How Tech is Helping Fight Hunger

Taking a bite out of waste

Key Takeaways

  • Software is helping bring food to those in need with apps that aid with logistics and allow donations. 
  • The pandemic is worsening food insecurity in the US. 
  • A recent Siena College poll estimates 49% of respondents are now concerned about being able to afford food.
A plate setting with a phone laying on top of it displaying food.
Joel Sharpe / Getty Images

Apps are helping to fight the growing amount of food insecurity in the US as the coronavirus pandemic devastates the economy.

There’s plenty of food to go around. The problem is distributing the surplus food from restaurants, stores, and kitchens to those in need. Apps run by businesses and nonprofits are stepping in where government programs are lagging. Take OLIO, for example, which allows neighbors to give away their spare food to each other quickly.

"Technology has made a big difference to the efficiency with which perishable food can be redistributed," Saasha Celestial-One, co-founder and COO of OLIO said in an email interview. "This means more food can be redistributed with a shorter shelf life." 

A Growing Problem

Hunger is rising in the U.S.. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, unemployment has skyrocketed to near Depression-era rates, and food banks have seen a spike in the number of families reliant on their services.

A recent Siena College poll estimates 41% of respondents in New York are now concerned about being able to afford food. Meanwhile, Feeding America estimates that more than 50 million people could be food insecure in the U.S. this year, including 17 million children. The government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been having a hard time processing millions of more applicants per month. 

The coronavirus pandemic is contributing to a lack of resources to purchase food, experts say. "The downturn instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to increase food insecurity even more: the loss of child care, as well as meals provided at free or reduced cost at school and social distancing guidance that restricts movement outside the home," Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent report. 

To meet the need for food, nonprofits are increasingly turning to software solutions. Mostly they are technologies that match excess edible food with charities, communities, and regular everyday people who can use support stretching their food budget further.

For example, in California, Copia helps businesses safely donate unsold food and OLIO allows neighbors to donate their spare food to each other. Celestial-One estimates that one-third of food goes to waste, meanwhile about 50 million people in the U.S. and 800 million globally are going hungry.

Expired, but still good food in a trash can.
 Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

"More government incentives are needed for businesses, but also massive consumer behavior change because half of all food waste takes place in the household," Celestial-One added. "People buy more than they need and throw away a lot." 

Volunteers Log On

The nonprofit Food Rescue US uses an app for volunteer food rescuers. The software provides all the information needed to pick-up excess food from a food donor and deliver it to a local nonprofit agency providing food.

"With the use of our technology, we can quickly make connections between available food donations and local nonprofit agencies that would be the best fit for that donation," Food Rescue’s CEO Carol Shattuck said in an email interview.

"We have had times when we have been alerted to an emergency food pick-up (generator going down, excess food due to COVID-19 restrictions, etc.) and we were able to get rescuers out to them within the hour by communicating to our food rescuers directly through the app."

Shattuck said the app has allowed her organization to scale to make over 40,000 individual pickups in 2020. "Our software is the engine that makes this connection and allows us to provide an effective solution for addressing hunger and food waste," she added.

Other apps are directing donors directly to people in need of money to buy food. Spare is an app that rounds up grocery, dining, and food delivery bills, and donates the funds to local food charities. Food banks are then able to convert $1 into 5 meals. 

People wearing protective masks and gloves working in a food bank.
Vladimir Vladinirov / Getty Images 

"It might not seem like much, but change scales well," Andra Tomsa, the founder and CEO of Spare USA, said in an email interview. "It takes just 34 active users to unlock $500 or 2,500 meals per month. 200,000 users acting together, round up $18 million in six months. But it's not just a giving app, it's a triple benefit model."

Another company, Amp Your Good, is giving the traditional food drive a twist with a crowd-funding mechanism. Schools, businesses, civic, and faith-based organizations can run their drives using the company's #GiveHealthy crowd-feeding platform. They share information about the drive, set a goal for the campaign, and then reach out to their community for donations.

"GiveHealthy is an all-virtual platform, which minimizes coronavirus exposure, while still working to bring the community together to get food to the families who need it most," Patrick O'Neill, founder and CEO of Amp Your Good, said in an email interview. 

From Retail to Table

While the U.S. is awash in surplus food, getting it into the hands of those in need is a massive logistical challenge. Nearly half of the surplus food is in the retail sector.

"This means, it's a long-tail distribution—lots of food but every instance is relatively small," Leah Lizarondo, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit 412 Food Rescue, said in an email interview. Her organization helps distribute unneeded food in western Pennsylvania.

"So the question we need to ask is—how do you cost-effectively redirect this food? Trucks are certainly not the way—you can't send a truck to recover one box of sandwiches. But if you put all those singular instances of sandwiches, you will fill a truck, it will just take forever and will cost a lot to recover all of it."

"Technology has made a big difference to the efficiency with which perishable food can be redistributed."

The answer to this dilemma for Lizarondo’s organization came in the form of an app. The Food Rescue Hero platform was developed specifically to allow organizations to scale food recovery all over the world. To date, the organization has helped redirect almost 35 million pounds of food over 160,000 trips.

Food Rescue took a model that already exists—food delivery services that are coordinated via an app—and translated it to food surplus. "Suddenly you have 18,000 drivers across nine cities receiving push notifications of food that is available," she said. 

Innovative software is helping bring food to the hungry, but it’s only part of the solution. As the coronavirus pandemic winds on, it’s likely that food insecurity will increase and that the federal government will have to step up its aid efforts.

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