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The biggest hunger relief organization in the U.S. is using technology to help restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses fight food waste.
In honor of Earth Day on Saturday, Feeding America launched a new tech platform called MealConnect. As its name implies, the free service taps into the organization’s large network, connecting businesses that have surplus food with thousands of food banks and other meal programs.
The goal is to advance the organization’s mission of solving hunger in the country by 2025 by tackling the persistent yet often overlooked problem of food waste caused by businesses and food chains.
MealConnect lets stores and other donors — whether it’s a Starbucks, local butcher, grocery store, or farmers market — to post when they have food that would otherwise go to waste. Then, the platform’s algorithms figure out the best local food pantry or program to pick up the extra food and distribute it quickly to those in need.
The platform is a web-based app, which means anyone can use it on a desktop, laptop, or smartphone with any web browser. All someone has to do is sign up with their name, email address, and ZIP code. It’s still rolling out across the U.S., so it might not yet be available in your community, but you have the option to sign up for updates.
Feeding America received an initial $1.5 million grant from Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, to develop MealConnect. It also received an additional $1 million from General Mills, which will help scale the program to communities around the country.
With help from partners, Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv said in a release that the organization saves more than 2.8 billion pounds of food each year for people facing hunger.
"MealConnect will allow us to supplement these great national efforts with donations captured from regional and local donors who may not have a consistent donation stream," she added.
Feeding America also launched a partnership with Starbucks in 2016 to help the coffee chain donate 100 percent of unsold food in its U.S. stores to families in need. Starbucks will use MealConnect to help achieve that goal.
"By using MealConnect, we’re able to track our donations in real time, allowing for more streamlined reporting by store and food bank," said Jane Maly, program manager at Starbucks, in a release.
But the platform isn’t just helpful for big chains like Starbucks. In fact, it’s specifically designed for places that don’t regularly have excess food. MealConnect’s real-time model was developed for sporadic food donations, so businesses can donate food whenever necessary. And while it’s supposed to be user friendly, Feeding America also offers training for the platform and tips for implementing it successfully among employees.
A recent report from ReFED, a nonprofit that aims to fight food waste through data, found that Americans waste an estimated 72 billion pounds of food every year — 52 billion pounds of which is wasted by manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants. Meanwhile, 20 billion pounds of fruit and vegetables are thrown away or left in fields.
According to Feeding America, all of this amounts to $218 billion worth of wasted food each year.
"With over 2,500 hunger relief organizations regularly using MealConnect, we are in a position to nationally scale this solution and help end hunger in America," the platform’s website reads. "And with your partnership, we will."