In June of 2017, I volunteered with a group at a local food pantry on the south side of my home city in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a Friday afternoon, the day of their weekly food giveaway. And as I drove up, I saw people beginning to arrive, many with their rolling carts in tow, prepared to receive their food supply for the week. As I was walking in the door, there were about 40 people outside waiting in line. And I was so excited, because there are very few things I enjoy more than giving back.
But then, as I entered the room where the volunteer meeting was taking place, I immediately realized: we weren't about to give these people any real meals. We were essentially just giving them food. I took my place on the assembly line, where — get this — I was in charge of making sure that the Weight Watchers Ding Dongs made it into every family's bag.
As the bags started to come around, I'm thinking to myself: What on earth are we doing here? Each bag contained two 20-ounce diet Snapples, a gallon of barbecue sauce, a bag of kettle potato chips, a box of superhero-shaped vegetable-enriched macaroni noodles, a box of belVita breakfast bars, a can of refried beans, a can of sweet peas, a miniature can of corn, I can't forget about those Ding Dongs and french fried green onions, you know, the kind that go on top of a green bean casserole. And that was it. We made over a hundred of those bags that day, and people indeed stood in line to receive one. But a feeling came over me; I felt bad and a little angry. It was like, how could I even feel good about the work that I was doing when I knew for a fact that not one meal was to come from the food we had just given to over 100 families? I mean, who wants to have a meal with barbecue sauce and Ding Dongs?
And the reality is, I've been part of this process all my life. I've participated in food drives, I've collected cans since I was a kid, I've donated in the grocery store more times than I can count, I've volunteered at shelters, I've worked in food pantries, and I'm sure, like me, so many of you have, too. In 2013, I even created a pop-up restaurant, called Sunday Soul. And I rented tables and chairs and linens and I printed out menus and I took these experiences to alleyways, underneath bridges and in parks to allow people that were experiencing homelessness to dine with dignity. So I've invested in this fight for quite some time.
In almost every major US city, the food bank is viewed as a beloved community institution. Corporations send volunteers down on a weekly basis to sort through food items and make boxes of food for the needy. And can drives — they warm the hearts of schools and office buildings that participate and fill the shelves of food banks and food pantries across the nation. This is how we work to end hunger. And what I've come to realize is that we are doing hunger wrong. We are doing the same things over and over and over again and expecting a different end result. We've created a cycle that keeps people dependent on food banks and pantries on a monthly basis for food that is often not well-balanced and certainly doesn't provide them with a healthy meal.
In the US, our approach to doing good, or what we call "charity," has actually hindered us from making real progress. We're educating the world on how many people are food insecure. There are television commercials, billboards, massive donations, the engagement of some of our biggest celebrities in the fight. But the ever-present reality is that, even with all of this work, millions of people are still going hungry. And we can do better. Globally, 821 million people are hungry. That's one in nine people on this planet.
And here in the United States, nearly 40 million people experience hunger every single year, including more than 11 million children that go to bed hungry every night. Yet, we're wasting more food than ever before — more than 80 billion pounds a year, to be exact. The EPA estimates that food waste has more than doubled between 1970 and 2017, and now accounts for 27 percent of everything in our landfills. And as this food sits, it gradually rots and produces harmful methane gas, a leading contributor to global climate change. We have the waste of the food itself, the waste of all the money associated with producing this now-wasted food and the waste of labor with all of the above. And then there's the social inequity between people who really need food and can't get it and people who have too much and simply throw it away.
All of this made me realize that hunger was not an issue of scarcity but rather a matter of logistics. So in 2017, I set out to end hunger using technology. After all, food delivery apps had begun to explode on the scene, and I thought surely we can reverse-engineer this technology and get food from businesses like restaurants and grocery stores and into the hands of people in need. I believe that technology and innovation have the power to solve real problems, especially hunger.
So in 2017, I created an app that would inventory everything that a business sells and make it super easy for them to donate this excess food that would typically go to waste at the end of the night. All the user has to do now is click on an item, tell us how many they have to donate, and our platform calculates the weight and the tax value of those items at time of donation. We then connect with local drivers in the shared economy to get this food picked up and delivered directly to the doors of nonprofit organizations and people in need. I provided the data and the analytics to help businesses reduce food waste at the source by letting them know the items that they waste repeatedly on a regular basis, and they even saved millions of dollars. Our mission was simple: feed more, waste less. And by 2018, our clients included the world's busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, and we were working with brands and corporations like Hormel, Chick-fil-A and Papa John's. We even had the opportunity to work with the NFL for Super Bowl LIII. And over the last two years, we've worked with over 200 business to divert more than two million pounds of edible food from landfills into the hands of people that needed it most.
