Every night millions of Americans go to bed hungry while their local restaurants chuck perfectly good uneaten food into dumpsters. Getting that food into the hands of the hungry could soon become a reality thanks to Flash Food, a student-designed social media-powered project that fights hunger and reduces food waste. The project's one of 106 student ideas that headed to Sydney this week to compete in Microsoft's Imagine Cup, an annual student tournament that encourages the next generation of STEM geniuses to use their skills to addresses global problems like education, poverty, healthcare access, and environmental sustainability.
Created by six Arizona State University students—Ramya Baratam, Steven Hernandez, Katelyn Keberle, Eric Lehnhardt, Loni Amundson, and Jake Irvin— Flash Food enables restaurants, hotels, or catering companies that use the project’s mobile app or website to indicate that they have food ready for pickup. Volunteers—everyday citizens that just want to help or people who work for community organizations or food banks—can respond to the notifications and come pick it up. People who have registered with Flash Food and indicated that they need a meal then receive notification that there's food available.
The students came up with the project in 2011 while enrolled in "Engineering Projects and Community Service", an ASU class that connects engineering majors with students from other areas of study and asks them to collaboratively design solutions to social problems. Lehnhardt, a biomedical engineering major, says most people don't associate solving problems like hunger and food insecurity with STEM fields. Despite Phoenix having the third highest rate of childhood hunger in the nation—and over 1 million residents dealing with food insecurity—the team found that every year the city's restaurants throw away over 220,000 pounds of food, so they knew that they had to find a solution.
Consumers can find out whether their favorite restaurant is a Flash Food participant by looking for the project's approval seal, which is similar to organic or fair trade certification. In order to avoid the endless cycle of begging for grants, food providers will pay a still-to-be-determined fee—large chain restaurants would pay more than the local mom and pop restaurant—to get the certification.
Once a restaurant is certified, they can display the seal on websites, menus, and social media channels, which lets consumers know they’ve made a socially responsible commitment to the community. Flash Food's website also has a searchable database so people can see which restaurants participate. Down the road, consumers will search on Yelp just for restaurants with Flash Food certification.
Lehnhardt says food providers have plenty of incentive to participate in the program. "No one wants to see food go to waste, especially when you know there are people in your community who would love to be able to receive that food," he says. And, since Flash Food has both a for profit and nonprofit arm, any food donation is tax deductible for businesses
To keep recipients from getting sick from eating food that hasn’t properly been stored, Flash Food follows standard time and temperature food storage guidelines. "It's like pizza delivery" says Lehnhardt. "As long as it's kept in a hot sleeve and above a certain temperature while it's in transit, it's safe to eat." Similarly, foods that need to be kept cool are transported in ice chests.
The innovative project is still in the pilot stage but it won the United States' Imagine Cup and the project's been accepted into an entrepreneurship incubator run by ASU which will provide additional business coaching and mentorship. The team hopes to have Flash Food fully functioning in Phoenix by 2013. From there the plan is to leverage relationships formed with hotels and chain restaurants so they can expand to other cities. "We're going to be looking for people who are willing to give their time volunteering to pick up food or patronize those restaurants that are Flash Food certified," adds Amundson.
"Flash Food is not the end-all-be-all solution to end hunger in urban areas," said Lehnhardt. "It’s an important step in the right direction and it's the kind of program that an entire community can get involved with and work together to try to find solutions."
For more on Flash Food, check out this video overview of the project:
Photo via Jessica Slater/ASU