Reducing Food Waste and Food Insecurity One Meal at a Time
Based in Oakland, California, Replate is a nonprofit with a mission to reduce food waste and food insecurity through its food recovery system. Replate’s technology platform makes it easy for companies to schedule on-demand pickups for their surplus food. Their food rescuers bring donated food to people of all ages and backgrounds who are experiencing food insecurity. Cisco’s offices in San Francisco have been Replate food donors for many years, and Cisco has provided past support to invest in Replate’s platform. Most recently, Cisco and Cisco Foundation donated $1.2 million to help them expand their food recovery services.
Replate’s CEO and founder, Maen Mahfoud, came to the United States from Syria to study medicine at the University of California, Berkeley. He was shocked to see the level of poverty and hunger that pervades the Bay Area. When he learned that the U.S. wastes 40 percent of the food produced and saw so many people around him struggling to get a meal, he knew he wanted to help. Maen recognized that food waste is a solvable problem, and what people consider “waste” is often still edible and nutritious food. We recently sat down with Maen to learn more about Replate’s mission, and its response to business closures that are leading to unemployment, lost wages, and families’ increased inability to buy food.
What is the inspiration behind Replate?
I moved to the United States twelve years ago. I’m originally from Syria and lived in the Middle East before coming here. While growing up, my mom used to cook a lot of Syrian food and delicious Mediterranean food. She asked my brother and me to use our bikes to deliver meals to our neighbors in need during lunchtime. I used to hate it because it was in the middle of the day, so it was hot and sunny. But mom was like, “You know you’ve got to make sure that we help our struggling neighbors, people working construction, and families that are having challenges.” We would come back and then we had our lunch.
When I came to the Bay Area to study at UC Berkeley, I began to see people digging into trash cans looking for a meal. I was frustrated. The U.S. is such a wealthy country, and you have people who are going hungry and sleeping in the streets. I just couldn’t understand how this could even be possible with all the technology available to solve the world’s biggest problems.
I recalled how my brother and I used to deliver food as kids, and I asked myself why we couldn’t do that here. I started taking some food from cafeterias and local restaurants in the East Bay. Afterward, I made deliveries to people experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. I could see the tremendous impact right away. I was volunteering at first and then, when I recruited some smart students around me, we built more of an automated platform to connect food donors with food recipients and increase our impact. We started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016 and scaled to New York, which is our second-biggest market.
What do you want people to know about the relationship between food waste and people experiencing food insecurity?
The relationship between food waste and food insecurity is very straightforward. We don’t have food insecurity because there is a lack of food. We have enough food for everyone, even with the current situation with COVID-19. Food waste and food insecurity don’t have a causal relationship, but what we consider “waste” can be used to provide wholesome meals to those experiencing food insecurity.
How does your platform help to redistribute surplus food to those experiencing food insecurity?
Our platform connects surplus prepared food with nonprofits that can serve it right away. Businesses typically cater events and conferences, or some companies and schools need caterers daily. Any food supplier that needs to request a pickup of uneaten food can do so through the Replate platform which looks like your typical apps like UberEats or DoorDash. They’ll get an estimated pickup time. Once a pickup order is placed, one of our food rescuers will get the food and then deliver it to a nonprofit recipient partner that has capacity to serve the food. Recipients that we work with vary a lot. It’s not just soup kitchens or shelters. It is any nonprofit like senior centers, youth programs, or job-training organizations, that can distribute that food to their population. Those recipients can also use our dashboard to request food drop-offs on a one-time or weekly basis. They can also specify dietary needs, such as kosher or halal, for the population they are serving.
You have a unique business model where donors pay to give you food. Can you explain the reason behind this?
The fee we charge goes toward operations, like paying our drivers. It makes sense for companies to pay for our service because giving back is part of their corporate social responsibility. In their Replate dashboard, they can see all the data, including pickups that happened, and the number of meals that were delivered. They can also view how much CO2 was diverted and how much water was saved [thanks to their donation]. When food is wasted, the energy and water that was used to produce it is lost as well. And when food decomposes in a landfill, it releases a greenhouse gas. These metrics are essential for businesses to help engage their employees and let them know they are involved in initiatives that are helping the community and the environment.
We also charge because we believe it’s important to place an economic cost on this food surplus to send a message about the cost of food waste.
What impact has business closures had in terms of getting surplus food donations?
We’ve had to change our operations a bit. In the beginning, we were concerned: without events and offices opened, there is no catering and without that catering, how would we serve our recipients? At the same time, it was a big opportunity thanks to our partnerships with major third-party delivery companies.
Seventy percent of our pickups happen through our food rescuers, and 30 percent happen through DoorDash. We have a strong relationship with DoorDash, and a lot of their partners that are major restaurants wanted to help. So, while business donations have dropped off, restaurant donations have picked up.
Replate serves a lot of underserved communities that are being hit harder by business and school closures. What impact has this had in terms of an increase in demand for your services?
For the past month, our requests for delivery have increased. Through our matching program, we provided 50,000 meals in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago in the month of April.
Organizations like food banks have lines of cars that stretch for miles because of increased need and limited volunteer staff. People who are experiencing food insecurity should not have to wait in lines that stretch for miles.
Our recipient network has changed too. We now have about twenty hospitals in New York and nine in Los Angeles receiving donations. We are also piloting bringing food directly to recipients at home because shelters, soup kitchens, and nonprofits have changed how they need to serve their constituents. The future of food recovery is home delivery. We are piloting this new model with about 175 homes, like seniors and individuals who used to go to food banks and other agencies for assistance, but are unable to right now.
Can you tell us more about how your partnerships are helping to get food to those in need?
We have partnerships with every kind of restaurant from major enterprise restaurants to ghost kitchens, which are just for delivery rather than for people to come in and sit down to eat. There are also partnerships with local restaurants. For example, there was a restaurant around our office that was going to lose their lease because they couldn’t pay rent. We created a contract with them to make about 500 meals a day that we can distribute, and they can actually get their business up and running instead of losing it.
Our online platform automates many parts of the food rescue process; however, we have reached a plateau in terms of automation in the dispatching process when it comes to matching donors to recipients. We plan to use some of the $1 million in funding from Cisco to improve our matching algorithm. It will help us overcome this plateau by automatically matching sources of surplus food to the best food rescuer from our fleet for that particular pickup, and then match that food with the most appropriate recipient partner.
In your response to this crisis, what changes have you had to make to your business model?
The matching algorithm is the next step in realizing Replate’s vision of efficient and scalable infrastructure for moving surplus food to where it best serves our community. The situation with COVID-19 has pushed us even harder to pursue a better matching algorithm. This crisis has disrupted the entire distribution cycle of food, and more food is being wasted. The improved matching algorithm will allow us to expand our client base to supermarkets, farms, and other players in the food supply chain by improving our internal efficiencies and creating room for more work on new types of partnerships. Additionally, this technology will enable us to distribute surplus food to individuals directly in their homes.
We are grateful to Cisco for their support because they believe in the system we are creating. They are helping us build a product that will make us ready for the next crisis and help us distribute food in the most efficient way possible.
There is a lot of need and a lot of people who would like to give back. How can people help?
Food insecurity is a systemic issue, not a food issue. When people don’t have work and live in poverty, that leads to food insecurity. We understand how much they struggle to pay rent and the high number of employees who have been furloughed or lost their jobs. In response, we are supporting Foxtail Catering and 415 Catering with their new initiative called 415 Family Meal. The funds will go toward creating meals that we can distribute to the community. For us, it is not just about creating meals. It is also about helping to develop new ways to support a thriving community.