How a Cambridge-based app is tackling food waste head on
If you’re a restaurant, you never want to run out of food. Customers expect that you’ll have options available at all times, even near closing. They might find sparse shelves off-putting, and you’ll lose money if you don’t have what a customer wants to order.
This expectation from customers pushes restaurants, especially grab-and-go establishments, to overproduce.
“It’s difficult for them to prepare less, because it is both one of their policies and psychological for the users that every time that a customer arrives, no matter the time of day, the tray needs to be always full,” says David Rodriguez, co-founder of Food For All, an app that lets restaurants sell their leftover food at a discounted rate. “[It] is a culture of abundance.”
Fifteen percent of all food in landfills comes from restaurants, an Environmental Protection Agency analyst told NPR. Food waste is a double-edged sword: not only does the wasted food not go toward combating food insecurity, but it also harms the environment by emitting methane from landfills.
“People only see the consequence after it’s already being wasted, but it’s not clear how many resources and how much energy has been put into that food to make it to your plate and then get wasted,” Food For All co-founder Sabine Valenga points out. “All the resources, water, labor, energy, transportation, all this cost and time are going to waste.”
“Another big problem with food waste, I think, is that nobody likes to throw away food, but at the same time it’s a problem that is taken for granted,” she adds. “It’s part of everybody’s routine already, and it’s part of everybody’s daily life, and it’s accepted.”
Over 84 percent of unused food at restaurants is trashed, according to a Food Waste Reduction Alliance study. Only 1.4 percent is donated, the study finds.
Food For All lets grab-and-go restaurants sell their leftover food for about half price. Restaurants make available the average number of meals that are left at the end of each day, and customers reserve meals through the app and pick them up at a designated time.
Restaurants typically don’t know which foods will be left over, so Food For All’s founders created “meal boxes” and “meal options.” A customer can purchase a meal through the app, but won’t know for sure what they’re getting until they pick it up. A meal at Pita Cambridge (marked down to $4.85 from $9.70) could be chicken shawarma with rice and tahini or falafel with rice and tahini, depending on what’s available. The pickup window at Pita Cambridge is from 10 to 11 p.m.
Rodriguez, Valenga, and fellow co-founder Victor Carreño launched a beta version of the app in December 2017, and now work with just over 100 restaurants in Greater Boston and New York City.
They got overwhelming support through a Kickstarter, they say. Single moms and college kids flooded the message box, explaining what a difference it would make for them to be able to access prepared foods at such a discount.
“People would write how much something like Food For All would help them,” Valenga says. “When I need inspiration, I just go through the messages. It gives us purpose.”
Those Kickstarter messages foreshadowed how the affordability aspect of Food For All would come to blossom. Some restaurants that don’t have much food waste but are committed to improving food access have joined the app, Valenga and Rodriguez say.
Boloco has agreed to donate all its Food For All proceeds to the Greater Boston Food Bank. This setup is more effective than just donating the leftover food, according to Food For All’s founders, because rescuing prepared meals is challenging, time-sensitive, and expensive. Additionally, the Greater Boston Food Bank is good at stretching its resources, and can serve 10 meals from the $3.50 it receives from each burrito sale. Boloco and Food For All generated almost 3,400 meals for the food bank in the first three months of the partnership, according to a Food For All blog post.
Anthony Carpinelli has been using Food For All since its Kickstarter campaign. When he switched careers and experienced a decrease in income, he found that using Food For All was an effective way to keep his spending down while also supporting a cause he cares about.
“It gives me a good feeling for a business, seeing that they’re on that app and that they’re doing something proactive, because it alarms me how much food in this country goes to waste,” he says.
Carpinelli is a Dorchester resident, and says that Food For All has brought him into Somerville and Cambridge frequently.
“It also benefits the restaurants by giving them exposure,” he says. “One of the restaurants I had discovered through the app, I really, really liked it, and I’ve actually been back twice.”
Increased exposure is just one way that Food For All can double as a profit driver for restaurants. Some restaurants, like El Jefe’s Taqueria in Harvard Square, put the pickup window during off-peak hours rather than closing time to draw in more customers. And for smaller restaurants in particular, the app can help reduce lost profits from wasted food.
“It’s a win-win app, and I’m really enthusiastic about it,” Carpinelli says. “I hope it does really well and that more restaurants join in. It’s exciting to see things like this happening.”
Valenga, Rodriguez, and Carreño live together in Cambridge and recently hired two new people to the team. They’ve launched a brand ambassador program with students from local universities who can help the founders reach students, one of their main target groups.
Another target group is rideshare drivers. Whenever the founders get into an Uber or a Lyft, they pitch the app. Rideshare drivers are often traveling all around Greater Boston at odd hours, they explain, making Food For All a natural fit.
For now, Food For All’s founders are setting their sights on fundraising and attracting new customers and restaurants, but they have lofty goals for the future.
In addition to spreading geographically—the app will launch in three yet-to-be-determined cities this summer—the founders want to expand beyond grab-and-go establishments. Other restaurants, food trucks, and supermarkets could eventually be part of Food For All. The founders would also like to expand the number of “meal multiplier” restaurants like Boloco.
“We are more than an app, we are a movement,” Valenga says. “We are creating this community around being environmentally and socially responsible.”
The founders’ most ambitious goal is to let people use SNAP benefits in the app. This would involve lobbying at the federal level, since hot and prepared foods are not eligible through the program.
“A lot of the SNAP recipients live in food deserts, and that means they don’t have access to grocery stores that are close to their home or work,” Valenga says. “They’re probably working a lot, they arrive home late, they do not have time to go grocery shopping, especially if it’s far away from them. What happens, normally, is that they end up eating fast food. It’s cheap and it’s easy for them. So we really believe that restaurants do have a big role to play when it comes to [getting] quality food to everyone.”
Check out Food For All at these Cambridge restaurants:
El Jefe’s Taqueria