SAN FRANCISCO — It’s the season of big food — turkeys and honey hams and more side dishes and pies than any one person really should eat.
Oh, but we do. We over-feast because it’s tradition, despite the looming day-after dilemma: what to do with the leftovers?
Several food-rescue apps launched in San Francisco and elsewhere this year, promising to link leftovers with hungry takers while keeping perfectly good food out of compost bins and landfills.
The startups have different audiences — some target conference leftovers or over-catered tech-company lunches; others attempt more of a Craigslist-style person-to-person hand-me-down meal system — but all hope to harness the sharing economy to nourish the hungry and reduce spiraling food waste.
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Many of the developers said they were influenced by a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report that said 40 percent of food in the United States goes into the garbage — about $165 billion worth each year.
“Technology opens up a whole new world of fresh food donation,” said Kevin Mullins, who developed the first food redistribution app in 2011 for Community Plates, a food-recovery nonprofit that operates in Connecticut, New Mexico and Ohio. “There’s no intermediary warehouse, storage, trucking of canned food like the traditional model. This is direct, restaurant-quality, beautiful food.”
Community Plates volunteers — nearly 250 — tap Mullins’ GoRescue app to find the nearest farmers’ market, restaurant or grocery that wants to give away food, and the app gives directions to the closest food pantry or soup kitchen that needs the donation.
“To coordinate just 50 people to rescue food takes a lot of time and e-mails and phone calls and texting,” Mullins said. “An app is self-scheduling. Anyone who has an hour in their schedule can check and see if there’s food that needs to get from point A to point B, and if it’s on their way home already, even better.”
Community Plates uses this system to redistribute 25,000 meals each week.
A similar app was created in February by UC Berkeley graduate Komal Ahmad, who was named one of the country’s top 100 young entrepreneurs when she pitched her idea for Feeding Forward at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas.
Ahmad began driving her dorm’s dining-hall leftovers to Berkeley charities during her junior year, and came up with the idea for Feeding Forward as a solution to the hours she was spending each week calling to find places to take collegiate leftovers.
“I was literally on the side of the road in my car completely frustrated because I didn’t have six hours a day to dole out 500 sandwiches to all these agencies that wanted a handful here or a few there,” she said. “I knew there was a hunger problem in this country, but I needed an app that worked in real time to help me find it.”
Since its launch, Feeding Forward has recovered more than 300,000 pounds of food from commercial kitchens, businesses and individuals who post pictures of their donations online.
Volunteers show up within the hour and whisk the food away to a nonprofit, such as the Harrison House emergency shelter in Berkeley, that has signed up on the app, listing the days and times it can accept donated food. The charities take a photo of the recipients with the food and send it back to Feeding Forward.
Food recovery apps avoid liability for food-borne illness because professional and home cooks who donate food to nonprofits in good faith are legally protected by the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996.
“People want to share everything — cars and apartments and clothing — so it’s logical food is the next frontier,” Ahmad said.
Direct person-to-person apps, however, seem to be less appetizing to the public.
Two recent college graduates, former roommates from the University of Michigan, shared a pizza in Seattle one night, couldn’t finish it, and came up with www.leftoverswap.com.
“We thought that there must be somebody nearby who wanted our leftover pizza, but we had no way to connect with them,” said co-founder Dan Newman, 25. “The idea started out kind of as a joke.”
But they kept at it, and launched in February. Anyone, anywhere could take a picture of their unfinished meal and offer it. Using Google Maps pins, nearby secondhand meal searchers could peruse Leftoverswap.com and send an e-mail offering to pick up the leftovers. Their app was not intended to feed the hungry per se; it was more of a goodwill gesture to save the environment.
However, some have said Leftoverswap.com is a classic case of Internet over-sharing, and public health leaders have raised eyebrows.
“If you don’t know that the food is coming from an approved source, how do you know it’s safe?” said Richard Lee, director of environmental health regulatory programs at San Francisco’s Department of Public Health.
“If a restaurant sickened people, we could shut it down. But if someone says, ‘I’m sick and I got this food from my neighbor,’ we can’t shut the neighbor down.”
Rose Gluck, 20, an architecture student from Oakland, was excited about the possibility of sharing food with her community, and posted a quinoa dish on Leftoverswap that she made at home but couldn’t finish.
She got responses from people who complimented her on the dish, and a few jokers who made snarky comments, but no one wanted to take it off her hands.
Anish Shah of San Francisco posted a pyramid of vegetarian banh mi sandwiches on Leftoverswap, food that went uneaten at a recent Tech For Good incubator weekend at ImpactHub in the city, where entrepreneurs had 49 hours to create do-good startups.
When no one bit, he and his Tech For Good team of five got an idea to create a food-sharing app with a twist — one that targets uneaten banquet food at large conventions and other events.
“The idea of sharing your leftover bowl of red beans and rice, that’s a little strange,” said Shah, 31, a marketing consultant, “So we focused on large quantities of professionally prepared food.”
His Tech For Good team’s entry was www.nommapp.com, a play on the slang term “nom” for yummy. Their website promises to keep caterers’ creations out of compost bins and landfills by posting them up for grabs.
Established organizations like San Francisco’s 27-year-old nonprofit Food Runners, which takes untouched leftover food from professional kitchens and delivers it to shelters, have seen an explosion in pickup requests.
As more startups that offer catered lunches to employees set up shop in San Francisco, there’s more leftover food available.
The number of offices and tech companies using Food Runners has gone from five to 50 in the past two years, said Nancy Hahn, who coordinates 97 weekly runs and 265 volunteers.
“And this is nice pasta, entire pies, arugula salads. We are up to 15 tons of food a week,” she said.
Food Runners has no plans to add an app, according to founder Mary Risley, because they don’t want to lose the personal connections that are the backbone of their operation.
Risley, who also founded Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco, said although Food Runners only takes food from professional kitchens, it also encourages home cooks to share their kitchen wealth. Anyone can use a map on the Food Runners’ website that shows shelters or churches in their neighborhood willing to take yesterday’s dinner.
“We welcome the new apps, because there’s enough food for all of us to redistribute,” she said.