There’s an App for That
By Sarah Henry
Photo by Naomi Fiss
Bay Area internet startups are increasingly turning to technology to tackle social challenges, like homelessness and hunger, with the click of a mouse. Case in point: Feeding Forward, an online and mobile interface aimed at preventing restaurant waste and feeding the famished in the East Bay and beyond.
Feeding Forward is the brainchild of Komal Ahmad, 24, who says she was shocked and disturbed by the rampant poverty, homelessness, and hunger she encountered in her neighborhood when she attended UC Berkeley. Ahmad, a Pakistani-born Muslim, was training to become a naval officer and medical doctor at the time. “Right across the street from the university’s most popular dining hall is People’s Park, which is full of homeless people, many of them military veterans. It’s staggering that in such a wealthy and powerful nation so many people are begging on the streets,” says Ahmad, who currently runs Feeding Forward out of the UC Berkeley accelerator and incubator program known as SkyDeck. “At the same time, in restaurants, supermarkets, dining halls, and offices we waste so much food that could address this problem.”
And how: Around 263 million pounds of food (equivalent to $165 billion dollars), or 40 percent of all produced edibles, are tossed in the trash in the United States every day while some 50 million Americans go hungry, according to Feeding Forward.
Ahmad wanted to make a difference. So she started off creating a food recovery service called BareAbundance, which partnered with campus organizations like Cal Dining to provide meals to hungry folks nearby. She learned first hand that communication challenges between donors and recipients often get in the way of doing good as she schlepped her dorm’s dining-hall leftovers to local charities during her junior year. “I got frustrated trying to find places that would accept the 500 sandwiches in the back of my car. Some were only willing to take a dozen or so at once,” she says. “I didn’t have the time to spend chasing down places for all the food I recovered.”
So with the help of some tech savvy types, Ahmad got to work on a more efficient system to distribute excess food to undernourished people and named it Feeding Forward. The process takes just a couple of minutes to set in motion via a smartphone app: Restaurants and other food service providers with surplus food alert Feeding Forward that they have extra eats to share. An algorithm matches these donor contributions with shelters, churches, and other meal providers in need of food for hungry residents. The app also identifies nearby volunteers willing to transport the food from point A to point B. These food-rescue ambassadors take photos of the food and send it back to the original donor so the giver has a chance to see how their efforts have an impact out in the real world. Bagels in hungry hands. Fruit in willing mouths. Mission accomplished.
Currently operating in the Bay Area from Berkeley to San Jose, this entirely volunteer organization has distributed around 350,000 pounds of food since it launched in May 2013. Feeding Forward has the potential to go national or even global, says Ahmad, who would like to scale up. The group has launched an Indiegogo campaign to secure funding and is also seeking investors so Feeding Forward can become a sustainable organization. (The award-winning innovator and social entrepreneur has funded much of the project out of pocket to date.)
Food donor organizations include restaurants such as Sliver Pizzeria in Berkeley and Cal Dining, as well as companies like Twilio. Local service agencies that have benefited from the program include Harrison House emergency shelter in Berkeley and Covenant House for homeless youth in Oakland. To date, Feeding Forward has worked with 165 donors, 55 recipient agencies, and provided some 259,000 meals from recovered food dispatched by 150 volunteers.
It’s not just about nourishing the poor for Ahmad. “Food is a fundamental human right. It’s also a stepping stone to living a healthy and productive life,” she says. “By reducing food waste we save resources and money and minimize environmental impact, and most importantly we move towards a world where everyone has enough to eat.” This young idealist thinks an app can make a difference. “We have the power, technology, and knowledge to tackle hunger. I couldn’t think of a better way than to use my phone and instantly connect those with excess food to those in need of feeding.” •
To donate food or funds or to volunteer to deliver food: feedingforward.org