Note: This story was written prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The children who attend the afterschool program at the Salvation Army’s Red Shield Family Residence were pleasantly surprised one afternoon with an unexpected treat: pizza. “I like the kids to eat before they leave,” said program coordinator Michael Kuka. “And kids, they love pizza.” Without the services of Food Connect, an initiative that rescues surplus food, the pizza would have been discarded instead of being happily devoured by hungry children.
Food Connect is a bridge between two extremes: perishable food that winds up in the dumpster and the food insecurity experienced by one in four Philadelphians. With a tap on a phone app, a caterer, restaurant or grocer can summon drivers from Food Connect to pick up excess food and deliver it to food shelters and pantries around the city.
“Food Connect’s unique approach allows organizations across sectors to seamlessly integrate efforts. “So, whether you are a volunteer, a food rescue organization, a private company who wants to donate or a food shelter that wants to receive food; working together is now effortless,” says founder Megha Kulshreshtha.
The mission began with Kulshreshtha’s acute discomfort with the anomaly she witnessed on her daily commute from her job as a data analyst in Center City: restaurants throwing large quantities of unsold meals in the trash and an obvious need for food among individuals experiencing hunger and homelessness.
“Food waste presents a social paradox in our communities because, while Americans waste more than $160 billion worth of food every year, millions face hunger every day, with one in eight Americans being food insecure,” she said.
Kulshreshtha had been contemplating the problem at the 2014 Philadelphia Start-up Weekend, a convention for would-be entrepreneurs to explore their ideas. At the end of the event, she and other attendees put the leftover food in her trunk and delivered it to a nearby shelter.
From then on, Kulshreshtha spent evenings and weekends driving excess food to shelters. The opportunity to transform her personal mission into a formal program came after Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to Philadelphia amplified the problem of excess food going to waste. Restaurants that were left empty because of the disruption were forced to discard thousands of pounds of food.
In the aftermath, Kulshreshtha was invited to discuss her work at a meeting of the Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council, led by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The meeting led to Kulshreshtha orchestrating a city-wide partnership of organizations and the creation of an app that enabled the rescue of more than 11,000 meals of fresh food when the Democratic National Convention came to town in 2016. Twice as many meals were rescued the following year when the National Football League held its draft in the city.
Still, Kushreshtha struggled to keep up, paying for everything out of pocket and scrambling to handle the day-to-day without time to think strategically about how to scale and financially support her model. A Barra Foundation grant changed that.
“The funding really allowed us to take a step back and look at the system as a whole, rather than struggling to make it work on a daily basis,” she said. “We could think more strategically, which allowed us to build capacity.”
The organization now rescues 15,000 to 18,000 meals a month, filling a unique niche in the process. Because they use a simple technology solution to connect restaurants and food vendors with an easy way to donate, it enables large food banks, like Philabundance and Share, to focus on what they do well – redistribution of pallet-sized donations of non-perishables – knowing that the smaller, perishable donations will be rescued by Food Connect.
Pizza, for instance. The treat for the children at the Salvation Army came from By George, a Reading Terminal Market vendor.
Kuka, the Salvation Army program coordinator, is passionate about Food Connect’s mission. “I have two obsessions,” he said. “I hate seeing food in the trash and I hate people eating from the trash. I’m really thrilled with what Food Connect is doing. They’re picking up food where there’s abundance and bringing it to people who really need it.”
Food Connect also has an emergency COVID-19 page with information on where to donate food or supplies, volunteer or if you need to receive food. We encourage you to connect with them.