A New Plan to Reduce Food Waste, Cut Costs, and Feed Chicago’s Hungry

November 4, 2015

Across the country, food delivery service technology is developing rapidly at the same time that food delivery infrastructure is becoming increasingly interconnected. However, these innovations have not extended to systems of food recovery, or to address the substantial waste generated by these systems. Restaurants, cafeterias, and consumers throw away a lot of food, predominately edible, fresh produce that was overstocked or superficially blemished. The USDA estimates based on population size that approximately 55 million pounds of food are wasted in Chicago each month, which is startling given the prevalence of hunger in Chicago communities.

This summer, the Chicago-based Groupon announced its acquisition of OrderUp, a food delivery service that operates in 40 states including Illinois. This acquisition comes in addition to Groupon’s recent creation of Groupon To Go, which connects online users to nearby food delivery. Another Chicago-based company, Grubhub, bought Restaurants on the Run last year in order to provide delivery service to customers. These are salient reminders that Chicago’s food industry and its delivery network are huge and ever-expanding.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository estimates that one in six Chicagoans don’t have regular access to healthy food. Many of these residents, especially in the south and west of Chicago, live in areas without nearby grocery stores or restaurants. Nonprofits like the Greater Chicago Food Depository cannot meet this demand, despite having the capacity to process more food, because there is a lack of donations. If even a small fraction of Chicago’s thrown-out food were salvageable and rescued, many more Chicagoans could be fed.

What if the healthy excess food that numerous restaurants and cafeterias throw away were distributed across Chicago using the technology and distribution industries the city has already developed and continues to develop? Chicago companies, nonprofits, and local government can and should partner to utilize existing technology and infrastructure to solve hunger in the city. Presently food donors are provided tax deductions and are protected from liability for food they donate. These tax deductions should be promoted and expanded so that they are more heavily utilized and offer means for small businesses and local pantries to coordinate food pick-up and distribution.

It is already clear that tax deductions for food donations can provide fresh, safe food and reduce waste while saving businesses money. For instance, last year the app ZeroPercent launched as a for-profit company that connects restaurant donors to nearby pantries through push notifications. Just by sending food pantries push notifications when food is available for rescue, the app enables the rescue of thousands of pounds of food each week. For food donors, the app pays for itself because ZeroPercent keeps track of food donation receipts, saving some businesses thousands of dollars through tax deductions. However, this company does not offer a way for small pantries in areas without high numbers of restaurants and food waste to pick up numerous small- to moderate-scale food donations from across the city.

Tax deductions and food rescue programs should include distributors (like the trucking and produce-sourcing companies that deliver food to restaurants each day) who can pick up rescued food on their regular supply routes. Presently food suppliers and delivery services drive across the city to make hundreds of stops, then drive empty trucks back to their warehouses. This network of drivers could easily be given a tax incentive to pick up restaurants’ and cafeterias’ overstocked food items while making their regular deliveries. Pantries and the Greater Chicago Food Depository could then make stops at supply warehouses to pick up donated food from hundreds of small restaurants in bulk.

Existing distributors, apps like ZeroPercent, and tax deductions should be utilized to encourage the consolidation of numerous small food donations for pickup by pantries. The technology and infrastructure for coordinated food rescue exist and continue to be developed by companies like Groupon and Grubhub. In London, a nonprofit, City Harvest, is already partnering with companies on a purely voluntary basis to participate in food rescue. All that Chicago and Chicago businesses lack is incentive and guidance to strategically coordinate existing infrastructure to prevent the disposal of healthy, over-stocked food and feed Chicago’s hungry. This is an opportunity for America’s cities and companies to become national leaders in food recovery systems.

Cris Cambianca was a summer fellow with the Roosevelt network in Chicago.