Food networking: Citizen innovators use mobile tech to attack hunger

When it comes to food, Americans enjoy — and demand — a luxurious degree of choice. From the bounty of a supermarket to a variety of restaurants serving ethnic and regional cuisines — even a choice of apps to order and pay for your food.

But according to a Sept. 12 report from the Urban Institute and Feeding America, some 6.8 million people ages 10 to 17 have only "impossible choices" — "from saving school lunches for the weekend or going hungry so younger siblings can eat, to stealing, or trading sex for money to buy food." These young people are among the 12.7%, or 15.8 million, of U.S. households designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as food insecure, or having "limited or uncertain access to adequate food."

The impacts of food insecurity are pervasive, including childhood development, chronic malnutrition and cyclical poverty. And yet, while so many Americans live in food insecurity, how is it that up to 40% of food in the U.S. is still thrown away, making it the largest single element of municipal landfills?

"Hunger's this tangled mess of causes," said hunger activist Maria Rose Belding in an interview. "There's a million different things that can cause hunger at varying degrees in different people's lives based on their life experience. There isn't one fundamental thing that causes hunger. That's because hunger's not about food."

It's about losing a job when supporting a family, Belding explained. It's substance abuse or returning from military service and struggling to re-assimilate to civilian life. It's living in a food desert or struggling with mental illness.

MEANS Database co-founders Maria Rose Belding and Grant NelsonMic/Facebook

But while the causes and complications associated with hunger and food insecurity are complex, Belding is among those working to simplify ways to route food to those who need it before it goes to waste. Through grassroots efforts and the same technology that makes it so convenient for so many of us to get food whenever we want, Belding and others are finding elegant, citizen-led solutions to this persistent problem.

Connecting supply and demand. At a time when so many desires can be instantly gratified by technology, Belding couldn't help but wonder why there seemed to be no hack for hunger.

While in Washington, D.C., for a fellowship to address hunger, Belding connected with Grant Nelson, a friend's brother who happened to know how to code. In February 2015, the two created the MEANS (matching excess and need) Database. MEANS is a sort of Craigslist forum for food donations, where donors can post donated items for nonprofit food providers to claim. On average, it takes about an hour for a food donation to be snagged, according to Belding. So far, MEANS has helped to rescue almost 50,000 pounds of food in more than 45 states.

Belding recounts one instance where 4,000 pounds of pizza sauce packaged in individual one-ounce packets were accidentally ordered by a pizza parlor in rural New Hampshire. With the best of intentions, the pizza parlor left the packages on the front steps of a local church, which had neither the space to store nor any idea how to use them. Using MEANS, the church connected with an organization that had a use for it and saved the sauce from the dumpster.

Copia founder Komal Ahmad on a food runMic/Copia

"It shouldn't be this hard to do a good thing or do the right thing," said Komal Ahmad, the founder and CEO of food recovery app Copia, in a phone interview. 

Copia allows businesses to earn tax deductions for donations that are picked up by food handlers (called "food heroes") and matched with nonprofits in need. Since its inception in 2012, Copia has reached over 40 cities and fed almost one million people, according to Ahmad.

Copia has certified food handlers, refrigerated trucks and a $5 million insurance policy, says Ahmad, so that businesses don't even need to think twice about going so far out of their way to donate leftover food. Ahmad's business model has been so successful that it's inspired leaders in Austria and Germany to want to copy it for feeding Syrian migrants, she said.

"I think technology is what's going to make this process so much more scalable," Ahmad said. "We have equity in the world we want to create."

Beyond canned beans: While technology can streamline processes, there remains fundamental confusion about food donation. "There's a lot of misunderstanding about what is and isn't okay to donate," Belding said. "It's not always as easy as going to the nearest agency ... It's also really important to take into consideration the needs of both retailers and food pantries."

As a longtime food pantry volunteer, Belding noticed the disconnect between how people think about donations and how donations are actually handled at food pantries. She would see people donate massive amounts of a single, often random item to a food pantry that couldn't actually use or store it and ultimately had to throw it away.

While retailers are often reluctant to donate excess food for fear of being held liable, federal law actually protects those who donate to nonprofits in good faith. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which exempts a donor from liability if a product harms the recipient and more strictly defines "gross negligence," or knowingly donating harmful or damaged products.

While legislation, food stamps and governmental programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, can alleviate food insecurity, citizen-led efforts are increasingly needed to close the gaps. "I think government is very limited in the amount it can do," Belding said. "It's really tough in this political climate especially to pass anything that is more spending, and unfortunately food stamps in particular are an easy target."

A Food Recovery Network food runnerFood Recovery Network/Facebook

Regina Northouse, executive director of the student-led Food Recovery Network, sees citizens as crucial players in a network of forces addressing the problem of food insecurity and waste. FRN began in 2011 after a group of students at the University of Maryland, College Park noticed the massive amounts of dining hall leftovers being thrown away. Now, FRN chapters exist on campuses across the nation, with students dedicated to running efficient, effective and local food recovery programs while also spreading awareness to make food recovery the norm rather than the exception.

"For food security, it's government, it's you and me, it's schools, it's an all-in effort," said Northouse over the phone. And while technology can be critical, she added, "we're only as good as the individuals tackling this problem."

Watch the video below to learn more about how the MEANS Database helps to connect food donors and recipients.