This has accounted for about 1.7 million meals and allowed us to start to expand our efforts to other cities, like Washington, DC, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and more.
That's just one approach that actually tackles the problem. Another was the launch of our pop-up grocery stores. We recover excess food from businesses and set up free community grocery stores right in the middle of food deserts. We bring out a chef, and we do on-site taste-testings and allow families to leave with recipe cards. We give every family reusable grocery bags and allow them to simply shop minus the price tag. We wanted to give people access to meals and not just food. We wanted to change the way that we think and work to solve hunger in this country, get people to believe that we can solve hunger, not as a nonprofit, not as a food bank but as a social enterprise, with the goal of reducing waste and ending hunger. But it hasn't been as easy as I thought to change the narrative and the thought process on how we think that hunger can be solved.
In 2016, France became the first country to ban supermarkets from throwing away unused food. Instead, they must donate it, and they're fined if they don't.
In 2017, Italy followed suit, becoming the second European nation to pass an anti-food-waste ban. And they stated it so simply as it was passed through legislation: "We have millions of pounds of good food going to waste, and we have poor people that are going hungry." That simple.
Denmark now has a mandated food waste grocery store. Its name: Wefood. They recover excess food from local grocery stores and sell it at up to a 50 percent off discount. They then use all the proceeds and donate it to emergency aid programs and social need issues for the people in need. It has been hailed as "the Goodwill of grocery."
And last year, the world got its first pay-what-you-can grocery store, when Feed it Forward opened in Toronto. Their shelves remain stocked by recovering excess food from major supermarkets and allowing families to simply pay what they can at their grocery store.
This is amazing. This innovation we need more of. Everyone can take on the roles of changing the attitudes about how we solve hunger. When we think of how we've allowed innovation and technology to change our lives, from how we communicate with each other to how we view our entertainment to how we even receive food, it's amazing that we haven't solved hunger yet. We literally have cars that can drive themselves and millions of people that cannot feed themselves. With millions of dollars being donated to end food insecurity, we should've solved hunger years ago. And I asked myself —
I asked myself, why can't we escape this vicious cycle? Why haven't we solved this problem? I remember meeting with investors and pitching the idea, trying to raise funds for my business, and one of them said to me, in true seriousness, "Hunger is already being solved," as if millions of people weren't going to go to bed hungry that very night, and as if there was nothing else to do. And the reality is, one would think that hunger is being solved, but the truth is, it's being worked on.
If we really want to solve hunger, then we have to change the way we've been doing it. The same actions will always garner the same results. There are hundreds of social entrepreneurs all over the world. They have a focus to solve really big problems, like hunger, but they'll never get the same support that we give national hunger-fighting organizations and food banks. But, if given the opportunity, they have the ability to foster insight and perhaps be forward-thinking enough to solve this problem.
That's why I'm traveling the world and I'm really talking about what hunger looks like in America and explaining the difference between giving people access to food and access to meals. I've been meeting with city council members and city organizers across the US and telling them that technology indeed does have the power to connect businesses with surplus food to people in need, and explaining to them what a meal can actually mean to a family. I've been meeting with school boards and school districts to talk about how we feed hungry children, and health care organizations, sharing the message that food is health, and food is life, and that, by solving hunger, we can solve so many more problems.
So if we want to know that we don't live in a nation where perfectly good food goes to waste when our neighbors don't have food to eat, then we need to change the laws. We need to introduce new policies, and, most importantly, we need to change our minds and our actions. Food drives are fine. Food banks serve a huge purpose. And yes, sometimes I like Ding Dongs, too. But the reality is that food drives do not solve hunger. And if we are smart about connecting the dots that are right in front of our noses, we can do far more than give a family a box of superhero-shaped vegetable-enriched macaroni noodles and a gallon of barbecue sauce to feed themselves. Instead, we can give them back their dignity. Perhaps we can increase school attendance in schools. We can improve the health outcomes for millions. And, most importantly, we can reduce food waste in our landfills, creating a better environment for all of us.
The thing I love most is that we can feel good about it in the process. If we solve hunger, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So let's do it.