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Feeding Forward: Giving Us the Power to Fight Hunger From Our Phones

January 13, 2014
by Glen Martin

Time has borne out the veracity of the Biblical observation that poor will always be with us—and so, too, are well-meaning efforts to feed the famished. But success in getting food to the hungry has been spotty at best. Now, a group of idealistic Cal students is bringing high tech to bear on the problem, producing an approach that is propagating across the country.

Feeding Forward seeks to take advantage of a paradox: while 50 million Americans go hungry every day, it’s estimated that more than 40 percent of U.S. food, some 263 million pounds, goes to waste every day.

The program began two years as BareAbundance, a relatively modest student effort to collect excess food from Cal dining halls for redistribution to community groups in the East Bay. “We collected perishable food—mainly sandwiches, salads and uncooked produce,” recalls Chloe Tsang, a junior in molecular environmental biology and Feeding Forward’s president. “At first, we saw the program as an educational tool—we were involved in teaching nutrition and healthy cooking. But then we realized that what we were doing could have a larger impact. The big problem in feeding the hungry isn’t food availability. It’s inefficient distribution, getting the food from donor sources to the people who need it.”

As demand for BareAbundance’s services grew, it morphed into Feeding Forward, which is essentially the same organization but one with expanded ambitions and purview. The new goal isn’t simply the dissemination of information about healthy eating; it’s also to utterly disrupt the way food is distributed to the needy.

Feeding Forward’s staffers identified their main obstacle as antiquated technology.  Making phone calls to donors and then trying to coordinate pick-and delivery for service organizations was simply too slow and unwieldy—an attempt to address 21st Century problems with 19th Century tech.  So they developed an iPhone app to specifically address the distribution stumbling block.

“The app allows donors to post their food donations to our online network,” Tsang says. “An algorithm matches the donations to nearby service organizations that need food. The app prioritizes by need, and also indentifies volunteers who are available to do the pick-ups and deliveries.”

Feeding Forward’s combination of a simple game plan with an elegant and apposite technological flourish struck a resonant chord at campuses across the nation. Thirty-nine universities now support Feeding Forward chapters, and Tsang anticipates more than a hundred affiliates by the end of the year.  Meanwhile, the group is working to develop an Android version of the app.

Despite its growth, Feeding Forward has remained resolutely Cal-centric. Its core team meets and brainstorms at Skydeck, the university’s skunk works-cum-start-up “accelerator.” And because feeding the nation’s hungry will require more than good will and fresh-faced volunteers, the group is also on a fund-raising quest via Indiegogo, the seminal crowdfunding platform developed by then-Haas School of Business graduate student Danae Ringelmann.

“We know our app is a game changer, and we’re trying to determine the best way to deploy it,” Tsang said. “Also, we’re figuring out how to fund our expansion while still remaining true to our original mission.  It’s a challenge.”

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