Food Tank

Using Technology to Bring Excess Food to the Hungry

Kevin Mullins of Food Rescue US introduces an app to help alleviate food waste and food insecurity across the nation.

Photograph courtesy of Food Rescue US.

Kevin Mullins co-founded Community Plates, now known as Food Rescue US (FRUS), in 2011 to help families across the nation access fresh food otherwise destined for the landfill. Now serving as CEO, Mullins’ passion for helping solve America’s hunger and food waste crisis was inspired by the work of his own children, who collected lunches to send home as dinner to friends in need.

Food Rescue US takes excess fresh food from different industry sources and delivers them to food insecure families via an online app. The program connects volunteer food rescuers with receiving agencies and food donors. Its streamlined scheduling system offers participants the option to pick-up, drop-off, or receive fresh food at their convenience, alleviating the rigidity of normal food rescue schedules.

Food Tank spoke with Mullins about the root of America’s food insecurity, excess food waste, and how FRUS hopes to use technology and creativity to combat both.

Food Tank (FT): What does it mean to be food insecure?

Kevin Mullins (KM): There’s the official definition and then there is the one that drives our work. Officially, food insecurity is defined as “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” FRUS has personalized that a bit. We believe food insecurity is when someone is unable to provide for themselves or their families the food they need to live healthily.

FT: One of your organization’s core values is creativity. Which current and future strategic efforts are going towards building a creative organization? Why is this important to the Food Rescue US identity?

KM: Creativity was core to our founding. Our co-founder, Jeff Schacher, realized an opportunity to reimagine what it looks like to feed hungry people. Instead of inserting new food into the system, we could take advantage of the abundance of existing food. Jeff said, “We don’t have a food shortage in the U.S., we have a food logistics problem.” We have to be creative and tell the stories of the American hungry without resorting to the same images and worn out language usually attributed to that narrative in order to engage communities to care for each other without resorting to guilt and manipulation.

Creativity drives the future of our current tech platform. While the app successfully creates food rescue communities and engages thousands in the cause, it is just one possible solution. If we want to bring an end to hunger in America, we will have to consistently reimagine the solutions necessary. Although we will never be a start-up again, we want to retain that energy and constantly challenge ourselves to look for creative, different solutions.

We continuously explore new partnerships, looking for creative ways to further our mission. We recently partnered with Zipcar in Washington, D.C., and hope to expand that partnership in 2018. Zipcar offers a path to action for non-car owning volunteers, allowing them to join the fight against hunger in their own communities.

FT: Why is there so much food waste in the restaurant and grocery industry? In addition to rescuing excess waste, how is Food Rescue US helping to deal with the root cause of the issue?

KM: It’s a combination of factors. Grocery stores and restaurants generate waste differently. One primary factor, especially in the grocery industry, is the American addiction to perfect looking food and the aesthetic of the well-stocked store. On the one hand, the majority of American shoppers pass over any blemished or otherwise imperfect food, and on the other, many only want to shop at stores that have completely stocked (or overstocked) shelves.

A second factor in the grocery industry is the fallacy of sell-by and expiration dates. This marketing-related tragedy has been well documented lately. On average, restaurants waste less food, but similar to farming, frequently over-prepare or over-purchase food to ensure they have enough product to feed their customers. The root of the issue is that this country doesn’t truly value food. FRUS technology ensures available food is valued all the way through its life-cycle.

FT:  How does the dignity of choice, giving food recipients the option to eat fresh and healthy foods, create change in the food system?

KM: Part of our broken food system is the fact that those who are most the most vulnerable are also the most likely to eat unhealthy food. The food insecure population is more likely to eat things from boxes and cans than the food secure population. They aren’t happy about it, and they aren’t healthy because of it. Our focus on the dignity of choice is more about changing that reality than it is anything else.

FT: Your award-winning Food Rescue US app has helped FRUS and participating volunteers rescue millions of meals. How does the app work? What upgrades do you have in mind to continue or improve the efficacy of the technology?

KM: The Food Rescue US app provides an on-demand portal for all three essential parts of the food recovery system. Our technology makes it simple for a food donor to provide the necessary information, ensuring all available food can go to feeding those in need. On average, it takes about two minutes for our food rescuers, the lifeblood of the platform, to respond. In addition, we can inform our donors of how many meals they have provided to those in need.

Nationally, over 2,200 registered volunteers have rescued and delivered 23.1 million meals to people in need. This represents about 15,740 metric tons (34.7 million pounds) of food saved from the landfill, conservatively valued at US$59 million. Volunteers can input their scheduling preferences into the app, access a schedule showing all food rescuers available in their area, and review their food rescue stats.

Our food rescuers deliver food to third-users, awesome receiving agencies around the country that provide food to the food insecure population through soup kitchens and food pantries. The app allows receiving agencies to share important information like what kinds of food they can use and when.

Our future app developments are focused on making the app more accessible and more engaging to make our donation streams as efficient and effective as possible. We are especially interested in the idea of the final mile. How can we get the food as close as possible to where food insecure people live and at the exact right times?

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

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