Hosting an Event? Don’t Toss Leftover Food, Donate It

With an Uber-like app, Transfernation is reducing food waste while feeding those in need

(Isabelle Rozenbaum/PhotoAlto/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The party is over and guests are dwindling. Then comes the perennial question: What should be done with all that leftover food? A New York-based company called Transfernation has the answer—donate it.

“We use technology to make the process of rescuing food from events and bringing it to communities in need as simple as possible,” says Samir Goel, the company’s co-founder.

Transfernation focuses on food rescue from corporate events, using an Uber-like app. During registered events, the app sends out alerts to potential volunteers nearby, who can boost their karma for the day by helping to transport the food from the event to the nearest shelter or soup kitchen.

Most people, especially in a city as busy as New York, don't have an entire day to give to volunteering,” says Goel. “But finding 30 minutes to an hour is something that most people can do and is something that most people want to do.

Goel and his friend, Hannah Dehradunwala, started the company in 2013, while students at New York University. “We realized that hunger wasn’t a problem of producing more but rather better using what we already had,” says Goel.

Many companies have sprouted up in recent years to solve this problem, transferring food from grocery stores, cafeterias and restaurants. But Goel and Dehradunwala had their sights specifically on another prime food waste culprit, corporate events. “Living in a city like New York, it's pretty clear that events are a large source of food waste,” says Goel. “But there’s no real solution to that right now.”

So the duo took it on themselves to pick up and deliver food to local shelters and soup kitchens.

In 2014, they won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge, which provided them with startup capital and support necessary for the budding business to grow. Now composed of several hundred volunteers, their team has rescued over 14,000 pounds of food and counting.

Goel shares his story with Smithsonian.com.

How did Transfernation start?

We started out by just manually rescuing food from events—galas, conferences, lunches, dinners. At first, it was Hannah and me with some of our close friends. But as we progressed, we built a large volunteer base, including college students, corporate employees and individuals already in the social sector. Now, we have around 300 people on our general listserv of volunteers. We've worked with small businesses to Fortune 500 companies to rescue their extra food.

What is the main goal for Transfernation?

There's two components to what we are doing. One is greater awareness and social education. We want people to be conscious about what they are doing with their extra food. In an ideal world, corporations actually stop having so much extra food.

The second part [of our goal] is that we want to be the event solution. So when someone has an event, it becomes second nature for them to donate that extra food. It shouldn't be something that they have to think about.

Tell me about your new app.

We launched our app this past fall, partnering with volunteers in a group called SocialEffort. SocialEffort is a platform people use to find volunteering opportunities, and we added a real-time component.

Event planners can input a few details about an event into the app, which will send out push-notifications to registered volunteers on their iphones or tablets. This works the same way as receiving a calendar notification or a text message, but alerts individuals of a volunteering opportunity with Transfernation in the near future.

These notifications are all based on an algorithm of when the volunteers say they are available and what their interests are. So if someone is walking past a building where an event will soon end, they get a notification that says, 'Hey, there's an opportunity to rescue food that's about five minutes away.’

Is it difficult to find volunteers?

When you go to a career fair, no one is not going to sign up for something like this. It seems really simple, it's a way to give back. No one is going to be like, ‘I don't care about the homeless.’

The question is: What percentage of those people are actually going to dedicate their time? What we've seen is that one out of every ten is going to be a serious, committed volunteer.

Did you run into any legality issues with the donations?

Legality issues were the first thing we had to solve, and one of the first things that most of our clients thought of. What's really interesting is that food donations are actually protected by federal and state law.

[On a federal level, donors are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that President Bill Clinton signed into effect on October 1, 1996 to encourage people to donate food to those in need.]

The standard for giving away food is that the food cannot be knowingly unfit for human consumption. If you have a container of milk that you leave outside for a couple of days then try to give it to someone, that is something you could be liable for. On the other hand, food that you serve at an event that you would take home for your family is not something you would be liable for. 

What we found is that it's more of an education thing. We just had to work our corporate partners through the actual legal standards. For the most part, organizations really want to be involved. The more that we reassured them that there wasn't a real risk of liability the more on board they were.

Are you planning to expand Transfernation beyond New York?

For right now, New York is such a massive market to be in, and there are so many events we can't even reach right now. But down the line we see Transfernation as something that is very replicable elsewhere.

We are willing to adapt it for other cities and markets. New York is a public transit based market. But a city like Chicago or Los Angeles is much more car driven, so we would have to adjust how we do operations. But it's something that we're willing and interested to do.

Food waste is everywhere. Do you have plans to expand into other markets beyond event food waste?

We work with events, but we also work with corporate cafeterias. A lot of companies have their own cafeterias.

Are you interested in collecting leftover food at restaurants, grocery stores and universities?

There's other companies that do food rescue, like City Harvest, and they do a really phenomenal job working with restaurants and grocery stores. We're not trying to encroach on what they're doing right now. We wanted to tackle the space that no one was looking at. That's why we do the events and that's what we are going to stick to. There's so much volume here.

There's very little competition or negative will between nonprofits in the food-waste space because there's so much to do. There could be another 150 organizations in the United States and there will still be enough to go around.

Editor's Note April 26, 2016: The total amount of food rescued by the company was corrected from 2,500 pounds to over 14,000 pounds.

About Maya Wei-Haas
Maya Wei-Haas

Maya Wei-Haas is the assistant editor for science and innovation at Smithsonian.com. Her work has appeared on National Geographic and AGU's Eos and Plainspoken Scientist.

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