Is Your Company Wasting Food? App Makes Donations Easy

The latest effort to get excess food to people who need it is an app that arranges for donations from Bay Are companies and organizations that would ordinarily toss leftover lunches or catering trays of cheese and crackers.

Why is this important?

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture defines "food insecurity" as a household's uncertainty over whether there will be enough for everyone to eat.

This is not something people always think about--it has never even crossed my mind that I or anyone in my family might have to go without food for any period of time. But for tens of millions of Americans, that kind of stability may sound like an unattainable luxury.

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According to the USDA, 15.8 million households were food insecure in 2015. About 6.3 million of those had to limit the amount of food household members ate. While adults usually bear the burden of disruptions in meals, 274,000 households last year included one or more children who, at some point, had to go without food.

Which brings us to the app, called Copia. Komal Ahmad, 26, the company's founder, told KQED Newsroom's Thuy Vu on Friday (see the video above) that the idea came to her a few years ago. Seems she was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, when she saw a homeless man begging for food. So she bought him lunch -- turned out he was back from his second tour in Iraq and had been waiting weeks for his VA benefits to kick in.

"Right across the street," Ahmad, 26, says, "(UC) Berkeley's dining hall is throwing away thousands of pounds of edible food." She calls that ironic proximity the world's "largest and dumbest problem," a matter of distribution, not scarcity. So she created Copia, which allows a company or nonprofit with extra food on its hands to connect with an organization that will distribute it to those in need.

"If you're Google and you have a bunch of food at the end of the day, you would take a picture of the food," Ahmad told Vu, describing the donation processs. The company then specifies a time for pickup, with the donation sent to a virtual marketplace to be matched with the nearest food nonprofit. Copia sends a driver to cart the food from donor to donee, and later sends data and analytics to the former; that can help reduce future overpurchasing and disposal costs, Ahmad said.

Copia charges businesses $25 per pickup on an on-demand basis . For a recurring pick up, the price is .30-.50 cents per pound, with lower prices charged for more regular donations.

Donors are provided with a receipt that can be used for tax reduction. Ahmad said the financial benefit from the deduction is more than the cost of the service, making it "money you otherwise would have left on the table or worse, in the trash."

Dana Gunders, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told KQED last year that food waste should, like smoking, become "a social taboo." Her 2012 report on the topic detailed the ways that up to 40 percent of food in America, "from farm to fork to landfill," goes uneaten. The report recommended encouraging "innovation in online solutions and new technologies" to help solve the problem.

Copia has certainly done that. But as the San Francisco Chronicle noted earlier this year, many local groups, such as one called Food Runners, will pick up donated food for free.

And as Joel Berg, executive director of Hunger Free America, told the Chronicle, a tech solution doesn't get to the root causes of hunger: not enough jobs, low wages and an inadequate safety net.

"There’s a tendency of tech people to think they can fix every possible problem with a snappy new app," he said. "It’s false to think this is as simple as Silicon Valley fixing a taxi-hailing problem."

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Meanwhile, Copia's Ahmad says hundreds of businesses and nonprofits have used the company's platform to feed 1 million people across the Bay Area. She said the company has received more than 60,000 requests from around the world to expand its service into areas outside its home turf.

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