It started with a disturbing commute home every night for Megha Kulshreshtha, founder of Food Connect, which matches surplus food with local shelters.
An asset manager at the time for more than five years, Kulshreshtha used to walk home from work and watch with growing dismay as restaurants and other food suppliers threw perfectly good fresh food into the trash—while, Kulshreshtha knew, one in four Philadelphians were spending the night hungry. For the daughter of Indian immigrants of modest means, the sight was not just disturbing; it was wrong.
“My parents came into this country with $20 in their pocket,” Kulshreshtha says. “My mom would always tell us about times when she’d thrown birthday parties for $20 because she’d figured out how to make that dollar stretch out. Seeing the shops throw out fresh food just never really sat right with me.”
Occasionally, Kulshreshtha stopped to talk to restaurant owners she passed, to ask them about all the extra food. “I started noticing that a lot of food vendors wanted to donate that food, but they didn’t really have an easy way to do it,” she says.
So Kulshreshtha created Food Connect, which makes it easy for restaurants to donate excess food to shelters and other hunger-fighting organizations. Through an app, they simply alert Food Connect to when, where and how much food they have, and the organization will pick it up and drop it off at the nearest shelter that has signed up with a matching need. All together, the service moves over 500 meals a week. Most recently, Food Connect partnered with large influxes of vendors during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the NFL Draft in April, when over 21,000 meals were donated.
But first there was just the nugget of an idea. Kulshreshtha first presented her solution in 2014, during Philadelphia Startup Weekend, an event that invites entrepreneurs to create and test prototypes of an original idea, and provides access to mentors in the tech community. With a small group of volunteers, Kulshreshtha then began talking to more restaurants about the possibility of connecting their excess food to shelters and food banks.
Food Connect makes it easy for restaurants to donate excess food to shelters and other hunger-fighting organizations. They simply alert Food Connect to when, where and how much food they have, and the organization will pick it up and drop it off at the nearest shelter that has signed up with a matching need. All together, the service moves over 500 meals a week.
In the beginning, Kulshreshtha made most of the deliveries herself.
“I was spending my evenings and weekends driving that extra food over to shelters that were happy to accept,” she says. “From there, it’s really just been a matter of figuring out the logistics, mapping it all out, using technology, and putting strong processes in place to support that simple delivery from the donor to a local shelter.”
A year later, she was still nurturing the idea when Pope Francis came to Philadelphia. Kulshreshtha coordinated deliveries between a few restaurants and shelters manually. But the excess food generated that weekend was a wake-up call for food suppliers and hunger-relief organizations in the city.
“There was a large contingent of people who wanted to donate from events across the city, yet did not know how because there was no coordinated effort to pick up food in Philadelphia,” says Amanda White of Philabundance, one of the city’s largest food rescuers and distributors since 1984, and a partner of Food Connect since 2015.
The Pope’s visit illuminated the extent of the problem. Over 326,000 people in Philadelphia lack access to enough food to be healthy. But of the 700 food pantries and soup kitchens in Philadelphia, some 90 percent run out of food at some point during the year. Meanwhile, 291,000 pounds of food in America is wasted every month, according the the Environmental Protection Agency, and 20 percent of edible food ends up in the trash every day in Philadelphia. As Food Connect says on its website, “There is an abundance of food waste AND an abundance of hunger.”
After the Pope’s visit, Kulshreshtha was invited to a meeting of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council to share her work, then to talks with Steveanna Wynn, Executive Director at the SHARE Food Program. Those talks would lead to a collaboration on the DNC in Philadelphia.
“With a lot of the food vendors, I get it all the time where they’ll reach out saying that they’ve been waiting for this, that they’ve always wanted to donate and never wanted to throw this extra food out,” Kulshreshtha says. “It creates this win-win scenario.”
“We ended up having a conversation, and I explained to them what our process is, and working with the technology and what I’m building, and it seemed like such a natural fit,” Kulshreshtha says. “Sometimes the government gets a bad rep for being slow or ineffective, but surprisingly, they’ve been one of the leaders with food rescue and helping us provide this option when vendors come into the city for special events.”
Kulshreshtha launched the app during the DNC with the help of her brother Sankalp, collaborating on product and design. From there, Sankalp developed the iOS and Android application that allowed vendors inside the convention and local restaurants that saw more visitors to donate their extra food with a push of a button. (In 2016, Food Connect won the Philly Geek Awards Development Project of the Year.)
There are two sides to the app: One is a sign up for restaurants, caterers, vendors—anyone likely to have excess food. The other are organizations that serve the hungry. Food Connect does not work with other businesses, or with individuals. The goal was never to be another food rescue organization among many in Philadelphia. Instead, Food Connect is a connector.
“My approach has always been just to help existing efforts in the city,” she says. “There’s a lot of amazing efforts already with food rescue, but they’re not all talking to each other. When people see other people do it, they’re more likely to donate. The goal is really to be the silent middle man, so to speak.”
Now a real estate investor by day, Kulshreshtha still runs the operation from her laptop at home. Although overhead is low, funding is a challenge. Kulshreshtha volunteers her time, and has started working on securing funding to support deliveries. So far, Food Connect has received a small grant from the Leo and Peggy Pierce Foundation. A nonprofit head by happenstance, not by deliberate choice, Kulshreshtha says she sees similarities between her background in finance and her efforts to put good processes in place at Food Connect.
“It’s a distribution process,” she says. “You have extra food here, how do you most efficiently get it to point B, without wasting money or wasting resources or wasting somebody’s time? Surprisingly, it flows pretty well once it all comes to life.”
More than anything else, Kulshreshtha says she’s impressed with the level of collaboration on fighting hunger in Philadelphia.
“With a lot of the food vendors, I get it all the time where they’ll reach out saying that they’ve been waiting for this, that they’ve always wanted to donate and never wanted to throw this extra food out,” she says. “It creates this win-win scenario.”Header Photo: Food Connect Group