Story by Ada Tseng. Photo by Deborah Nagai-Cromer.
Like many children of immigrants who have worked hard to provide for their families, Komal Ahmad remembers being taught not to waste food at her daily family dinners. “It was always like, ‘Finish your food!’” says Ahmad, imitating her parents’ stern Pakistani accents. “‘People are starving in Africa, and you’re not even finishing your food? Who do you think you are?’”
Ahmad, the 23-year-old CEO of the nonprofit organization Feeding Forward, grew up in the suburbs of Las Vegas, where homelessness was neatly tucked away. But when she began to study at the University of California, Berkeley, the problem was impossible to ignore. Just across the street from Crossroads, the university’s popular dining hall that served much of the student population, was People’s Park, a public park that acts as a daytime sanctuary for Berkeley’s large homeless population.
“As college students, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, and there were various initiatives to try and reduce food waste, like getting rid of trays so you only take what your hands can carry,” says Ahmad, who graduated in 2012 with degrees in international health and development and global poverty and practice. “But at the same time, it was frustrating when I asked the dining managers what they did with the excess food, and they said that, due to liability reasons, they can’t donate it, so they have no choice but to throw it away. And it was so absurd to me, because I felt like they could just walk across the street, and I guarantee the homeless people at People’s Park won’t sue you.”
While for many of us, these moral frustrations are fleeting, Ahmad made it her mission to do something about it. She’s always been devoted to public service (Gandhi’s “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” is a quote she lives by), and as a naval medical officer for the U.S. Navy during her four years at Berkeley, she deployed to Tanzania to help launch a mobile HIV clinic during the summer after her second year in college. What she found was that treating people was one thing, but without greater public health education and effective systems in place, patients would be back in a week with the same problems. After her return to the United States, she felt helpless, unsure whether any of the initiatives she started would be continued — and knowing that, as a college student, there was no way she could realistically go back to Tanzania to sustain them herself. She realized that even if her goals were global, she needed to start local.
So she turned to her own neighborhood. While she was skeptical about giving money to Berkeley’s homeless, she was always happy to give food. And when she would periodically strike up conversations with them, she realized that many of the homeless people around campus were former veterans in their mid-20s and 30s who had served their country but were now on the streets.
She soon discovered that the ingrained concern about liability that was keeping Cal Dining (and many other organizations) from donating excess food was based on a misconception. In 1996, President Clinton passed the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, that has been renewed since, which allows individuals and corporations that donate food to a non-profit organization in good faith to be free of any liability as long as they don’t engage in any gross negligence.
Once the Cal Dining managers understood this, they were quickly onboard to donate their extra food to people in need. By starting the organization Bare Abundance (a play on words referring to the Cal Bears), Ahmad mobilized her fellow Berkeley students to volunteer to redistribute food from campus dining halls and events. She essentially started a movement that spread to other universities also interested in reducing food waste and eventually co-founded the Food Recovery Network, an overarching nonprofit that united all the campus organizations. By the end of this December, Ahmad expects that 100 universities across the United States will be fully functional with food recovery programs embedded in their dining halls.
“There is more than enough food to feed the entire population over three times, but the problem is that we have an inequitable distribution of food,” says Ahmad. “And it’s staggering that even in a wealthy and powerful nation like the U.S., we still have so many people begging for it.”
While giving surplus food that would otherwise go to waste to people who would otherwise go hungry seems self-explanatory, facilitating this trade is not without its struggles. Often, once restaurants are relieved of their liability concerns, they are quickly onboard, but it’s the receiving organizations that are skeptical of the good will. Connecting with charities and soup kitchens on a personal level was necessary to build familiarity and trust in the beginning, and the next crucial step involved figuring out how to streamline the process in order to respect the time of workers and volunteers. Ahmad remembers one day when the Cal Dining manager had called, alerting her of a university catering event that no one showed up to, leaving 500 sandwiches that needed to be picked up within two hours. “We’re dealing with perishable foods here, so I drove there, loaded up my car, and immediately started calling a list of agencies everywhere from Oakland to Berkeley to Richmond,” says Ahmad. “One-third of them didn’t answer their phones, one-third of them said they didn’t need food today, and the last third said, ‘Thanks, I’ll take 20 sandwiches,’ which left me thinking, ‘Great, but now I have 480 sandwiches left!’”
At that moment, it became clear that even though she wanted to do something good for society, no one has six hours to drive around aimlessly with 500 sandwiches. She yearned for an iPhone app that would automatically locate the supply and demand for food and link the two sources together. Though computer science was not her forte, she sought out programmers who would help her create a program that would steer the market. This past January, Ahmad and her team placed fourth out of 88 teams at Foursquare Hackathon 2013 and won a mentorship that helped them develop their software platform and matching system. Feeding Forward, an online and mobile interface that facilitates communication between food service organizations and charities in the San Francisco Bay Area, was born.
“Now, say you have 100 sandwiches to donate,” says Ahmad. “You can go into the mobile app, upload a picture, list a pick-up time, give your contact, and when you post, you enter a virtual marketplace. The algorithm matches the amount and type of food you have with the needs of soup kitchens and homeless shelters and matches you with a nearby volunteer who’s available to deliver at that particular time. The volunteer confirms the food’s been received, the receiving agency sends back pictures showing the donors the people they’ve fed, and that’s Feeding Forward.”
Officially launched in April 2013, Feeding Forward’s food recovery programs have altogether recovered more than 250,000 pounds of food to date. Earlier this year, they won the prize for outstanding social entrepreneurship venture at Innovation Alley, a pop-up tech area at the Jewish Community Federation’s Israel in the Gardens event in San Francisco.
Now that Ahmad is confident the organization can make a sustainable impact, she’s passionate about accelerating and expanding their movement. “The Bay Area is our case study. Our goal is to implement Feeding Forward in cities nationally, and from there, I’ve already initiated conversations with other countries, in Hong Kong and Israel, so we can eventually go global,” says Ahmad. “Because ultimately, inequitable distribution is a global issue in both developing and developed countries.”
This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here.