure every food-insecure community is being served at an equal rate. And, in the long term, it’s assisting to gather data so that they can eventually deploy AI to the system for full automation.

The app is now live in six other cities: Vancouver, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Manassas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where it’s tied to similar homegrown food recovery nonprofits. “We work with these organizations and give them the platform to scale,” Lizarondo says. The long-term aim is to expand it to 100 cities worldwide by 2030, to align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—specifically the goals to reduce food waste by 50% and to end world hunger. (Food waste is the third-biggest contributor to climate change.)

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Ultimately, the app is a medium to get to the goal of solving hunger. The food is already available, Lizarondo says; she notes that there’s enough surplus to feed everyone who is hungry, 3 or 4 times over. But the challenge is often securing the transportation to get it to the right people. “It’s that last mile problem that’s always the stickiest problem,” she says. “It’s hard to solve.”
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