Creating Technology for Social Change

Food Rescue – how can tech help?

This is the first in a series of posts about how technology can help food rescue and food security.  I am collaborating with community groups in Somerville, MA; trying to extend and enhance existing food rescue programs.  Read the second post, about our design workshop, here.

Food waste is a huge problem in the US – with millions of tons wasted per year and scores left hungry around the nation. Members of the Somerville Coalition for Food Security approached me to help work on this problem here in my town; wondering how technology could help them expand their exiting food recovery programs. As a first step, I did a bunch of research into who is using technology to help with food rescue, and how. This post summarizes that research.

The Problem

First, lets get a sense of the problem: estimates put the total at almost 40 millions tons of food wasted per year by people in the US (source), and that isn’t even counting food wasted during harvest or production. That’s food that is perfectly fine to eat, but is tossed for a variety of reasons. It is kind of an incomprehensibly large number, so my colleague Willow volunteered to make a diagram to help understand it [sources: USDAFAONRDC].

There, that helps. As for need – in my county alone (Middlesex, MA), almost 10% of the population is food “insecure” (source). Of course, lots of businesses and organizations are working on this already, rescuing food and delivering it to those in need. The EPA has a triangle about it, so you know it is a “Big Deal”. 

Existing Tech

So there’s a problem, and lots of people are working on it, all over the world.  Some of these folks are using technology to help. I found a number of groups who have built things, almost all around the model of food donors (restaurants, groceries), volunteer transporters, and recipients (food pantries, shelters). All of these are focused on helping with scheduling people. Here is a quick summary of two and a list of more:

Boulder Food Rescue

Boulder Food Rescue is the most well-documented of all the groups I found. They leave plastic bins at donor sites, and have scheduled pickups daily via a network of bicyclists with trailers. They have a website that manages all their scheduling. At this point they operate in 9 communities around the US. They have a “how-to” kit, an administers guide, and their code is an open source Rails web application.  Once of their members, Caleb Phillips, has been filling me in on details.


FlashFood is starting to pilot a food recue program based around a mobile phone app. Donors notify them via a Windows Phone App (I think FlashFood provides the phone). Transporters notify recipient individuals directly, via SMS (these people are signed up by their partner community organizations). The SMS indicates where and when to meet to get the food (for instance, at a church or some other location). They have on-call transporters with cars. The transporters pick up and re-package ready-to-eat food into individual servings. I had a good conversation with one of the student founders of this group, Eric Lehnhardt. Read their info sheet to learn more about their efforts.

Other Examples

I found a number of others, some of which concentrate of linking people over meals. Here is a list of some other links, if you are interested in learning more:

  • Community Plates: web-scheduling app for “runners” to do pickup (some pickup logs)
  • Casserole Club: website connecting people in the UK to neighbors in need over meals, I had a good conversation about their lessons learned with Rachel Karasik
  • Zero Percent: a for-profit company that focuses on real-time donations from restaurants, via sms alerts to agencies that can accept the food, who have volunteers that can pick it up
  • Lantmannen (english summary): dating over leftovers
  • Ample Harvest:  connecting gardeners and food pantries
  • Food Sharing: a bulletin board for posting leftover food supplies in Germany
  • FarmShare: using iPads to do realtime food-rescue supply management for a large kitchen

Next Steps

What did I miss?  I’m sure some programs don’t have a web precense, and my google-searching skills can always use help.  Let me know if I portrayed one of these groups incorrectly, or missed a key example.  

This survey of existing tech solutions will feed into a collaborative design session with the local groups.  We want to bring everyone  together to define the problems more and design/pick a technology to help.  I expect we’ll take one of these exsting platforms and build on it, but exactly how is to be determined!  Stay tuned for more info…